COVID-19 gripped the world and turned our lives upside down in a matter of weeks. Businesses shuttered, schools sent students home, and unprecedented quarantine orders were instituted across countries in an attempt to stop the virus’ spread. Most churches in America also closed their doors and moved online, but as Shelter-in-Place orders extended from weeks to months, Christians faced difficult questions: When would we gather again physically for worship and fellowship? With technologies like livestreaming and Zoom, how critical is it to actually gather in person? Even post-COVID, would the convenience of meeting virtually and the option of “attending” churches not limited to our local vicinity become the preferred choice of many Christians? I suspect we’ll be wrestling through these questions for years to come.
Shelter-in-Place forcibly eliminated certain elements of our lives (travel, restaurant dining, and movie theaters are a few that I miss) and made all of us reckon with what is negligible and what is essential. As a Christian, I’ve had to think about the importance of Christian fellowship as a biblical priority, and how to pursue it during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Made for Community
God made us for community. We are made in the image of a Triune God (Gen 1:26) who has always existed in community within himself. We clearly see his stamp on His image-bearers in the innate human longing for companionship and belonging. A secular world that rejects the Bible cannot deny that aspect of human nature, and merely finds other language to describe it. Today, it’s popular to talk about finding your “tribe”: a community based on common interests, career paths, or walks of life. But Christian community is like no other. Christians may share no common worldly interests or background, but we are purchased by the blood of Christ and united in him. We are a spiritual family, and the most graphic imagery of the church describes us as the body of Christ.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.Romans 12:3-5
Paul uses the example of a body to illustrate the different roles and gifts of Christians in the church, but also to highlight the intimacy of Christian relationships. We are “members one of another”—it doesn’t get any closer than that! And it is not natural, fitting, or right for members of the body of Christ to suffer long separation from one another.
The Importance of Christian Fellowship
Christian fellowship is a precious gift for believers to enjoy as well as a God-given means to sustain our spiritual walk. Life is full of troubles (Job 14:1), the world is hostile to God (John 15:19), and Satan is prowling around like a lion looking to devour people (1 Pet 5:8). It is a miracle any of us persevere in Christ to the end. God has promised to keep those who belong to him, and while we rest assured in that, we should not neglect the means of perseverance he has given us, including the fellowship of the saints.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.Hebrews 10:23-25
The writer of Hebrews calls us to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” A simple prerequisite to following this command is seeing and knowing each other. Because we are all uniquely made in the image of God with distinct personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, the way I might most effectively “stir up” and encourage one believer is different from how I would approach another. We need to know and care for the brothers and sisters in our lives, in addition to being firmly grounded in gospel truth ourselves, to effectively live this out.
Christian fellowship is not less than “hanging out” with Christian friends, but it is certainly more than that. It’s good and refreshing to enjoy casual fun time together, which builds friendships and invigorates our spirits. But we are also called (and enabled) to move beyond general socializing to conversation founded upon our unity in Christ, and to live life together in such a way that molds more mature Christian character within each of us.
Finding Fellowship During COVID-19
Even in “normal” times, it is easy to drift away from others and focus on myself. It doesn’t take a pandemic to forsake Christian fellowship. I know the natural state of my heart is to tend towards what is effortless, and ultimately, selfish: to indulge in my personal interests and hoard time for myself (or at least, focus only on the relationships that are easy and enjoyable for me).
COVID-19 lockdowns have made self-focus easier and even excusable. But by God’s grace, I have found this to be a unique time to pursue and grow in Christian fellowship. This began with having the biblical conviction that Christian fellowship is an essential part of my walk with Christ, and also a means of loving my brothers and sisters. The clear commands in Scripture, the faithful teaching of my pastors, and unsurprisingly, the example and encouragement of fellow saints have increased and confirmed this conviction in my own heart.
Finding opportunities and avenues to fellowship with other believers have been in no short supply. Even though virtual meetings are no substitute for being together in the flesh, I am grateful that we live in a time in which Zoom and Google Meet are readily accessible.
At the beginning of Shelter-in-Place, I made significant use of technology to stay connected with others. My women’s small group and Bible study continued to meet online weekly. While we miss being in person with each other, we are still able to see each other, study the Word, and pray together. Our Young Adults Bible study also planned various virtual events for us to just have fun together—rather than focus on the discouragement of not being able to meet in person, we simply got creative about how to use the technology availed to us (i.e. sharing slides and computer screens, online games, and Zoom breakout rooms) to craft new activities. It was a blessing to see people engage with each other, even with all the limitations.
Some of the most effective encouragement and exhortation I’ve experienced in Christian fellowship has come through one-on-one conversations and sharing life with each other. Building relationships does not need to go on pause in this time. In fact, I’ve had more opportunity to strengthen existing friendships and build new ones with sisters in Christ that I haven’t spent as much time with before. When we’re limited to just conversation without the distraction of other activities, we can get to know one another at an accelerated rate if we’re purposeful in our time. I’ve also been able to enjoy virtual meet-ups with old friends at different churches.
Since many of us had extra time during quarantine, we were able to use that to check in with those we don’t see regularly. While a few of my close friends and I lamented that we couldn’t travel or see each other in person, we enjoyed sweet hours of intentional conversation about our lives and walks with the Lord.
As Shelter-in-Place restrictions began to ease, some of us were able to resume meeting up in person, whether it was eating together in the park or going hiking. I’ve discovered a number of Bay Area outdoor gems I wouldn’t have otherwise! A few of the young adults in our church also began to have regular picnic lunches after church, and that has been another sweet opportunity to fellowship. Though some of us were not necessarily close friends before, we’ve spent hours of our weekend together regularly now, and it has shown me again the unique blessing of Christian community.
While we face different perspectives within our churches on the severity of COVID-19, masks, and quarantine, it’s important to extend grace to fellow believers with different comfort levels and health conditions. But I also believe, as we consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, we should encourage each other to not live in fear, and to not abandon the fellowship God has called us to. The virus might be a threat to our physical health, but as Christians, our spiritual health is also at stake. COVID-19 does not need to, and should not, stop Christian fellowship. Isolation is dangerous and self-centered. We are called to life together in Christ, and even in this time, we have the means to pursue it if we make it a priority.