The global church amidst COVID-19

Madison Smoak, Staff Writer

Rarely in our lifetime have we seen the disruption of global worship that we are witnessing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The thought of Easter passing by from the (dis)comfort of our couches as it is televised on our flatscreens is strange, to say the least. Not being able to physically attend church during Holy Week leaves many with questions about the future of the church. This past week the Pope’s message to the Church that, “If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly with God, your Father, and tell him the truth” also made international headlines. Usually we leave our homes to go to church, but during this past month we have watched church come into our homes with the aid of technology. In the midst of all of this horrible human loss and economic uncertainty, is there any glimmer of hope to be found as we reach the end of the Lenten season? 

As many students mourn an abrupt ending to the school year and others transition to working from home — or worse, others find themselves out of a job — the majority of us feel like a rug has been pulled out from beneath our feet. As we tune into the news every morning with hope of positive change, we should not forget that our churches are turning to hope and the Gospel during this challenging, unforseen time. Our churches have, for the most part, mastered streaming from online platforms. Departing from churches that have begun to feel like home in Santa Barbara or revisiting churches from our hometown, we ask ourselves what faith and church community look like in quarantine lifestyle. Are we truly engaged in Sunday morning church with our phones lighting up beside us, assignments being uploaded, and the fridge so close? Are we wondering if we should abandon “logging-on” all together? Is church possible without a geophysical public gathering of a community? 

To spare readers the tedious details of another student’s cross-cultural experience in a study abroad program at Westmont, I will try to make this quick. We are a part of something greater and more diverse than we are often aware: the global church. When I was traveling in Northern Europe last fall, we encountered worship styles that were radically different from our own. For many, it was new and slightly uncomfortable. During these four months, we worshipped with monks, sung in Latin, and took vows of silence at the Holy Cross Monastery along a windy road, overgrown with grass in Northern Ireland. We attended Protestant and Catholic worship services in German, a language completely unknown to us at the time. Every Monday evening we gathered on the floor of an apartment room or cottage to join in liturgical prayer as a class. The service, entitled “Peace Prayers,” echoed the tradition of multiple churches during divided Germany as a means of peaceful protest and demonstration of hope in God’s faithfulness. All of these experiences opened my eyes to just a small sliver of the global church community. Regardless of worship style, church tradition, and geographical location, we were all unified as one beautifully intertwined body of Christ. 

As I struggle with the answers to how our church communities will respond to the challenges of the pandemic in the upcoming month, I am intrigued by the possibility of one hopeful outcome. What if the global church’s efforts toward bringing the Gospel into our homes encouraged us to engage and worship with other congregations around our country and globe? What positive effects could experiencing a variety of different worship experiences bring during our physical isolation, especially at a time when there seems to be so much division in our culture? One resolution to this, I imagined, was for my family and I to join in worship online with churches other than our own. 

During such an uncertain time, when technology and faith have coincided in order to bring the Gospel and Christ community into the homes of people everywhere, we are also reminded that God’s community has always spanned over a wide, geographical range. As we sit with our Bibles open and a bowl of cereal in our hands, our family’s attention toward a television screen, we realize that no matter where we are, God’s Word can always find us. Tuning into the works of God and his message to his people inspires us to reconsider that even though we are apart from one another, we are also together. Outwardly speaking, our global community of sisters and brothers in Christ are always far away from us, just as they worship alongside us. 

I’ve sat with these ideas and my experiences of the global and local churches in my life and will now challenge myself to participate and worship with other congregations in the midst of this uncertainty. The Gospel being shared through video multiple days of the week encourages us during this time to hear the Word and works of God from different regions of the world, both known and unknown to us. We have the chance to tune into different church services and worship styles all week because technology has made the Gospel open to all who want to receive it. If you join me, you might also see how being a part of the global church offers hope, unity, and transcends all fear that we might bring with us. Let us be encouraged to push the walls of our comfort zone and join our global church community to lament the tragic loss of life, as well as pray for restoration and healing during this time.