As we begin to emerge from quarantine of the past 70 days or so, I am prompted to meditate upon lessons learned, not only about my own soul, but about the corporate body of Christ. In no particular order, here are some of my reflections:
The Church as a Gathered People
Certainly, extraordinary times call for temporary and extraordinary measures, but if there is one thing that this quarantine has impressed upon my soul is that part of the essence of the local church is gathering (Acts 4:31, 14:27, 15:30, 20:7). Yes, with technology, we are able to “gather” while still being scattered. But it is far from ideal and does not fully satisfy. We can mutually learn and even mutually worship, but it falls far short of what God created the church to be.
For some of us, we have taken corporate worship for granted. We have bought the lie that “we can worship God wherever we want.” But essential to corporate worship is…being gathered. Yes, my soul can rejoice in the truths that I am singing in my living room, but it lacks the incredible power of hearing others preach to my soul those same truths. How easy it is for the Evil One to whisper those hideous lies that what we are saying isn’t true and that we are alone when we are worshiping in our living room.
And as wonderful as it is to get a feeling of gathering through mediums like Facebook or Zoom, they fall so far short. How can we rightly partake of the Lord’s Supper – a symbol of our unity in Christ – when we are separated ? How can we practice the ordinance of baptism without being present with one another?
Further, how can we fulfill the numerous “one another” commands of the New Testament if we aren’t gathered. In particular, what has burdened my soul is the opportunity for sin to have flourished, unchecked in our lives because we have lacked the personal accountability of talking with one another, looking each other in the eyes and seeing how we are doing? How easy it is to put a raised hand emoji on the live stream feed, while suffering the guilt of sin that has been easily kept hidden. And how can we, as brothers and sisters, bear one another’s burdens when isolation has kept those burdens hidden from sight (Gal 6:1-2)?
Yes, to be the church is to be a gathered people. Whether 10 or 1,000, we function as we were created to when we are in communion with one another, when we are gathered together.
Pastoring a Scattered Flock is an Act of Faith
One of the greatest pictures we have of the role of elder/pastor is that of a shepherd (1 Pet 5:1-2). In fact, the word “pastor” comes from the word for “shepherd.” Here we see a living example of what a pastor is to do: feed the sheep, protect the sheep, care for the sheep, lead the sheep, etc. But part-and-parcel of shepherding is the shepherd being present with the sheep. How can we protect the sheep when we scattered? Is it any wonder that Paul said that his anxiety for the churches was even over and above the many persecutions he faced, including being shipwrecked and stoned!? (2 Cor 11:23-29)
I praise God that He has not given me a larger flock to oversee than the one that I have because during this time of quarantine I feel I have hardly done well at all with the families under my care. While deacons have proved to be an invaluable help in checking in on families, I know that there are burdens, temptations, and trials that have gone unnoticed because of the separation. While pastors will sometimes joke that pastoring would be wonderful if it weren’t for the people, this quarantine has taught the emptiness of that thought, for pastoring is nothing without people!
Ministry is Inherently Incarnational
While writing notes, keeping up with texts and emails, and meeting over Google Hangouts has filled my days in unusual ways over the past 10 weeks, that is not the essence of ministry. Writing letters can prove to be a valuable tool in discipleship; after all, much of the New Testament is letters that Paul, Peter, or John wrote to churches that they were providentially separated from. But that wasn’t their ideal. As God would separate them, often because of persecution, they would write out of necessity. But their preference was always to be in person (Rom 15:29, 2 Cor 12:21). And when they couldn’t come themselves, they would often send someone else (1 Thess 3:2; Phil 2:25-26).
This, of course, stems from the gospel itself. While God wrote plenty of letters to His people through the years, His ultimate communication was not through an angelic message, or a prophetic word, but through Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1-2). Jesus walked this earth, experienced the difficulties of living life in a fallen world, wept with friends and rejoiced with them. Is it any wonder that his disciples would recognize the critical nature of not just sending a message, but being present to teach and to care? While I’m certain that Paul would have Live Streamed if that technology would have been available (he did, after all, use whatever means possible to share the word!), he would have been abundantly clear that it was secondary to being present and only for when he was providentially hindered from being present.
Moving forward, this quarantine lesson should guard our hearts against any ministry that fails the incarnational test. We cannot assure our hearts that we are ministering in a community if we are not present in that community. We have experienced the pain of isolation and we dare not withhold our presence from those who are isolated from God in their sin.
Consumer Christianity Can’t Cut It
Much of what we have in America that is “Christian” is consumer-driven, rather than gospel-driven. This is not to say that every large church is devoid of the gospel, or that all worship that has flashing lights and a driving beat are wrong. But the underlying philosophy of much of modern American Christianity is based on experience, not doctrine, based on man’s desire, not God’s glory.
When the foundation for your church’s growth is experience, and you can’t meet (at least with large gatherings where your desires are satisfied and accountability is minimal), then why persist? Early on, I heard of one pastor asking another “what are you planning to do to step up your online experience.” How we have it so backwards! Our question should be about stepping up our gospel proclamation! It will be interesting to see whether those churches that are built around experience will survive these 10 weeks of being unable to meet.
Or maybe even more scary, is that they will have done quite well with “stepping up their online experience” such that their congregations will no longer find it necessary to come to church when they can easily satisfy their spiritual itch while in their pajamas with a bowl of Lucky Charms on their lap. As churches begin to resume their in-person gatherings, I suspect that there will be a refining of the church as those who are truly in Christ will passionately be returning while cultural Christians will stay home and rarely (if ever) return.
What will happen next?
Only time will tell how the Church will survive this quarantine and be changed by it. I have no concerns that the Church will survive, for if nothing over the past 2000 years has been successful in slowing or stopping the advance of Jesus’ Kingdom, then certainly no virus can. But there will be some churches that don’t survive. How will we be changed by it? Let me close with a few ways I suspect (and pray) we are changed:
- Greater commitment to the local body of Christ
- Greater urgency to share the Good News
- Greater care for one another’s soul
- Deeper selfless love for one another
In short, I pray that we wake up. This very likely is God’s gracious warning to His church, and I pray we will be found ready when He comes. May we tremble at His Word!