The cost of discipleship during COVID


Scripture: Matthew 16: 21-26 Nigel Bunce

The physical cost of discipleship in Canada is minimal.  But as churches prepare to reopen, the restrictions demanded by safety may well cost the permanent loss of the style of Christian worship that we know and love.


The context of today’s Gospel

The six short verses of today’s Gospel follow directly after the foundational passage from two weeks ago. Then, Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus responded that Peter would be the rock on which to build the church, the ekklesia, the community of God’s people. It was a very upbeat occasion.

Jesus foretells that he will suffer and die

But now the scene darkens. Jesus tells the disciples that he will go to Jerusalem, where he will suffer greatly. The Temple leadership, he tells them, will arrange for his death. It was a political power play by the religious authorities. Jesus’ popularity threatened their position. Here, I must repeat what I have said before. Jesus’ death was not God’s plan all along, as St. Paul proposed. Nor was it the fault of all Jews everywhere, as John’s Gospel implies.

Peter, ever impetuous, responded completely in character to what Jesus had said. He shouted, “No. God forbid that this could ever happen to you. You’re the Messiah!” Jesus might have replied, sadly, “Yes, Peter, I get what you’re saying. But this is the way that it will happen. Remember what the prophet Isaiah foretold in our Scriptures. People will despise the Messiah and make him suffer.”

The cost of discipleship as Jesus told to the disciples

But no. Jesus turned on Peter. He said, “Get away from me. You are acting like the Devil. You’re stuck in the political realm, like the Temple authorities. The Messiah’s not just another politician.” Then he went on to tell the disciples how hard discipleship would really be. They wouldn’t be swanning around Galilee preaching to adoring crowds. They might even have to face execution. But Jesus told them that to lose your life for the sake of the Gospel would be like gaining life eternal.

Of course, by the time that Matthew wrote his Gospel, Jesus had already suffered crucifixion. So had the likes of Peter. In the modern era, Dietrich Bonhõffer wrote, in his book The Cost of Discipleship (1937), “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Like Jesus in Jerusalem, Bonhõffer accepted that he risked execution in Nazi Germany. Which eventually happened.

A new potential cost of discipleship

When this topic arose previously, my focus was cheap vs costly grace.  Today, I am  taking a different direction.  Canadians do not risk execution or assassination for being Christian. For us, there seems to be no cost of discipleship. But, at this moment in time, there is a reverse risk. Will Christianity, at least the kind that we know and love, still exist when this pandemic is over? That’s what I thought about in the context of re-opening St. George’s to public worship in two weeks time.

The Diocese has given us ‘guidelines’ for how to re-open our doors safely. Our Corporation has sent our parish-specific ‘Re-opening Plan’ to the Diocese for review and approval. Safety is our first priority. But there’s a cost to our Anglican discipleship. Not the personal price paid by Jesus, Peter, or Bonhöffer. Rather, it’s the style of Christianity that St. George’s offers.

Besides Anglican Christian doctrine, we focus on community – ekklesia – in two important ways. The obvious one is by socializing before and after the service. With activities like parish brunches and Bryden’s dinners. But equally important, we worship in community. We sing our hymns and say many of our prayers all together, that is to say, communally. We try to have many participants and hear many voices in each service. Greeters, chalice bearers, readers, and prayer leaders.

That’s what ekklesia means to me on Sunday mornings. When the people of God worship and socialize in community. But when we return to church, much of this sense of ekklesia will be missing. No congregational singing or prayers. No coffee hour. Social distancing, except for family units. Exchanging the Peace by gestures at a distance. It will all seem very different.

COVID and its risk to congregations

Our parish survey told us that many parishioners will not return to church at first. Many older folks worry about health risks. Younger families fear that they or their children may be vectors for COVID. Others said that this kind of service will be too ‘blah’ to be worth attending. I am hopeful that enough COVID restrictions will soon be lifted that ‘normal’ worship can resume. In the meantime, Jan and I have committed ourselves to keeping the on-line Sunday service going.

But congregations face a risk. St. George’s is no exception. What if the period of restrictions last so long that congregations simply fall apart or run out of money? I am enormously grateful by the financial support that St. George’s parishioners have maintained so far. In that respect, our ekklesia, our sense of community, is still strong. But I am sure that within two years, events will have forced numerous churches across Canada to close. Not all of them will be small.

Earlier, I asked whether the kind of Christianity that we know and love will still exist once this pandemic is over? Maybe it will. But, “Maybe not” is the potential cost to our style of discipleship. It would not be the end of Christianity. But it would force a radical re-think about what worship might look like. Perhaps this is what might stir up the wills of the ekklesia, as today’s Collect says, in the year 2020.

New discipleship opportunties may offset COVID’s cost of discipleship

I don’t believe that on-line recorded, live-streamed, or Zoomed worship could be the main or only form of worship in the long term. The ekklesia, the people of God, have to meet in community. Recently, Daniel Harrell, editor of the magazine Christianity Today, wrote an editorial letter to accompany an article by Adam Graber on church decline during COVID.  Harrell wrote that he missed being with flesh and blood people in Sunday worship. Even more than he missed the sermons and the music.‘Church’ has always meant friendship, which is very different on-line from in-person.

I hope, most sincerely, that we can soon resume Sunday worship roughly as before. But if not, churches, including St. George’s, must come to grips with how to continue to be followers of Jesus Christ. After all, that’s the real ‘name of the game’. Not merely retaining a particular worship style. Perhaps more but smaller groups will evolve. House churches (or coffee shops, or pubs or …). That was the earliest Christian model, before church buildings existed.

Technology cannot replace face-to-face interaction. But online worship has some positives. It could supplement worship in house churches. It offers the possibility of outreach to people who do not attend conventional ‘church’. That is, opportunities to reach new disciples, not just retain old ones.

These new and different forms of ekklesia would require great changes for the Anglican Church as an organization. Who would celebrate Holy Communion, baptize, or officiate at marriages? Could we still support cathedrals, bishops, and diocesan staff?

But all that would be for the future. For now, we must do our best to be followers of Jesus Christ in the era of COVID. May God guide us to do our best to understand what that looks like. And to be stirred up to embrace whatever the future might hold.