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The church is in what seems like unprecedented days. The COVID-19 crisis has churches unable to do ministry as they are used to. Churches have closed their doors and most have taken their Sunday services online in some format. Small Groups and other ministries are meeting over video conferencing. Churches are wrestling with whether baptism and the Lord’s Supper can be practiced when the church is not gathered.

In this time, does the New Testament have much to say on how to do ministry when the church cannot gather? The Apostle Paul did not face quarantine, but he was often unable to be physically present with the churches that he planted and pastored. Many of the letters of our New Testament come to us because Paul could not be physically present and so used the technology available to him to pastor from a distance.

What does the Apostle Paul’s ministry from a distance teach us about gospel ministry during social distancing? Paul prioritizes embodied ministry, face-to-face, but when that is not possible, he uses everything at his disposal so that ministry can continue. We see this especially clearly in I Thessalonians 2:17-3:5.

“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavoured 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.” (I Thess 2:17-18).

Paul Longs for Face to Face Gathering

Paul wanted desperately to come to Thessalonica and to minister face to face with this church, but he was hindered by Satan.

I personally can relate to this verse more now than ever before in my life. The longing for the gathered church is real. I miss seeing my church family, praying with them, hearing how they are, singing together and gathering around the word. Yes, we talk on the phone, chat over Zoom, or text each other, but like Paul, the the desire grows greater to see each other face to face.

There is a physicality of church that can not be replicated online. On the basis of its name, the church is to be a gathering and assembly of God, an ekklesia. New believers are baptized in water before the whole church. We drink of the cup and eat together of one bread as “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (I Cor 10:17). These are physical acts in a shared space as a set apart people. We are embodied creatures, called to physically gather in worship of our risen king.

The rich and robust vision of Christian community portrayed in the New Testament depends on sharing our lives together. We are called to bear each other’s burdens, confess our sins, serve one another, show hospitality, and be kind and compassionate with one another. While it’s possible to attempt some of these things over FaceTime, most would agree that our ability to care and counsel is diminished over the web. The Apostle was right, face to face is best for ministry.

Social distancing should show us how much we need each other. It should grow within us an esteem of and desire for the gathering of the church. COVID-19 will teach us what we knew in our heads, but perhaps not in our hearts: that the church is much, much more than live-streamed music and a message. We can livestream songs and sermons, but not a church.

Paul Used What He Could to Overcome the Distance

At the same time, Paul used everything at his disposal to pastor from a distance. He did not cease to pray for the church in Thessalonica (1:2), especially praying “night and day that we may see you face to face” (3:10). He sent Timothy to “establish and exhort” them in their faith (3:1-5).

And after Timothy’s return and his encouraging report, he writes this letter which we call I Thessalonians. Even though face to face ministry is best, Paul uses everything he has at his disposal to minister to the church in Thessalonica. He uses prayer, his teammates and the technology of the written letter to be present “in heart” (2:17) with the church he loves.

The strange times that we are living in requires a flexibility and creativity in leveraging technology to love and serve our people well. Gathering physically, while ideal, is not possible. And like Paul we cannot let physical distance prevent meaningful ministry. It is exciting to see churches creatively seeking to overcome social distancing and doing meaningful ministry in these unique times.

Churches are doing Sunday services online, live streaming prayer meetings from living rooms, hosting small groups and youth bible studies over Zoom, and so much more. Churches are creatively engaging their communities through social media with messages of hope and faith in a time of anxiety and fear.

Churches are stepping into the gap and serving their neighbourhoods, delivering groceries, volunteering in care homes and stocking food banks. Our gatherings are paused, but the Great Commission is not.

All this cannot replace the physical gathering of the local church. Through it all we join Paul in longing for face to face gathering. A FaceTime call with your family cannot truly replace hugs and kisses with loved ones. If anything, these second-best mediums should grow our desire to gather under one roof and be the church together.

A video sermon cannot fully replace a live one. Singing along to a video is not the same as the singing together with the whole gathered church. Inviting people to my Zoom call can never replace inviting them into my living room. Face to face is best. But social distancing cannot stop our call to shepherd our people and proclaim Jesus to our neighbourhood.