Brian Rapkse, Professor of New Testament Studies, Northwest Baptist Seminary.
The “Novel” Normal
Covid-19 is a black hole. Its event horizon threatens to take every experience and assurance of what life used to be like beyond the point of no return. The world has heard and asked a million questions that are all ultimately reducible to one: “Is there a way back to normal?” So far, the answer is also singular:
“We just don’t know. Remember, this virus is ‘novel’.”
We have been told to flatten the curve. To tell the truth, the curve is flattening us. Covid-19 is bending us to its arc through a host of personal and communal losses and shocks.
We all keep hoping and praying for another answer to the question.
The holding pattern that we have been in for weeks? It’s now months and is starting to look like an entrenched “novel” normal. This is broadly frightening, threatening and debilitating.
We’ve fallen into an unreal nightmare from which we cannot seem to wake up.
Real Church: Virtual and Actual
If your church is like mine, it too is groaning and shuddering as it bends to the arc. Our services have gone from actual to virtual in response to social distancing requirements. Sunday is fully online. My wife and I listen to sermons and sing songs in front of a computer in our living room. Community group gatherings are Zoom affairs. We have recently experienced our first virtual communion. Our lead pastor has officiated at his first online marriage ceremony.
The debate is on as to whether actual trumps virtual. Which is real church; which is not?
In my experience, the either/or framework of the debate is misguided. Pre-Covid, our family physically went to church and we actually participated in a service each Sunday. It was good! However, in God’s blessing, multiple services soon became necessary, and to keep the lead pastor from burning out the elders agreed that he preach once “actually” and multiple times “virtually” in recording. Our experience of him over the years and with relatively few exceptions has been virtual.
Does a virtual pastor count?
I agree that virtual is not actual. But that doesn’t mean virtual is inauthentic or somehow counts less. We have not been simply “watching videos” all these years. The preaching has been intense, the pastoring meaningful, and the community group resources helpful in challenging us to live out God’s truth.
Reality in the necessity has been a blend of actual and virtual.
Pushed to the virtual extreme by Covid-19, it must still be the conviction that where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name—whether in the flesh or online—he is there in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20). We haven’t been caught up in the air yet, but we are now gathering in the Cloud. The challenge, as it always has been, is for us to work out, as the real church in the “novel” normal, what it means to hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, to consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, and not to give up meeting together as is the habit of some. We must ask and answer what it looks like to encourage one another to a more intense commitment as the day of Christ’s return draws near. (Hebrews 10:23-25)
Last Sunday we heard that virtual service attendance had grown to 30,000. I don’t have a clue if that’s “viral”, but the number exceeds by many times our pre-Covid “actual” attendance.
What does it mean?
Do all virtual service attendees really attend? Couldn’t some just be triggering the counter and then checking out? That is a possibility. But can’t that also happen in “actual” services? In the latter case, attendees don’t “actually” leave; they just stay and “virtually” check out. The risk of appearance without reality, whether attendance is virtual or actual, is equally a concern.
James tells us that the church must be real (James 1:22-25). In the “novel” normal, that means both virtually and actually.
Real Ministry: Virtual and Actual
Has Covid-19 impaired ministry? The answer seems to be, “It all depends. What’s our creativity and determination quotient and are we prepared to undertake the cost?” It is ours to ask and answer what the proverbial cup of cold water looks like in the “novel” normal and to resolve to give it in the name of Jesus (Mark 9:41).
Joseph C. Aldridge’s metaphor is still apt. When people experience the hauntingly beautiful music of costly practical love, they will invariably ask for the words that go with the song (Life-style Evangelism: Crossing Traditional Boundaries to Reach the Unbelieving World). The Gospel is both melody and lyric.
Physical and emotional need abounds today, crying out for help and generosity. The challenge is to see it, be moved by it, and meaningfully respond to it. Spiritual need is just as broadly present and rather readily admitted at the ragged edges. The task, according to Paul, is prayerfully to watch for the open door through which the Gospel can pass in clear conversation, full of grace and tastefully seasoned, so that the mystery of Christ would become a revealed life-transforming reality (Col. 4:3-6).
Far from damaging ministry, care through the trouble of constraint and restriction shocks people and draws them. A true and costly love always points to that which inspires it.
Paul’s own experience is a remarkable case in point and his letter to the Philippians a powerful record. As a prisoner in Rome, Paul affirmed that his chains had not disqualified him, but actually served to advance the Gospel. A captive audience to the imprisoned apostle, the Praetorian guards had all heard about Jesus as they watched the Gospel lived out in chains. So had many others besides. Supportive fellow believers “on the outside” had been inspired to a more bold expression of their faith. (Phil. 1:12-14)
But Paul also had his naysayers.
They preached the Gospel with an envious eye and competitive spirit, imagining that their own success in freedom would elevate them and, at the same time, chafe Paul’s bonds, complicate his imprisonment and tumble him into melancholy. (Phil. 1:15-18)
How can anyone be an apostle and missionary locked up and under a cloud of official suspicion?
This seems like a nasty version of the virtual actual debate to me. Actual missionaries are real; imprisoned missionaries are neither missionaries nor real. We dare not laugh. The false dichotomy has fooled a number of contemporary Bible scholars and it can fool the church in the “novel” normal.
It is helpful to ask with a measure of imagination whether Paul’s ministry was actual or virtual. We should concede, on the witness of Luke and much of Paul’s own writing that he was effectively “actual.” But Paul was also creatively “virtual” after the fashion of the technologies of his day. His letters are what Bible scholars have called expressions of “mediated apostolic presence” and the associates who carried, “performed,” and elaborated upon them were the authorized embodiments of his presence. Five of the thirteen letters of the New Testament are even more intensively so, being captivity epistles. The letters are all record breakers for length relative to the average letter in antiquity (87 words); the cost of their creation would have been very steep (see Randy Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection). Letter writing and letter carrying were a costly and even dangerous labor of love for all involved.
Naysayers of the day ridiculed Paul’s letters as “weighty” (a pun on their length?) and his personal presence and speech “unimpressive” and “amounting to nothing” respectively (2 Cor. 10:10). That is to say, he didn’t cut it either virtually or actually.
His letters today have garnered a better assessment. Whether captivities or not, whether short or long, they are treasure. They are Scripture.
Does virtual trump actual? No. Real ministry is a blend of virtual and actual.
Paul had an expansive sense of effective ministry and an openness to the breadth of its circumstances and modalities. He tells the Philippians, “…it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.” (Phil. 1:29f.; cf. Acts 9:15f.)
Dare we have any less a sense of ministry?
Real church and real ministry are a blend of virtual and actual. It has always been that way.
Real Heroes: Virtual and Actual
The world is desperate for heroes. It has found them in unlikely places. In these days of “novel” normal they are health care workers, elder caregivers, bus drivers, checkout clerks, and cleaners to name but a few. Their sacrifices are real in a blend of actual and virtual.
The unlikely heroes of the early church were common folk: fishermen, a tax collector, a doctor, and sundry others. All were authentic in a blend of actual and virtual. They followed another unlikely hero.
A Jewish carpenter who flattened a curve and bent an arc for us all.
Virtually … actually … really.