As churches worldwide remain largely empty to mitigate health risks of COVID-19, profound questions are being asked about the very nature of church. Virtual formats indeed provide many congregations with valuable engagement methods, but prolonged physical distancing is proving a daunting and disorienting ordeal for faith communities. 2020 is an unprecedented year. It has created moments of both immense frustration and profitable revelation as Christians are challenged to rethink understandings and expressions of church.
The pandemic’s impact on church has been significant in the Middle East where sites of religious worship are especially meaningful to forming identity and fostering expressions of faith. Though major crises are nothing new to the region, strict regulations of forced distancing present a new type of ordeal. Even so, this experience is proving ecclesiastically illuminating as Christians avoid church spaces and step out into new territory. An exploration of church and space is the focus of the conversation between Nabil Habiby, Ara Badalian, Bassem Melki, and Shadi Fatehi that took place during the third webinar in the Middle East Conversations 2020 series on 20 August: No Space or New Space? Navigating Exceptional Times as the New Normal for the Local Church.
Nabil Habiby, faculty member of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, opens with a keynote presentation providing ways to understand church and the crisis of space. He contends that common responses downplaying physical qualities of the Church by simply emphasizing its immaterial elements fail to capture key dynamics about the human experience in relating to God, the world and one another. Spaces absolutely matter, and conceptual frameworks help us comprehend the significance of space at all levels of life including the ecclesiological level. Nabil introduces three ways to biblically view implications of space: objective space vs. subjective space, sacred space vs. worshipping space, and official space vs. oppositional space. He argues that a recognition of church as subjective space rightly acknowledges how spaces possess personal meaning. They are the contexts in which life is lived; the connection people experience with their spaces is not superficial. As such, the loss of access to church buildings is rightly something for Christians to mourn. He continues in the presentation by examining sacred space as a biblical theme steeped in Old Testament scriptures, most notably in the temple as a dwelling place of the divine. Here Nabil claims that a New Testament reading alters the picture dramatically with Christ’s incarnation ushering boundless worshiping space that extends anywhere and everywhere. In Christ, a loss of seemingly sacred spaces does not hinder opportunities to worshipfully encounter God. Finally, the concept of oppositional space is presented as a third space on the margins, a type of “battleground” where the struggle against oppression occurs. Christian communities in the Middle Eastern context often face hostilities and practicing church faithfully requires entry into a third space, which mirrors the early church’s experience of claiming a presence within unwelcoming environments. In many ways, the pandemic is compelling churches worldwide to explore new spaces and discover the opportunities to magnify Christ’s lordship beyond the safety of constructed locations. In closing, Nabil draws from the scriptural experiences of God’s people in Babylonian and Roman spaces. Here we see both the evidence of spaceless despair as well as a celebration of the kingdom’s power to energize all corners of the earth. Whether in new spaces or in the apparent absence of space, the Church lives!
Ara Badalian, pastor of the Baghdad Baptist Church, provides a case study from the Iraqi context. He explains that churches in Iraq have long confronted crises and his community has developed a range of spiritual and practical ministries in Baghdad. The sudden halt of activities in March presented a significant challenge for these ministries. With time they were able to modify their meetings and activities to accommodate pandemic realities and in doing so discover new spaces for the church to reach out others and witness to Christ. Even so, Ara explains that Iraq is a highly traditional, community-oriented society where church buildings form an important part of Christian identity. The church structure is widely viewed as sacred space, but the pandemic experience is revealing new insights about the role of the church and opening further opportunities to share the message of Christ.
In the second case study, Bassem Melki shares about the Church of God in Beirut. Interestingly, he notes how the forced closure of the church had some immediate benefits, such as making church more accessible to members living outside Beirut as well as those who usually have to fight through the city’s terrible traffic. Bassem shares how a move to fully virtual formats has helped new people participate in meetings, encouraged people to utilize talents in new ways, and allowed for new types of outreach. But the challenges are significant. He mentions that the greatest challenge during the pandemic is not maintaining activities but rather keeping relationships strong and healthy. People are cut off from one another and even simple activities, like visiting one another and sharing cups of coffee, have been severely hindered. Other challenges include coming to terms with newfound online exposure since many churches have been accustomed to staying “under the radar.” The pandemic is certainly a dynamic experience for the church, and it has been fruitful.
Shadi Fatehi of the Pars Theological Centre provides an insightful global reflection for the conversation by drawing from the Iranian context. She explains that government crackdowns forced churches to move underground and believers have drawn from a theology of place and a theology of the body to help navigate the daily challenges of church and space. Place as a concept provides central meaning to the human experience; the disregard of place in modern thought is something of concern. For a church denied designated sites, a biblical view of place has helped Iranians maximize the spaces they have, such as homes, to enjoy worship and fellowship. Shadi discusses how a theology of the body gives meaning to physical dimensions of church by deepening the embodied participation of worship, fellowship, and missional formation. Embracing a theology of place and theology of the body means there is a hesitation to move church long-term to virtual methods. Her insights remind us that Iran’s growing church community has much to offer the global church during this pandemic experience.
The webinar concludes with a panel discussion further exploring aspects of church during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants address the topic of communion (the Eucharist) and talk about different reasons why this sacrament has or has not been practiced in their respective churches. Discussion also explores different approaches that churches are taking during this time of pandemic, as well as questions about if and how the current realities of the world are leading churches back to an early church ecclesiological model, and what kind of issues surround such a development. Throughout the webinar we are reminded of why we should be encouraged by the way God is working through churches and how we can prayerfully support the Body of Christ during this challenging time.
This Middle East Conversations 2020 webinar seeks to ask questions and consider ideas with the aim of recognizing challenges and identifying opportunities for faithful witness. Watch the webinar and continue the conversation facilitated by Nabil, Ara, Bassem, and Shadi, and keep the discussion going by sharing questions and thoughts in the comments section below.