Packing away the nativity scene in a Herefordshire village. Image credit: Ian Greig
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another---and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Hebrews 10:24-25 NIV

This verse, with its exhortation not to neglect meeting together, comes at a time when hospitals are struggling. There's a new peak in admissions, people are being kept stable in ambulances unable to discharge, and even more severe restrictions on movements are about to be announced.

This is not a time for Christians to meet together — at least, not in the familiar way of hugging each other and filling a building for a worship service.

But how ‘together’ is a typical service? What opportunity does it afford to actually "encourage one another" or "motivate one another” (NLT) ?

If the message on Sunday falls short of being the Holy Spirit’s message for the moment, and if it occupies less than a tenth of the time we are gathered, more will be needed for us to hear encouragement from God. If the meeting is all front-led with no opportunity for (suitably distanced) one to one encounters, this teaching will fall to the ground.

Sociologists are telling us that changes which have been working slowly in a hidden way, have now been greatly accelerated by this pandemic. People in cities all over Europe are discovering cycling as a non-polluting way to get around . There have been huge changes in the way we work, meet with others, celebrate family and friendship — and worship. The way we gather and worship as church has gone through a step change which will remain.

The verse reminds us that we need to live as those in the last times, expecting the imminent return of Jesus. It's the consistent teaching of the NT. It’s just that crisis and desperate prayer makes us more aware of how precarious life is, how we need the confidence in God we call hope, and how we cannot attempt to live our lives apart from Jesus.

We have reluctantly become much better about doing the “together” in new ways via an app and a screen — perhaps a small screen on our 'phone. This may be more face to face and personal than in traditional front-led worship. The sheer difficulty of managing one’s isolation while keeping up contact and thinking about the needs of others has brought out the need to be encouragers, to handle  the setbacks and difficulties by talking it out with others, and sharing wisdom.

Church may have changed for ever — and one change is including Jesus as more than a name on something recited. Archbishop William Temple wisely observed, "God is not primarily interested in religion", and that was a couple of generations ago! The impersonal and boring and irrelevant went out of the window with live streaming, and with choice. The spectacle of formal church leaders putting robes on in their kitchens and then acting out a church building kind of formality has been exposed as the parody that it was. However, local church and its relationships is more important than ever.

Church, like us, needs to be born again. So that leaders make Jesus central and join Him in what He is doing. And find the freedom to give up notions of priestly roles centred on reciting things, to reach out as pastors who shepherd people with personal prayer and Spirit-led encouragement. Those who have talked to the Lord will have heard something life-giving to share with others.

We're all people struggling with threats and restrictions and uncertainty and we all need encouragement. That particularly applies to those who are older and more vulnerable, and feel more on their own and isolated. This is where the pastors -- that's all of us, not just the professional 'equippers' -- need to make those connections in whatever way works. We have many God-given channels of communication which are not expensive or limited -- we just need to use them.

The Passion Translation begins these verses with “finding creative ways... to encourage... and... motivate, towards acts of compassion, doing beautiful works as expressions of love.”

That’s what meeting together looks like in this new order. That’s joining the Lord in what He is doing.

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