Last week, I took the leaves out of our dining room table. When we moved to Massachusetts five years ago, we hunted for a house with a dining room—a unicorn in our price range, as it turned out—so we could have church people over for meals. In the end, we did get a dining room, and if we position the table diagonally, we can seat ten in a (literal) pinch.
For nearly a year, though, our dining table hasn’t hosted a single Sunday lunch or Friday night supper. It hasn’t groaned under a baby shower buffet or held notebooks and pens for a book discussion group. COVID-19 has reached its long fingers even into my century-old house, largely precluding indoor hospitality.
And so, with a heavy heart, I decided to take the leaves out of the table and store them in the closet. The table now fits much better in the room, but removing the leaves felt like one more admission of pandemic defeat. At least for now, we won’t be breaking bread with God’s people.
The Loneliness Pandemic
Whether extra places at the table or the fifteen-minute coffee break between church services, the pandemic has stripped away many of our opportunities to connect with the people in our congregations.
Zoom Bible studies and live-streamed worship services are useful tools for our time, but they erect a literal screen between us and the members of our church family. Even when we meet in person, we are prevented by wisdom and state mandates from sitting together or exchanging handshakes or hugs (our version of the “holy kiss”). The six-foot space between us echoes like a chasm.
Furthermore, disagreements about racism, politics, COVID guidelines, vaccines, and election results present unexpected challenges to our relationships in the church. Even casual conversations with other church members can feel like snow-covered ice—each step must be carefully chosen to avoid invisible danger.
For many of us, and even despite our best efforts, the events of recent months have distanced us from our fellow church members.
Not a New Problem
Thankfully, God hasn’t left us without help. The Bible is filled with examples of saints who felt disconnected from God’s people for one reason or another. Moses and Elijah knew what it was like to pursue holiness when everyone else seemed bent on idol worship. Joshua and Caleb had only each other for support as they set out into enemy territory. And Paul and John cultivated love for their fellow Christians while they were cut off from ordinary church life.
In particular, New Testament believers—who often were separated from one another by distance, oppressed by hostile rulers, and navigating racial and ethnic tensions—have much to teach us about remaining connected to God’s people in hard times. These Christians form a cloud of witnesses in our present situation. They remind us that our experiences are not a new problem, and they set us an example for how to pursue relationships in the church when we feel disconnected.
Consider three ways the members of the early church maintained their connection to one another despite hardship:
Although sending a quick “How are you?” text to a church member or pausing a moment after Sunday worship to exchange greetings with someone in the next pew may not seem significant, it is the place where connection begins. In fact, sharing news about our lives and learning news about the lives of other Christians is a vital practice. By it we affirm our commitment to one other’s spiritual health and discover information that spurs tangible acts of love for others.
Paul frequently passed information from one church to another, sending his reports by messenger (e.g., Eph. 6:21–22; Col. 4:7–9). This wasn’t an incidental practice; his letter to the Thessalonian church reveals the importance he assigned to hearing updates about other believers: “When I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith” (1 Thess. 3:5). Paul wasn’t merely being polite about receiving news; he was desperate for it. Then, the information he heard compelled him to overflow in love (1 Thess. 3:6), take comfort (1 Thess. 3:7), give thanks to God (1 Thess. 3:9), express joy (3:9), and offer prayer for the believers “night and day” (1 Thess. 3:10).
We should give information about ourselves and seek out news from fellow Christians with the same attitude of genuine interest. We should ask people how they are doing; we should sympathize with their struggles, and we should rejoice and give thanks when we hear a good report. This is not just any news. This is news of Christ’s work in the hearts of his people. It should move us to pray and stir us to love. It is news of eternal significance.
Then, having received news about other people, we can “help [them] by prayer” (2 Cor. 1:11). “From the day we heard,” wrote Paul to the Colossians, “we have not ceased to pray for you” (Col. 1:9). In another letter, Paul urged believers to “[pray] at all times . . . for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18). Whatever we learn about our fellow church members should become material for supplication on their behalf.
Throughout the New Testament, intercession for other Christians is tied to the act of remembering them. “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,” wrote Paul to the Philippians (Phil. 1:3). “Remember those who are in prison” wrote the author of Hebrews (Heb. 13:3). “We give thanks to God always for all of you . . . remembering before our God and Father your work of faith,” Paul wrote to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:2–3). In a pandemic, it can be tempting to look inward—tending to our own troubles—but the Bible calls us not to forget our fellow Christians. We must remember, and we must pray.
These may be difficult times, but the way of prayer is always open to the child of God. Self-isolation cannot cut off our access to the Father through the Son; quarantine cannot keep us from remembering other believers; social distancing cannot prevent us from bearing fellow-Christians’ burdens to the throne.
As we pray, we also have an opportunity to give. Our spiritual concern for other Christians naturally overflows in practical assistance and financial generosity. As we hear from church members who are out of work, accumulating medical bills, juggling childcare, or suffering the loss of business, we can commit to helping them. Sending a gift card to a struggling church member or giving to your church’s deacon’s fund is an important way to invest in the well-being of the whole body.
Paul exhorted the members of the Corinthian church to make a “willing gift” for the relief of the poverty-stricken church in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 9:5; cf. Rom. 15:25–26). When we hear that other Christians have experienced loss of resources, we ought to overflow “in a wealth of generosity” toward them (2 Cor. 8:2). By giving, we sacrifice our own comfort in order to help Christ’s suffering people, affirming that we are one in Christ. In this act, we model ourselves on Christ, who “though he was rich” yet for the sake of his church “became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Working from home—as many of us are these days—may lead us to believe that our work is done in our own space for our own ends. But the paycheck that arrives in our bank account is not merely intended for us to meet our own needs and fulfill our own desires. Instead, each dollar is an opportunity to invest in the kingdom of Christ and to commit ourselves tangibly to the people he purchased “with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
Love One Another
One day soon, I hope to put the leaves back in my dining room table. I hope to dust off the extra plates and make a giant pot of something delicious. I hope to pass crusty loaves from person to person, and I won’t be at all sorry that we have to squeeze together to fit around the table.
But for today, Peter’s word to the “elect exiles” rings in my ears: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly” (1 Pet. 1:1; 4:8).