An Anabaptist Ecclesiology for a Global Pandemic

I’m convinced that the church is the gathered people of God.

In the New Testament, even when the word ekklēsia points beyond local gatherings to the universal church, it still has the idea of “the church that gathers”: followers of Jesus who live together in the world as Christ’s body, God’s family, a new humanity formed by the Spirit. This gathered people of God is together “a holy priesthood”: while some are called to spiritual leadership as “pastors” or “shepherd-teachers,” there are no human mediators between God and individual believers and each one is distinctly gifted by the Spirit of Christ so that together we can be the body of Christ in the world.

This understanding of “church” is part of what makes me “Anabaptist” in my Christian convictions. And this Anabaptist ecclesiology has some direct implications for how we “do church,” to use a modern phrase.

This ecclesiology means worship services are not performances. Worship services are the gathered people of God, gathered to worship God collectively, with everyone contributing in worship.

We don’t speak of a “stage” and an “audience”; we are a “congregation” gathered together in a “sanctuary,” or even, deep in our tradition, simply a “meeting house.” We don’t dim the “audience lights” and throw spotlights on the people “on stage.”

“Worship leaders” are neither priests nor performers. They are not even the “song leaders.” Worship leaders are exactly that: those in any given service (often lay people) who guide the congregation in our collective worship, all aspects of it (not just the music).

The building is closed. The church is still open.

Sermons are neither more nor less important than any other part of the service. Congregational singing, congregational sharing and prayer, sharing our creative gifts, sharing our financial resources, reading Scripture together, intentionally listening together for God’s voice to us as a congregation—these are just as important as, and some weeks more important than, what the preacher shares.

This ecclesiology also means worship services are not all that “church” is. We don’t simply “do church” on Sunday mornings; we “do church”—or better, we are the church—all throughout the week.

Yes, this means we live out our individual and family lives as Christians through the week, striving in the Spirit to follow Jesus in the ordinary everyday. But it also means we continue to be the church, gathering together throughout the week in various ways: in prayer, in learning, in service, and breaking bread together as often as we can around tables in our church building or in our homes.

Sometimes this way of thinking about “church” is considered “low church,” in contrast to “high church” ecclesiologies that include liturgy, sacraments, vestments, icons, candles, bells, and incense. I appreciate the distinction, and I myself love liturgy and worship that engages the senses. But I have to confess I bristle a bit at the idea that an Anabaptist view of church is “low”: we take church as seriously as any other group of Christians, and more seriously than many.

But what happens when “the gathered people of God” can no longer gather? How can we be the church in a pandemic?

In some ways the answer to this is simple: we continue to find creative ways to love our neighbours as ourselves, loving all others (and especially the most vulnerable) in the way of Jesus. There is never any shortage of people who need to be loved.

But this is really an individual Christian response to a pandemic. How do we do this specifically as the church, the gathered people of God? And how do we do all the things that nurture and support the faith and hope that form the root of this love? How do we worship together, pray together, learn together, hear God’s voice to us together, serve together?

How do we sing together? How do we break bread together?

When we dig a little deeper into this question—how can we be the church in a pandemic?—we find the answers aren’t simple and easy at all.

Since there are no simple and easy answers to this, I won’t stand in judgment on any other church or pastor and how they work through this question. (Unless you’ve been given specific guidelines, even orders, by your local health authorities not to gather in large groups, but you still do—then may God have mercy on your souls, and on the bodies of the rest of us who might end up paying for your foolish hubris disguised as “faith.”)

Nevertheless, here are some thoughts roiling around in my brain, circling around this conviction:

The church hasn’t changed. We are still the gathered people of God.

Because of this conviction, I’ll confess I have no appetite for recording or livestreaming a “worship service” of people performing in front of empty pews. I do understand the impulse behind these efforts, and I sympathize with those who have decided to do this. But that’s never been what our worship services are—they’ve never been about the people “on stage” doing something which the people “in the audience” observe.

Since our worship services are more participatory than that, I’m working at finding ways to include as many people as possible in the “virtual worship services” we as a church are providing, and I’m working at finding ways to encourage people to participate in those online worship services. We’re recording various church folks praying and singing and playing music to accompany our hymns, for example, so those gifts can be shared on a Sunday morning.

Also, because of this conviction that the church is still the gathered people of God, I am encouraging our church to lean into the idea that our worship services are not all that “church” is. We may not be able to gather in person, but we are committed to finding ways to “gather” throughout each week for all the reasons we’ve always gathered: in prayer, in learning, in service, and breaking bread together as often as we can around tables in our church building or in our homes. Some of this “breaking bread together” might have to happen as households host one another for a meal via Zoom, but we’ll find a way.

The goal of all this faith- and hope-formation, the fruit we’re hoping to see among us, is still the same: love. Loving each other, loving all others, and especially loving the most vulnerable, in the way of Jesus.

For many of us, for now at least, this “love in the way of Jesus” means being physically separated from others, especially the most vulnerable. That’s counter-intuitive for all of us, but especially Mennonites, who like a hands-on kind of Jesus-love.

Social distancing, Dirk!

For all of us, this “love in the way of Jesus” means finding creative ways to walk in solidarity with those most at-risk and those most affected and afflicted. Following social distancing requirements to the letter, but doing so to help stock the local food bank. Checking in with our elderly and immune compromised church folks, making sure they have the things they need. And more.

All churches are having to find creative ways to “do church” and “be the church” in these days. But for those with strong Anabaptist convictions about church? We’ve got some unique challenges—and opportunities—ahead of us.

How is your church “doing” and “being” the church during COVID-19?

If your church is a Mennonite or other Anabaptist church, how is your church trying to maintain the conviction that the church is “the gathered people of God?”

Most pressing for Mennonites, how in the world are you singing together and breaking bread together? 🙂

I’d love to hear constructive responses!

Note: This post has been edited slightly since its original publication.