Crisis Calls Us to Continue Community
This article is an adaptation of a sermon delivered on Mother’s Day as part of a “COVID Christianity” series at Rooftop Church in St. Louis, Missouri.
Even when life is normal, mom-ing is hard—it calls for spending all day with tiny people who are cute, yes, but who are also demanding and exhausting. Moms need time with fellow adults, moms need time with friends: moms need community. Of course, what’s true in normal life is even more important in times like these, when many moms are working from home or staying at home with their kids 24/7.
Take my wife, for example. Now, she enjoys spending time at home as much as the next introvert. But even she has limits—like how she never wants to spend two months apart from other people ever again in her life. Now, don’t get me wrong: my wife has been more than busy working from home and taking care of our kiddos. But she’s isolated. She’s alone. She can’t see her friends. And while my wife has done a fantastic job of weathering this season, like many of you, she’s struggled these past few months.
Moms need community. My wife needs community. I’ve been privileged enough to keep a largely normal routine where I get to see people on a regular basis—and I need community. And YOU—even if you’re not a mom or not isolated at home—you need community too. Being present with other people isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity—we all need to spend time in community with other people. We were created to be with one another. To paraphrase Genesis (2.18), it is not good for us to be alone.
Of course, it’s easy to say that we need community right now. It may even be easy for you to want community when you haven’t been able to see your family, friends, teachers, students, coworkers, or teammates for the past seven weeks.. But what does that look like? How can we share life with one another in the midst of a global pandemic? Even as portions of our world gradually reopen, it’s important that we consider this question: How can we experience community in a world of social distancing?
Community in Scripture
Now, Scripture says a number of things about community, but the clearest principle is this: crisis calls us to continue community. I want to be really clear here: there’s no such thing as a solitary Christian—even during a global pandemic. The biblical mandate for those who follow Jesus is to continue community.
This is timely wisdom, because now, perhaps more than ever, we need to experience the connections of community. We’re all well aware that our world of social distancing has led to increased isolation and loneliness. Mental health professionals are seeing dramatic increases in anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Suicide rates are going up at obscene rates in some places. Isolation and distancing are effective tools for fighting a coronavirus—but they come at another cost. We are meant to be in community—we need to interact with other human beings.
To help us think through how we can experience community in a world of social distancing, consider what the Apostle Paul says to a community in crisis in 1 Thessalonians. Paul wrote this letter because the church there was in turmoil: their church leaders had been forced out of the city due to riots and some members of the congregation had died. It’s in this context that Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians 2.17-3.13:
But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy. Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain. But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you—for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thess. 2.17-3.13, ESV)
Now, there’s a lot going on in this passage, but let’s not miss the big picture: Paul and his companions are having to “socially distance” from the Thessalonian church. They want to be together—they want to see each other face to face—but they cannot. The bulk of what Paul says here is all about staying in community despite their distance: he wants the church to continue to grow in their faith and in their relationships with each other while they are apart. And as he calls the Thessalonian church to continue in community during their crisis, Paul provides three lessons for us as we try to experience community in a world of social distancing.
Lesson #1: Do What You Can
Paul’s first lesson is do what you can, even if it’s not the norm. Look again at verses 1-3, where Paul writes, Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions.
That is, even though Paul couldn’t physically be present with the Thessalonians, he decided to do what he could to maintain community with the church. He decided to do what he could even though it wasn’t the preferred mode of fellowship and connection. And the parallel for us is the same: when we can’t be physically present with others, we should still do what we can do, even if it’s not normal or what we prefer.
Now, as we’re social distancing, there are different kinds of communication that we can use and not every kind is equally useful. Certain kinds of communication—such as email, texting, and most social media—are called asynchronous communication, where you don’t communicate in real time with people. Take a moment right now and text someone, “good morning”—it’s okay, I’ll wait. That’s asynchronous communication. And while it’s useful as a starting place, real connection and community only occur through what’s known as synchronous communication, interactions like face-to-face conversations, video conference, and phone calls where communication happens in real time. If you’re with someone else right now—even your pet—turn to them and, “good morning, good-looking.” That is synchronous communication. Both kinds of contact are useful—but synchronous communication is the bedrock for real community.
