In recent weeks we have all been faced with a new reality. Gatherings of large groups are a "no-no" and will not be occurring for at least the next several weeks, if not the next few months. In this time period I have become very grateful for the efforts of many to provide online sermons, classes and devotionals to "feed the flock." These tools are very useful and certainly provide comfort, needed direction and encouragement.
The new reality we are facing also affords us the opportunity to explore other pathways to accomplish our common goal of helping one another be transformed into the image of Jesus. We are very fortunate that modern technology provides many of us with the opportunity not only to talk with one another virtually, but to see one another while we are talking. For the past four years, I have been gathering with a group of between 15-20 disciples and friends for church every Sunday. (This was a new experience for me as I was accustomed to leading and preaching to groups of between 500-1000 people). In this time period I have been surprised to learn that what I previously thought was most transformative is not necessarily the case. I have discovered that while powerful biblical sermons certainly help strengthen our convictions, what is most transformative is the exchange of joy, gratitude and love in Christ-centered relationships. I believe this is why Jesus gave us the two greatest commandments - "Love God and love one another," and why on the last night of His life, He told His disciples, "all men will know you are my disciples if you love one another as I have loved you."
With these thoughts in mind, I would like to suggest that everything that is really important can be done in our current situation. In fact, one could argue that we now have an even greater opportunity to ensure that what's really important, relationships that will help us become more like Christ, will occur. However, I have also learned that many people are not very well-trained in how to express love for one another. Many of us lack the relational skills necessary for this to occur. Whereas past generations had no choice but to learn relational skills because their communication was much more face-to-face, our current society's propensity for spending hours in front of a screen and increased internet and "virtual" communication has taken its toll on our relationships. For this reason, I would like to provide some simple tools we can employ to deepen our relationships while having our online "gatherings."
1. Greet one another with a "Holy Smile". Joy is relational and begins with the awareness that someone is glad to be with me. There are some 43 muscles in our face with the power to communicate this gladness before we even say a word. While we are rethinking handshakes, hugs and kisses on the cheek, we can still communicate a gladness to see one another. I find that meeting with 5-10 people online and being able to see on their faces that they are glad to be with me is very powerful and encouraging.
2. Practice Mutual Self-Disclosure. Mutual self-disclosure produces intimacy. There is a tremendous power in sharing what is occurring in our hearts. Our group uses an acronym called "SASHET" to help us. This acronym stands for sad, angry, scared, happy, excited and tender. (A shout out to LK10.com for teaching us this). We are social creatures created to feel close to one another. Understanding what someone is going through allows us to rejoice with them, encourage them, or know what to pray for them, etc. Our group calls this "checking in." We typically begin our gatherings by "checking in" and sharing which aspect of the acronym most accurately describes our day or week. This sharing allows us to connect and empathize with each other. Community is built as intimacy grows. (Important observation: All should feel free to share only at the level of openness with which they are comfortable or not at all. We also do not try to "fix one another" at that time but rather just encourage one another.)
3. Practice Listening to One Another and to God. As we have the opportunity to hear others share, we can discover the power of listening. Ultimately, we all want to be seen, heard, and understood. When we feel listened to, we feel loved. After someone shares what they are going through, a kind word, a follow up text message, a well-applied scripture, or a simple "that must be very hard and I am with you through this" can be transformational. Setting aside some time to listen to God together is powerful, as well. Sometimes we like to ask the question, "What is God saying to us?" I find that many of us are not used to doing this in community. Instead, we have become accustomed to someone telling us what God is saying. However, God wants all of us listening to Him. Jesus praised Mary in Luke 10:39 for sitting at His feet and listening to what He said. Jesus is still speaking to us today. Are we learning to sit as His feet and listen intently?
4. Practice Gratitude. Even if we are going through a hard day emotionally, our group has found it very helpful to share what we are grateful for before we "check in." In His word, God encourages us to give thanks in all circumstances. God does this for our own good. The book Joyful Journey by James Wilder & friends states that gratitude enhances the well-being of our body, soul and relationships. Through gratitude, we come aware of the presence of Immanuel, God with us. Regardless of what we are going through, we need to remind ourselves that God is good, gracious, aware of our circumstances and ultimately, will renew all creation.
5. Discover our God-given Gifts. We have an opportunity in this time period for many Christians to use spiritual gifts which may have been laying dormant for a while. Fathers can teach their families the word of God (which has been God's design all along). Families can celebrate the Lord's supper as a full meal (as the first century church did). Children can ask questions during "church." Individual followers of Jesus who normally have fewer opportunities to build up the body can share their perspectives on God and His scriptures. As we gather online in smaller groups, more brothers and sisters can be heard. As we suffer together, more connections can be made. As needs are revealed, those who have can share with those who do not.
6. Pray for One Another. We have found that some of our most encouraging times were when we "checked in" and then prayed for each other. We call it a "popcorn prayer," where each one of us prays for one other person in the group. I have found it very encouraging to hear someone else praying for me after I have shared a need or struggle. Jesus taught us that as we persist in prayer, we will be given what we need. Praying for one another unites us and gives us the confidence that all of our burdens are in the hands of our father who cares for us.
God has put many of our previous patterns of life and church completely on hold. We must listen to what He may be telling us at this time. As difficult and scary as these times are, they are also filled with opportunities for renewed and even increased closeness to one another and to God.