A few weeks ago we were ministering at a Brethren assembly. During the open worship time, elder Dhanabalan shared an exhortation from John 13:34–35:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (NIV)
The verses are clear. The distinguishing mark of God’s people is the agape love they have for each other. That ought to be our reputation. Instead, he said, the church in Singapore today is known for her size, her buildings, the fame of some of her pastors, her financial clout, etc. He didn’t believe the Singapore church is known for how her members love one another. His challenge was clear.
I was moved when I heard elder Dhanabalan’s sharing. It wasn’t a truth I was unacquainted with. The verses were key to my own convictions of church. Indeed, I had taught and wrote on those verses many times. Yet, when I heard the exhortation based on these verses two weeks ago, I felt deeply convicted. I wondered why. I suspect it was because I believed that the Covid-19 epidemic has given us a chance to relook at how we do church. It has given us a chance to reboot and I believe that a return to genuine biblical community was one of the things we need to do going forward.
A few weeks before that I was at a meeting when I heard our friend Pastor David Wong share that the circuit breaker was a test of whether church members were committed to people or to programmes. The implication was, if they were mainly committed to programmes, the fact that so many regular church programmes had been cancelled would have paralysed people’s experience of church. But if people were committed to people, they would find new ways to connect with each other.
So, while I am glad we are gradually able to go back to onsite worship services, I am more excited that we now can have groups of eight visiting a home. By the way, I hate the phrase “we can now go back to church”. Church is people. What we mean is that more of us can now assemble in our church buildings.
While there is great joy in being able to be in the same space as other believers, the congregational assemblies are still not places where folks can be close enough and interactive enough to “wash each other’s feet” (John 13) or it’s equivalents. It is still basically a passive experience devoid of much horizontal activity.
Which is why I was very excited to hear that one church has decided to make their house small groups the main expression of their church life. In the past, the Sunday service was prime time for most churches and cell groups were the supporting act. This church has decided that, going forward, their small groups were going to be the main act and Sunday services were to support the small groups. In fact, they may not even meet for large group services every Sunday!
I was really blown away when the church leaders shared with me their plans. They said that the church leadership was united in their conviction to go in this direction. Of course, there are things to work out. For one, some of the small group leaders are not sure they can lead their groups with this new paradigm. I said this was understandable. I was so excited that I offered to help teach and train the small group leaders, never mind that I wasn’t even sure I was the best person to do this! The offer was accepted and this will be one of my key ministry commitments for 2021.
2020 has been a strange year. But disruptions are often what are needed to stop us in our tracks and force us to rethink what we really believe in and if what we do really reflects what we believe. I pray 2021 and the years ahead will be years where we become more of the church we were meant to be. I pray a day will come when the distinguishing mark of God’s people is their commitment to live and die for each other — like their Lord.