When the Church Left the Building – reflections on COVID-19 and the digital streamed church from Bonhoeffer’s Gestapo “lock down”

Dachau Prison where Pastor Niemöller was held prisoner by the Führer after the Gestapo arrested him in his house. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had arrived moments after the arrest and tried to escape by the backdoor where he was apprehended and escorted back into the house. (Eric Mataxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2010, p295)

Why do we need buildings to be church?  Is it so we can gather as a community?  Or be an active witness in the local neighbourhood?  Or is it to be a visible presence, a beacon on a hill, with street appeal?  Would we – the people of God – still be a church without our buildings? 

Sure, doing church online in COVID-19 lock down is certainly different and for many of us less satisfying and effective.  Online we can watch the worship team and sermon coming to us from secluded lounge rooms and ghostly church auditoriums.  We log in to the church service at different times from different places. 

But we miss the collective experience of being together as a body to sing as a congregation, break bread in communion and catch up in person with each other.

Are we still church when we can’t worship together in one place?  When we’re dispersed across space and time with pre-recorded segments and people tuning in after the online service is finished? If we’re fragmented across space and time, can we still call this experience church? If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we can still do church without the church building. 

What if we didn’t have the technology to connect online?  What would happen then?  What happens when the line goes down, the internet crashes, there’s an outage?  How are we “church” in remote communities and parts of our planet with little or no technology? 

Do we then make our technology “the church building?” There’s no church without internet connectivity! Do we still need to connect and communicate together as a community for us to be church; to be the body of Christ?

Questions about church under COVID-19 lockdown resonate with questions raised by a young devout theologian in Nazi Germany at the onset of the Second World War.  In his book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflects on the nature of the church when believers are isolated and not always able to gather in community.

Bonhoeffer led an illegal and secret seminary at Finkenwalde as a result of the existing church seminaries being closed by Hitler wanting to control the German national church. Bonhoeffer’s experience of living in community with pastoral students in hiding shaped his ecclesiology, his theology of church, in Life Together.

If we’re fragmented across space and time, can we still call this experience church? If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we can still do church without the church building. 

Bonhoeffer starts Life Together with Psalm 133:1 “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (NRSV).  Meeting together is often the exception and not the rule of what defines church. Now, as in history, the church is more often than not separated by imprisonment, sickness, the refugee in a foreign land cut off from the community of faith. 

The Apostle Paul wrote many of his epistles from jail.  The Apostle John wrote his Revelation in exile from the isle of Patmos. In fact, when you think about it, much of the Bible was written in isolation, on the run or in exile.

“The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, their work.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: 5 (p. 27). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Bonhoeffer’s lived experiment with students, “locked down” in secret from Hitler’s Gestapo, might give us some comfort when considering the more peaceful circumstances we find ourselves in when cut off and isolated by fellow believers under COVID-19 lockdown. 

Devonport Church of Christ on a quite weekday pre COVID-19

Bonhoeffer does not mention church buildings.  He only mentions church mission in the context of it being a consequence of us living our lives together in love for each other.  But he does talk about our notions of ideal community and human centred ideologies. Whenever we conceive as church being something other than our life together in Christ as given to us in grace by God we are straying from the Word of God revealed in Christ. 

Probably more disturbing for much of our contemporary thinking about church is Bonhoeffer’s take on visionary leadership. “Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community.”

Visionary leaders can “act as if they have to create the Christian community, as if their visionary ideal binds the people together. Whatever does not go their way, they call a failure. When their idealised image is shattered, they see the community breaking into pieces.”

Bonhoeffer – Life Together (p. 35)

Many of us meet virtually and blog digitally under COVID-19 isolation (for me, from lockdown 4.0 Melbourne in 2021). We know our isolation is temporary and it makes us more appreciative of when we can get back together again with each other under the one roof.

Bonhoeffer reflects on how blessed we are when we can meet in the flesh as community.  Those of us who are privileged to meet together as church can only do so because of God’s grace, not from our own efforts of being a community.  The same goes for church buildings, church planting, church mission.  None of us can take credit for this, only God. 

“It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s word and sacrament in this world. Not all Christians partake of this grace… Yet what is denied them as a visible experience they grasp more ardently in faith.” (Bonhoeffer, p28)

None of this means that the people of God can’t or shouldn’t use buildings, or technology, or money or mission strategy.  But it does mean that the church is not defined by buildings or mission.  It also means that the church does not need money or mission strategy to be the church. 

All that we need to be part of the body of Christ is to be in fellowship with other Christians around God’s word, serving each other in love.  If we don’t have this in physical presence together, we have it by faith in God’s promise.  That is enough for Bonhoeffer.  Everything else comes by God’s grace.  And if we begin to think or act otherwise, we turn the gifts of God into idols for our own control and self gratification.  

Each generation is called to reflect on how we do church and mission based on God’s Word.  Our challenge is to resist the ideologies and technologies of the world that lead us astray from our life together in Christ.

Some may be tempted to call Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology idealistic, too spiritual or not in tune with the realities of church and mission in the twenty-first century. 

How, you might ask, can we possibly do church without buildings?  How can we evangelise without church programs?  How can we do ministry without pastors?  How can we pay for all this without tithes and offerings?  We assume all these are necessary prerequisites for church and mission.  If we don’t have these church essentials then we are hampered in our ministry and mission. 

But let’s not forget that Bonhoeffer was addressing related questions.  His theology was forged in the fires of Hitler’s hell-on-earth where the German Evangelical National Church – along with its church buildings and pastors – had been taken over by despots and self serving traitors of the faith. Bonhoeffer himself was martyred for putting his faith into action. 

There’s still much we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s reflections in Life Together which resonate with our own challenges of being church and advancing Christ’s mission in our world today. 

But even more importantly, each generation is called to reflect on how we do church and mission based on God’s Word.  Our challenge is to resist the ideologies and technologies of the world that lead us astray from our life together in Christ.

Next blog – Has the Church Lost its Mission? Jürgen Moltmann’s theology of mission and Bishop Baskerville-Burrows reflections on church buildings post COVID-19 – posting 25 June 2021

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5 replies

  1. This article shows how we often don’t truly value something until that particular object is no longer accessible or available. To get together in church is something to be cherished and can easily be taken for granted. Bonhoeffer demonstrated leadership as did the other luminaries in scripture and how important in a time of crisis like persecution or in a pandemic strong leadership is needed to galvanise the church and maintain spiritual growth. The article also highlghts how technology inequalities often affects the most vulnerable – whether through lack of resources to access technology or lacking the necessary confidence in operating devices to maintian communication with others. The church is not the building nor the IT platforms that facilitate liturgical participation, it is the congregation of people and the article certainly highlights how the pandemic based deprivation of physical facilities reminds us where the true value of church lies: Christ lives in us not in the church. He is present when we gather together, irrespective of the method of collective liturgical expression and communion. It will be interesting to see the long-term effects of the pandemic on the church mindset regarding how we define church and how the church engages in evangelism.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Joel, great blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think, that we were given a great opportunity when we were taken from the building. We were given the chance to live being the church, to show others, the church. Now, as some are able to return to the buildings, my hope is that we do not stop showing others who not what, God’s church really is.

    Liked by 1 person


  1. Has the Church Lost its Mission? Part II – Expanding our mission horizons and use of church buildings – Sacred Cash Cows
  2. Church Economics 101: The myth that tithes and offerings can continue to sustain church stability and growth – Sacred Cash Cows

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