As I hear again and again, we live in “strange times”. The coronavirus has changed the world in all manner of unexpected ways. None of us could have imagined a year ago how different our lives would be.
There has been a radical shift from meeting in person to going online. So many of our meetings, activities and church services are now “virtual.” This has presented a number of challenges. There has been controversy about the practice of “online communion” which Garry Williams has addressed helpfully here. Is it the same to meet over Zoom in our own homes as it is to meet in person for a church service? We know that the online experience is inferior in a number of ways.
When Paul wrote to the church in Rome he expressed his desire for a personal visit. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine (Ro.1:11-12). He goes on in v.15 to speak of his eagerness to preach the Gospel to the church. It is clear that there would be value in a personal visit which surpassed what could be communicated in a letter. Similarly, when Paul writes to the Corinthians, he spends time expressing his desire to be with them (2Co.1:15ff). The Scriptures present a clearly holistic view of our humanity. We are not just minds or souls, but physical bodies, and being together means being physically present. That is what we anticipate in the New Creation: not merely glorified souls, but resurrected bodies.
At the Seminary we are delighted to be back together again after the months of lockdown last term. The great majority of our students are coming on site for lectures in person (with appropriate precautions), although we also offer the lectures over Zoom for those who cannot travel in. For both students and lecturers being together provides a much better learning experience, and a much better opportunity for fellowship, than an online course. Not just class content or discussions are important, but also informal conversations over coffee or lunch.
Yet while we see the advantages of being together, there are also new opportunities in making the course available online. One of our new students this year is living with his family in Italy, taking the course over Zoom, but also coming to the Seminary in London for one week each month for meaningful engagement with lecturers and students. Other students who live at a distance in the UK enjoy the flexibility of not having to travel in every week.
So while, with the apostle Paul, we see the importance of being together, we also see the opportunities to extend ministry online. A number of churches have reported new evangelistic opportunities and contacts through their greater online presence. In the same way at London Seminary, we look to extend our ministry in appropriate ways in response to these “strange times”.