When the Body Cannot Gather

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It is now evident that there are many tough realities brought upon us by the coronavirus. There is the obvious crisis of medical care and the effort to stop the virus from spreading further. There is the financial crisis, which we all are feeling, but especially those who were already living paycheck to paycheck. There is the inconvenience of distancing from even our closest neighbors and losing our freedom to do as we choose. One of the hardest realities may be social distancing (sheltering-in-place or quarantining)—at whatever level you’re experiencing—because it goes against our very nature.

Humans are relational beings. Biologists often refer to us as a social species, one of the most social of all species. Isolation is not in our nature. In fact, most of what nurtures us is interpersonal connections. So what do we do when, for the greater good, we are forced to stay away from one another, to not to leave our homes unless it is absolutely necessary?

I will dive into this issue a bit more below, but for those of you who want to focus on relevant science, just spend about 5 minutes with this Science article. It examines several of the key issues around human well-being and social distancing.

The Science Behind Our Relational Nature

For some time now, I have wanted to do a series on humans as relational beings. It is a massive topic with all sorts of interesting science, enough to fill months of installments of this weekly newsletter. Let me give you a taste: consider the work on attachment between mothers and babies; or the work on cooperation within and between human groups; or empathy and mirror neurons and the many ways our brains are wired to connect with others; there is work on human touch and the importance of physical connection; even research on our social groups and why we are now missing our group rituals or crowding into a game or concert.

Much of this research builds on evolutionary science leading to conclusions that we as Christians can agree with: we are social beings that thrive in relationships with one another and that isolation, like the sort being forced on us by COVID-19, is contrary to our nature.

The article I mentioned above delves into the following topics:

  • Isolation is bad for us. It increases the risk of numerous health problems and is particularly tough on older populations—a real double whammy paired with COVID-19—as well as those struggling with existing mental health problems.
  • Thank goodness for technology. Most of us have the capacity to talk face-to-face—mediated by gadgets that now fit in our pockets—with friends and family almost anywhere in the world. While they can’t replace actual face-to-face interactions, they are “infintely better than no interaction.” So use your tech extensively to connect with others. You can even leverage it to find ways to support those that do not have gadgets to facilitate the social connections that all of us need.
  • Support yourself by supporting others. Research again and again shows that “giving support can be even more beneficial than receiving it.” Of course, normally, we don’t do a good deed in order to help ourselves. The motivation is to help others. But in a COVID-19 world, supporting those we can support may be the single best way to support ourselves and is thereby doubly good. [I just paused to send a text checking in on a dear friend from college—you might do the same.]
  • We are also creative, relational beings. The story mentions the example of Italians singing together through open windows and we are also hearing stories of Spaniards cheering for the meical community. These stories uplife and connect us.

As you and your churches consider how to be the body of Christ in a post-COVID-19 world, I hope some of this science can inform your thinking and lead to creative action.

  • Each Friday, Wheaton’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute is hosting a webinar for churches on how to respond to COVID-19.
  • Creative ideas abound in this article about how Methodist pastors are maintaining the relational aspects of ministry.
  • The Greater Good Science Center has a nice collection of resources such as this one for any of us who support teens.
  • Christianity Today continues to produce good content on a range of aspects related to this pandemic.

Christian Faith and Science Agree

I mentioned my desire to do a series of newsletters on the theme of science and the relational essence of Homo sapiens. Why would that topic be of interest to Science for the Church?

As we’ve outlined before, our number one priority as a ministry serving the church is to leverage relationships—often between scientists and church leaders—to change both perceptions and realities around Christian faith and science. We believe the church can be strengthened by engaging the kind of science summarized above, and that such work is even better if we have actual scientists helping us to understand what they are discovering about God’s amazing creation.

Not only that—relationships are also an area where science is increasingly drawing the same conclusions as found in theology and the wisdom of the church. We are a relational species and we are at our best whenever two or three gather. Science is increasingly looking at cooperation and the benefits we find through prosocial behavior. Theologians also think something like our capacity for relationships might just be the very essence of God’s image in each of us.

That is to say, science and our Christian faith are in agreement here: relationships are of central importance for human well-being and flourishing. In community is how we were created to be and how we will thrive. This relationality began at Creation, was made crystal clear with the Incarnation, and now continues whenever the Body of Christ gathers and worships and serves.

Last week, I wrote, “The reason the church is about relationships is because it is how God chose to love the world and therefore is how we also are to show God’s love to the world.” That is every bit as relevant this week.

So, in the difficult times of social distancing—even quarantining—possibly for many months, how are we going to be the church? How is the Body of Christ going to show love to one another and our neighbors near and far?

Both the science and our faith are pretty clear. We cannot afford to distance socially from one another even as we avoid close physical contact.


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