By Stephan Teng

Socially Distant, Still Together—Finding Real Community

On a quiet Thursday night, my small group from church gathered together. With the university closure announcements earlier that day, the impending lockdown weighed on us all. We thought we might have two weeks of normal life before COVID-19 reached our rural county, like an invading army.

Knowing our time of being physically together was short, we planned to make the most of it: worship sessions, board game nights, and potlucks.

That night ended up being our small group’s last physical meeting.

My experience, though upsetting, isn’t uncommon. Of the many things that have been taken away from students in the last few weeks—classrooms, clubs, internships, and perhaps even independence—deep meaningful community seems to be one of the greatest losses.

After all, many communities at colleges and universities are built on people with similar interests being close together. Like to dance? Join the dance club. Like to run? Join the running club. Like to do ab workouts for five minutes and then eat pizza? There’s a club for that too.

But now, scattered across the states, sequestered in our separate homes, it may feel impossible to have that same sense of intimacy as before . . . but is it?

The Source of Our Community

Our unity as Christians wasn’t forged by coincidental common interests but by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul the Apostle writes:

You were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. (Eph 2:12–15)

The blood of Christ brought our Christian community together. We are sealed with his Spirit. Once limited by laws, ethnicity, and gender, not to mention time zones and distances, our togetherness has been realized and finalized in him. Since that first Easter morning, God’s people have endured famines and fires, weariness and war, persecution and plagues with the very Spirit of God holding us together.

The problem confronting us now revolves around the issue of presence. If presence was the seed of community, then its disappearance would indeed be a problem. But in Christ, presence is not the seed of community but the fruit of it.

And although a face-to-face meeting may be the most preferred way of experiencing someone’s presence, we know that it by no means guarantees presence—think back to the nodding heads and distracted minds during lectures. But now we must be all the more innovative with one another through the means we do have to still experience presence.

What Real Community Looks Like Now

So what can our community look like in this new season? Scripture outlines key practices that communities of God can engage in, even in our new socially distanced world:*

Worship and Prayer (Acts 2:44–47)

Listen to worship together and host prayer meetings over video calls. Seek God together. Ask each other how he has shown up this past week. Help each other listen to God and discern what’s from him and what wasn’t. Practice writing psalms and share them with each other. Start mornings with prayer together and do a call-and-response liturgy.

Fellowshipping with Each Other (Eph 4:11–13, Rom 15:7)

You can still play online games with each other or just talk and hear about each other’s lives. Or with so many of us cooped up, maybe try to start exercise sessions. You can also have bake-offs or still watch shows and movies together over video call.

Proclaiming the Gospel (Acts 1:8)

Invite potential seekers and non-Christian friends to join your new online group and play games. Build trust and ask good questions. Eventually invite them to be part of your online Bible study.

Modeling God’s Kingdom (Is 42:6, 60:3; Mt 5:14)

Plan and organize ways to help a food pantry. Figure out how to aid someone in need from your church or neighborhood. Host a supporting local business party by buying from the same restaurant. Make care packages for hospital workers. Some places are hosting spaces to make masks and supplies for them while still staying socially distant. You and your communities can join any of these and share God’s love with the people around you!

As our shock and panic has settled into acceptance and a new normal, my small group from church is learning how to build a new life with one another. It may look little like before. We’re not in the same room, and we can’t share meals. But we move on united by more than just dinners and physical space. We are united by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Therefore we’ll keep hoping. We’ll keep innovating. We will keep loving. And we will do it together.

*Categories taken from Global Dictionary of Theology.

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Stephan Teng serves as an InterVarsity Campus Staff Minister at Cornell University, where he currently staffs an Asian American chapter and plants a Black and Latino chapter.

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