Our last in person service was March 8th. Then chaos ensued. Our church went from setting up services in an elementary school each Sunday and gathering together in Gospel Communities throughout the week to quickly moving everything to virtual. For some, the only major difference was that things were virtual instead of in person. For me, it meant that I needed to completely revamp my role at the church and quickly become a video producer and web designer. That led to a busy couple of months with very little space to stop and process.
Now we are over 2 months into this pandemic. Things in Stillwater have quieted down significantly. We haven’t had a new case in our city in a month. That doesn’t mean we are out of the woods. What it does mean is I have time to process. That is what this is, my musings in regard to the church and the pandemic.
I want to rewind a bit and go back to early 2018. At that time, I was in East Asia and we had been hearing about a new religious law that was put in place. It reassigned the responsibility for controlling religious gatherings to a much stronger authority. It also made it very clear that large gatherings were not going to be tolerated. The law took effect in February of 2018 and once that happened, the crackdowns began. The police across the country began to seek out unregistered, and therefore illegal, gatherings of churches. They arrested leaders, tore down buildings and evicted long-term tenants of apartments and meeting spaces who were using those spaces for religious meetings. Believers that we knew in all parts of the country were nervous about what might happen to their gatherings and to their leaders.
Just about every one of those who we knew that were involved in the house church network were affected. Their gatherings were disbanded and many of their leaders were arrested and interrogated. The situation seemed dire. But this was not the first time this had happened. Churches throughout that country know their history very well. They know that their brothers and sisters have been persecuted in that country for decades, if not longer. They know that for long periods of time, the church has been forced to meet in secret. And they know that persecution cannot kill the Church.
What ended up happening is that these churches broke up, but they did not stop gathering. They had a rhythm and a habit of gathering together and sharing their lives together. The major significant change was size—they had to shrink. But to cut themselves off from other believers was not an option. Instead, they began meeting in homes and in much smaller groups. That meant that many of them who had not been leaders were now, suddenly, leading small groups. And they couldn’t just stream in videos of people preaching online, because anything like that was blocked. So it meant that they gathered together, worshiped, prayed, studied the word, ate and enjoyed the fellowship of the believers together. Persecution does not kill the Church.
Fast forward back to our current situation. Let me be very clear. What we are experiencing right now is NOT persecution. What we are experiencing right now is pandemic. But there are many similarities. We cannot meet in large groups. We are being forced to shrink our numbers. But just like persecution, pandemic does not kill the Church. The Church is not a Sunday morning gathering. The Church is not a building. The Church is the body of Christ. Our local churches are geographically defined, contextualized gatherings of members of the universal Church. Let me be clear on this—contrary to popular belief, a gathering of two or three believers is not automatically a local church. There are other elements necessary for a gathering to be called a local church. There is leadership, sacraments and teaching among other things that make up a church. But that is another topic for another post (or likely several posts). The reason I point that out is that there is a stark reality facing us right now—some local churches will not make it through this pandemic. But THE Church will never die. THE Church is the eternal bride of Christ.
What we have a real opportunity to do right now is to take our cues from the persecuted church around the world. Anytime the local representation of the Church in a place has been forced underground, the church has grown. And when I say “grown”, I mean two-directional growth. There has been both a widening and a deepening. By “widening”, I mean numerical growth. People see the hope that Christians have in the midst of hard times. Everyone on the planet will experience hard times. But believers have joy and peace that goes beyond understanding and that is attractive. That does not mean the persecuted church says, “We are going to show non-believers that we aren’t controlled by fear, so we will continue meeting publicly and in large groups no matter what.” It means that they, in wisdom, shrink in size, but still remain faithful to encourage one another and strengthen each other daily (as opposed to only on Sunday morning and a small group gathering once a week) by being in vulnerable and deep relationships with one another.
That is what I mean by “deepening”. In persecution, the church strips everything away and only has their relationship with Jesus and their relationship with other believers. It does not mean that believers go to the extreme of saying “I don’t need anyone except Jesus”, because we were created to be in relationship. So they don’t neglect meeting. It just looks very different. Their relationships with one another go deeper and their relationship with Christ goes deeper.
Here is our opportunity, but we are in danger of missing it. Leadership in the persecuted church begins to rejoice when they see persecution coming. Not because it is fun, but because it produces great fruit. They begin to get excited to see how God will work. They know persecution will likely result in their arrest. But they love the other members of their local gatherings and look forward to seeing how God will use the persecution to mature them. God is giving us a time in this pandemic to do the exact same thing. All of our programs and camps and everything we trust in to do the hard work of evangelism and discipleship have had to stop. What we are left with are relationships with other believers and our relationship with Jesus. We have to go small. Many who were just faithful church-goers will be thrust into leadership. But we have a chance for real growth.
There is a danger in rushing to get things back to normal right now. Many churches are trying to find whatever way they can to get back to “normal gatherings”. They are slicing up sanctuaries, excluding swatches of their membership who are vulnerable and adding service after service just so they can get back to normal. What if, instead of that, we rejoiced in God’s provision in this? What if God is giving us a real opportunity to break free from the religiosity that has become commonplace in churches across the Western world and go deep in relationship with other believers and with Jesus? What if members of our gatherings are forced to be in small groups where they are challenged to grow in their understanding of and affection for Jesus, while also being pushed to be vulnerable and put to death the sin in their lives? I will end with Paul’s exhortation to the Roman church in Romans 5: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” I pray that we don’t take shortcuts right now, but that we patiently endure and see what God wants to do in this time.