Over twenty years ago an American sociologist, Robert Putnam, wrote an article entitled Bowling Alone. In it he sketched out the decline of community life in America one expression of which was found in the rise of the number of people going bowling alone.
The kind of lonely individualism that Putnam described is well documented on both sides of the Atlantic, both in academic studies and in the kind of news stories one finds in tabloid newspapers.
Unfortunately, what’s happening out there always affects the church. Family breakdown, families dispersing to live in different parts of the country or the world, plus the growth of social media, has left us with the bizarre reality of a world that has better means of communication than at any time in history and yet is more disconnected and lonely than ever. It is really a bit weird that you can have a smart phone, a tablet, landline and a laptop, and yet still live in a social desert.
Of course it was never meant to be that way. We were created for community. It was not good, said God, for man to be alone. God Himself is no lone ranger, existing eternally as a holy community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And the church is called as a body of people. We are called to gather for worship, prayer, mutual encouragement and the word. Something like fifty-nine one anothers in the New Testament might just be an indication of the essence of the church.
There really is no substitute for gathering. We can use social media and television to good effect, but it is no substitute for flesh and blood contact: love one another doesn’t really apply if your whole experience of God and church is sitting in front of a screen watching a preacher – however gifted or famous he or she is.
At best – best – it is one third or even one quarter of church. In fact it is just the bit out of which you get something. God doesn’t receive anything from you as there is no worship (or offering – unless the preacher asks you to donate online). There is no interaction with others. And what about that practice that Jesus instituted for His church, communion? If anything demonstrates that we are supposed to be people meeting together it must be the Lord’s supper. It just doesn’t work in virtual church.
If we are honest, however, our challenge isn’t simply one of logistics. It is sometimes priorities. When you look at the church in the East, especially in places like North Korea or the Islamic nations, it is often the case that Christians are prepared to give up their lives in order to meet. Whereas in the West, Christians are prepared give up meeting in order to do life.
Let’s push through the mindset of individualism that our society has foisted upon us and live up to our calling to be God’s holy, gathered, identifiable community.
I’ll leave you with the words of Hebrews 10.24-25, as translated in The Message:
” Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.”