Reaching beyond the gathered church

During shutdown, many of us long to gather like the first disciples “all together in one place”; but the Spirit of Pentecost pushed them, and pushes us, to reach far beyond the bounds of the gathering. (Listen.)

Did you feel the poignancy of that first line? ‘When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.’ How I long for us to be all together in one place, gathered into one body, singing, praying, and sharing bread and wine, food and drink, hugs and handshakes. But we cannot. Instead, we remain separate, compelled by the pandemic to huddle in our houses and maintain physical distance. The reality of being gathered all together in one place feels a long way away.

What we had was good: a regular gathering in a regular place; and many of us are mourning the loss. Especially since, even when we are able to meet again, many of our usual practices will be inadvisable. COVID-19 is so infectious that gathering in large groups, greeting one another with hugs, singing together, drinking from a common cup, handling objects at prayers stations, and sharing meals may not happen for a very long time.

And so, last week, I suggested that the invitation for us now is to find ways to gather safely, whether online or in small groups, to pray together, to reflect on the Scriptures, and to wait: For God is preparing a new way through the wilderness – and this is a wilderness – and we want to be alert to it and ready for it when it’s time to walk that path.

Working out how to facilitate this process has been the big topic of conversation this last week, and some great ideas are floating around. But until they crystallize, I want to look back at that first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, and think about what it might mean for Sanctuary as a body. Not so much for the individuals who gather under the umbrella, then go out into the world invisibly sustained by the gathering, but for the single body called Sanctuary which is seen by the wider world.

So in the story, the disciples gathered all together … but what happened next? The Spirit poured into them and set them on fire. It inspired them to proclaim God’s word in the language of people’s hearts; and it led them out into the world where everyone could hear and many were convinced that this story was big enough and generous enough for them, too. And so the church took shape and grew, and grew, and grew; and the Acts of the Apostles is all about this flourishing early church.

Our natural impulse is to find a way to gather all together again; to return to the safety of the upstairs room, so to speak, and to be with familiar people and to share our faith among ourselves. But this is not the work of Pentecost, and it has never been the work of Sanctuary. I’ve been looking through our attendance records. In the nearly four years that we’ve been meeting, not once has every regular attender, or even every committed member, been at a service or event. Not once. There has never been a time when all the disciples here at Sanctuary were gathered together in one place, and to think that is our future is to cling to an illusion.

Not only that, but we have an online presence. Everything we write – sermons, Lenten stories, Wednesday emails, testimonies – goes on our website, and our reflections are also podcast. Audiences vary for individual pieces, but every month our website has hundreds of visitors. Some of these people are members of other churches; others have faith but no church connection; still others have no faith at all, yet find this good news intriguing. Some live locally, others in Melbourne, and others link in from much further afield. In other words, Sanctuary is and always has been much bigger than the people who have gathered together physically and called themselves the church.

My friends, at Pentecost the Spirit threw open the doors and sent the disciples out into the world, and nothing has been the same since. It is this same Spirit which founded a new little church called Sanctuary; and the same Spirit who enables those who meet one way or another as that church to share the gospel far beyond the bounds of the church, the city, the state, and even the nation.

In the era of COVID-19, pastoral leader Carey Nieuwhof forecasts significant shifts for the church. Among them, he predicts that the future church will be a digital organization with a physical location; that on demand access will eclipse live events; and that spiritual formation will shift from facility based to home based.

I look around at Sanctuary, and I glimpse this future church.

Although we have a geographical location and a history of physical gatherings, our biggest presence is, in fact, online and always has been. That’s where the majority of people encounter the reflections and stories. It’s also where the majority of people encounter the church for the first time: nearly every newcomer at Sanctuary has turned up not because of personal invitation or physical location, but because they found our website and they liked what they saw. And while some of us hate the Zoom service, others are finding it more accessible and more satisfying than our physical gatherings. We haven’t smashed the online stuff, and we could do a lot more around social media: nevertheless, love it or hate it, our digital presence is a huge part of who we are.

We are also a church where on demand access is far higher than attendance at live services, whether those services are in person or online. It’s not that the live service isn’t important: in fact, it’s vital. The live service is the beating heart of Sanctuary. It’s the thing which unites us, warms us, sends oxygen around the body and pumps away the waste. Nevertheless, just as the heart is small in relation to the whole body, so too is the live service small in relation to our reach into the world.

And as a group, we have always been a people whose spiritual formation primarily takes place through personal disciplines: praying, Bible reading, walking, gardening, household economics, child rearing and other daily spiritual practices. We are not dependent on formal teaching or activities in the hall. Our spiritual formation was never primarily facility based; it’s always been about equipping what happens in the home.

So if Nieuwhof’s predictions are on target, then we are well on the way to being the future church: and we are only being beckoned further into that future.

So do not be troubled by what we have lost. Instead, celebrate what was good; then look at what we have gained, what we are learning, and how we are already positioned to keep proclaiming the good news. And as we gather, pray, reflect and wait, let us remember Pentecost. Let’s not waste our energy trying to get all of us together in one place again: for that has never been our reality, and it has never been the goal.

Instead, let us wonder about the ways we can gather safely in smaller groups to care for each other, pray with one another, reflect on the Scriptures, and attend to our beating heart, the live service: in order that the Holy Spirit can continue to work through this little church to reach thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold of its membership, through its witness to the liberating and life- giving power of the Word. Amen. Ω

A reflection on Acts 2 given to Sanctuary on 31 May 2020 (Pentecost Year A) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.

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If this post stimulated your thinking or restored your equilibrium, why not share it on social media? And why not flick a double shot coffee our way, to support our ongoing thinking, writing and praying. We are a small young faith community seeking to revitalize tired faith. Your contribution helps keep us awake.

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