So the application for us here is do what you can do—and take that extra step toward synchronous communication with people. Send that text when you wouldn’t. Make a phone call instead of just texting. Find a time to schedule a Zoom call (or Facebook video or Skype or FaceTime or any of the other dozens of video chatting tools that we’re blessed to have at our disposal, unlike at any other time in recorded human history). Keep communicating with people, keep doing what you can to stay in community with them, despite our different and difficult circumstances.
We’re still called to grow as disciples during this pandemic. We’re still called to serve; we’re still called to stand for the truth. We can still do those things in a world of social distancing. Remote and virtual meetings aren’t a perfect substitute; serving people at a distance while wearing a mask isn’t going to be flawless. But it’s something we can do in a world filled with things we can’t. Do what you can do.
Lesson #2: Encourage and Comfort One Another
Paul’s second lesson for us is that we should be all about encouraging and comforting one another. Look at verses 6-7: But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith.
A big part of the community that Paul and the Thessalonians were experiencing came from sharing good news with one another. Even when things are bad, there are still silver linings; even when darkness seems to be covering our world, God is still on the move. In these past few weeks in particular, I’ve seen (and experienced) way too much negativity and division, and not nearly enough encouragement and comfort. Because of the hope of the resurrection that we have, followers of Jesus should stir up one another to love and good works (Heb 10.24), not fixate on everything that’s wrong with the world.
This has been the best part of the Zoom small group that my family is a part of on Sunday evenings. We get to be real with one another and share what’s gone wrong this week; but we also get to laugh together, celebrate the good things in life, and plan for get-togethers in the future. This group is a community of hope, encouragement, and comfort—not in a naïve way, but as a way to counteract all the negativity that we deal with the rest of the week.
So embrace an approach of encouragement and comfort. Bear one another’s burdens. Don’t just share negative things on social media; don’t just talk about the bad when you interact with people. Share good news, listen to the hurting, bring comfort, and share the fun and funny stories too. I’m not saying that we should never talk about bad things or view things as positive, but especially in times of crisis, we can focus first on communicating encouragement and comfort to one another.
Lesson #3: Pray for One Another
Paul’s third lesson for us is that we should pray for one another. Paul makes this point most clearly in verses 9-10, when he asks the Thessalonians, For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?
While apart, Paul committed the Thessalonians to prayer. He brought them before God—in thanksgiving, for their needs, and for their reunion. Prayer should be our number one response in times of crisis. Even solitary prayer draws us closer to community by allowing us to bring one another before God.
I must confess that there have been many times over the past couple months when I had the opportunity to pray but didn’t. When I first heard COVID-19 was in the United States, I could have prayed; but I checked the CDC website first. When I learned Saint Louis County was going on lockdown, I could have prayed; but instead I called my wife to see what we needed from the grocery store. When I’m wrestling with some decision, I could bring it to God; but far too often I default to my own limited wisdom. But that’s not what we’re called to do.
Instead, we should be praying for one another as Paul was praying for the Thessalonians. A vital part of being in community is praying for each another. The big-C Church has always been spread out through time and space—and yet we’ve all still been able to pray for one another. The book of Revelation describes the prayers of the Church as fragrant incense rising up to God. So let’s commit to praying for our communities, together, especially in times of social distancing.
Crisis Calls Us to Continue Community
Crisis calls us to continue community. Even when we’re apart, we can communicate with one another, encourage one another, and pray for one another. That’s the approach that Paul took with the Thessalonians; and that’s the approach that we can take today as we live in a world affected by COVID-19.
Of course, I would be remiss to not end this article as Paul ends his passage: Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thess. 3.11-13)
This prayer—Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians, and my prayer for us—tells us that the community of the Church—as important as it is—exists and flourishes only because of the love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus. Only Jesus brings about true community; only Jesus gives us the strength to do what we can do; only Jesus provides us our true source of comfort; only Jesus gives us access to the Father in prayer. Without Jesus, community falls apart. Without Jesus, COVID and social distancing are insurmountable obstacles that should provoke fear. But as followers of the Risen Jesus, we can trust God to bring us through. We can trust that the gates of hell will never prevail against the community of the Church. We can trust that, in the end, God will win. And that’s why we embrace community even in the midst of a COVID crisis. Because it’s in that community that we’re reminded of the hope that we have for life beyond this one; and because it’s in that community that we will weather the storms of this life together.
Image courtesy of Robinson Kuntz.