Pastoral Perspectives

Will religion post-Covid-19 be more personal, less communal? (The Straits Times dated 2 July)

I came across this article in the newspapers and very naturally my curiosity was aroused. I wondered about the author’s response. Will religion become more personal and less communal after the pandemic is over?

The author postulates that since mass gatherings can give rise to a real threat of infections spreading quickly again, post-Covid-19, religion will gravitate towards a more personal and individualised slant. He is of the opinion that organised religion makes the communal dimension necessary but what is more needful are the individual expressions of religiosity – piety, obedience, faith and worship. I think what the author is saying is that you don’t really need community for your faith to thrive. Below are some quotes from him:

 “The private or personal dimension is the true essence of religion, while the communal dimension merely serves to make religion complete.”

“Religion will never perish, even without its communal dimension, because its existence is embedded in the private domain of human lives.”

“The future of a religion lies in its return to a state where the individual is at its centre.”

I don’t want to comment about other faiths but as a Christian, I totally disagree with the author. To begin with, ours is more a relationship than a religion. Yes, it is about our relationship with God but that also translates into our relationship with one another.

It starts with Genesis where human beings were created in the image of God. Our God is Triune; he exists in the community of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, a community of love. Part of being created in the image of God means that we too are created to live in community, which began with Adam and Eve, a community of love expressed through the institution of marriage.

When sin came into the picture, the image of God in us was marred. So not only was the relationship between God and Man destroyed, the relationship between human beings also went haywire – there was blaming and murder, and of course as the population expanded, there were more atrocities and injustice that human beings inflicted on one another.

With the coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, he is able to restore the distorted image of God that is in us. He therefore not only redeems the broken relationship we have with God, he also restores the relationships that are being lived out in community.

It is no wonder that the Greatest Commandment demands our total devotion to God (loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength) and, in the same breath, requires us to love our neighbours as ourselves. We cannot deceive ourselves by saying that we love God but hate people. The apostle John pointedly asked: “How can we love God whom we cannot see if we cannot even love the people whom we can see?” (1 John 4:20)

As Disciples of Christ, we belong to a community – the Church. The Church is the body of Christ (of which Christ is the head). It is no wonder that when we are baptised in Christ, we are also baptised into his body. When we express our commitment to Christ through water baptism, we are at the same time pledging our commitment to his body, the Church. That is why baptism is never a private affair. The Church is there to witness our baptism and that is also the community that we naturally belong to.

Other analogies of the church are the family of God (in which Christ is the eldest brother and we are all siblings) and the temple of God (in which Christ is the Cornerstone and we are all the other stones). Regardless of the analogy (body, family temple), the message is clear – we exist in community!

Coming back to the article, I really cannot see how our faith can become more personal and less communal. Although salvation is personal in that we pray to receive Jesus into our lives and no one can do that on our behalf, the living out of that Christ-like life will necessitate that we live in community.

We can have our personal devotional time with God in our own homes but that cannot replace the corporate gathering of God’s people in worship.  I will not concede that the communal dimension is there only to make religion complete. On the contrary, the communal dimension is most integral to our faith.

Without community, our discipleship will be stunted. We will not be able to put into practice the many ‘one another’ principles found in the Bible, beginning with loving one another just as Christ has loved us. Without community, we will not be able to bear with one another and forgive one another just as Christ has forgiven us. It is within this community, which is still very much work in progress, that we have opportunities to exercise patience, take each other’s idiosyncrasies in our own stride, and show acceptance, while giving time for transformation to take place.

It is never easy for imperfect people to rub shoulders with other imperfect people. Many would prefer to stay away but there is no way a lone Christian is a healthy Christian. It is within a community that we can build one another up to be more Christ-like as we courageously speak truths into each other’s lives and spur one another on towards love and good deeds.  I therefore don’t agree with the author that “religion is embedded in the private domain of human lives and the future of a religion lies in its return to a state where the individual is at its centre.”

The individual should never be at the centre – that would be idolatry! In fact during this Covid-19 season when worship is held online, there can be the tendency for worship to centre on the individual. Worshippers can surf the Internet to see which type of music they like to sing, what kind of sermon they like to hear, which speaker they like to listen to, which type of liturgy they like to follow. And in the end, it can turn out to be a buffet spread of ‘good’ stuff where the worshipper just picks and chooses what he likes to feast on.

When we are worshipping in community, we have to learn to sing each other’s song, appreciate each other’s music, listen to different preachers on different Sundays regardless whether they are our favourites or not and follow the same liturgy even when other church’s liturgies may seem either more interesting or pared down. Though we may have differing tastes and preferences, we put those all aside and remind ourselves that we can come together in unity because of the Triune God to whom we offer our worship.

I would like to see True Way continue to be more, and not less, communal. We may not be able to gather in big numbers to worship God. (Although if the new infections are kept low, MCCY informs us that the permissible number can go up to 200 per gathering.)

In the meantime, I think the DGs (discipleship groups) will have to step up in looking out for each other. Every DG is like a house church in the Book of Acts. The early churches continued to meet even in the most threatening of times. We should be no different. We are called as the body of Christ to mutually bear each other’s burdens faithfully, prayerfully, and practically as Jesus did for us.

Rev Lee Kien Seng

July 19, 2020