Updated: Jun 23, 2020
Yesterday was amazing!
Thousands of churches around the country celebrated our most important holy day in the safety of their own homes, surrounded by family, watching a video of Easter services.
The last five Sundays have been an incredible experience!
My social media feeds have been filled with livestreamed sermons, sacred song sets, pastoral devotionals, and creative Christian expressions of worship to Christ. I know of many churches who have now implemented online giving, livestreamed sermons, and virtual small groups for the first time in their existence due to necessity of the times. We’ve discovered that the Gospel has a new conduit. One that has not yet been fully realized. This is all extremely exciting.
Around the world we saw the church answer the call given by government officials, the scientific community, and the global media to #StayHome. With enthusiasm and a genuine sense of collaboration, Christian leaders asked their congregants to stay at home, practice social distancing, and watch their church services online. In Kentucky, according to Gov. Andy Beshear, 99.89% of all churches and all synagogues and all mosques willingly chose to do this. The Coronavirus is a challenge for all of us. And, as a simple pastor of a midsize church, I’d like to say that the Christian community is handling this challenge with grace, cooperation, and love.
The last five Sundays have certainly been interesting!
Next Sunday, online church will also be great!
The following Sunday, online church will be – fine.
There’s a problem coming soon.
I, for one, am NOT a rebel-rouser. I’m a proud American, a good citizen, and an ardent supporter of law and order. I was thrilled to watch the entire community come together in a spirit of collaboration and mutual sacrifice during a time like this. I talk about it here. You can read my thoughts on the necessity of temporary church closures here.
And though, as a community leader, I am thankful to have participated in the collaborative effort to “flatten the curve”, I am also concerned that our ancient theology could be negatively affected, and our people somewhat confused.
Here’s what the rest of the world will never understand about the church. The church is not the church unless it actually assembles. Yes, Christians throughout history have temporally suspended gathering together in extreme cases of epidemic, open war, or personal illness. Yet, she has quickly returned to public gatherings and corporate worship – because that is what the church does. That is what the church is. The church is an assembly.
BUILDINGS ARE NOT REQUIRED; ASSEMBLY IS REQUIRED
Over the last few weeks my mind has attempted to reconcile two seemingly contradictory thoughts. Undoubtedly, these are the same two thoughts with which every Christian pastor in the world has been wrestling.
The church ought be willing to lovingly sacrifice its’ freedom in order to protect those who are weakest among us.
The church is not the church unless it assembles for worship, fellowship, discipleship, evangelism, & ministry.
Though some of these things can be temporarily accomplished in solitude, they were never designed by Christ and His Apostles to be done so indefinitely. Online church IS NOT a permanent solution.
The Church is Required to Assemble
And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25
The context of this passage is very important. The book of Hebrews was written to second-generation, Hebrew Christians who were becoming disenfranchised with this “start-up” religion that would one day take the name of Christianity. In comparison to the Judaism of their day, Christianity was NOT very attractive. The writer of Hebrews spends much time attempting to convince the reader that everything they have in Christ is better than anything religion or secularism could offer.
This wasn’t easy to believe because these Christians were struggling with suffering (Hebrews 10:32), they were publicly mocked and shamed as a people group (10:33), and they were subjected to heavy taxation, thievery, and imprisonment (10:34) for the crime of being Christian and worshiping as Christians. Nonetheless, they were encouraged to hold fast without wavering (10:23), not to insult the Spirit of Grace (10:29), or to backslide to the point of destruction (10:39). In this context they were commanded to NOT FORSAKE THE ASSEMBLING OF OURSELVES TOGETHER.
The Church Assembled every Sunday according to Scripture
Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. Acts 20:7
On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come. I Corinthians 16:2
Regardless of occupation, social status, gender, culture, persecution, danger, plague, or disease – the church continued to assemble for communion, baptism, study, prayer, fellowship, meals, ministry, and general edification.
The Early Church Assembled every Sunday according to History
“If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death… how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher?” – Ignatius of Antioch in The Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians
“Wherefore it has been handed down to us also that on each (Lord’s Day) we should come together and it has been commanded to us to carry out what has been told us.” – Eusebius of Caesarea in A Commentary on Psalm 91-92
The writings of the early church fathers speaking of Sunday gatherings throughout the darkest days of the early church are abundant in measure. They assembled continually because that is what the church does.
DO NOT misunderstand my message. I am NOT calling for civil disobedience at this point. I HAVE shut the doors of our church. I have no solidified plan to reopen.
Here is my message.
Though some of our practices can temporarily been accomplished in solitude and separated from the Christian community, they were never designed by Christ and His Apostles to be done so indefinitely.
A Christian worship service is a sum of its’ parts. Corporate prayer, the Lord’s communion, preaching of the Bible, baptism, fellowship, singing in community, sharing burdens, financial giving, and explaining the gospel are all necessary elements in our faith tradition. If you begin taking away certain parts, you may have elements of church, but you do not have church.
We say, and rightly so, that the people are the church.
Yet, we are only the church so long as we are practicing the ancient rituals established by Christ and the Apostles. This is foundational to our ecclesiology. This is where church discipline and excommunication have played into the church’s 2,000-year narrative history. When an individual Christian ceases to participate in the assembly he remains a Christian but is no longer part of the church.
So then, though churches across the nation have been enthusiastically willing to temporarily suspend their worship services in order to “flatten the curve” and give the experts a chance to prove their theory, society won’t be able to hold back the true church indefinitely. The church will meet – physically – in person.
The experts mustn’t fool themselves. There isn’t a scenario where this kind of ecclesiastical hiatus will be allowed to happen seasonally. The church will meet.
Christians are a persistent people.
You may take their buildings, you may take their tax-exempt status, and may even take their very lives. But historically, you’ll see, the church will meet.
Why? Because assembly is a key element of the faith. And…
THE CHURCH IS NOT A CONTENT DISTRIBUTION COMPANY.
Yes, I hope that the church learns more about social media throughout this COVID-19 epidemic. Yes, I hope our online presence is increased and the gospel can be shared via the world-wide-web as never before.
But true ecclesiastical work cannot be done solely online. This is what our governing leaders, media personalities, and tech billionaires simply don’t understand.
Incarnational ministry is essential.
In our attempts to be good citizens and take a positive approach to this current dilemma, wemay have inadvertently hurt the cause of Christ. Five to six weeks ago I, along with many pastors, began touting the benefits of online services without honestly discussing its’ obvious drawbacks. We excitedly spoke of “Church in your pajamas” and “Virtual Sermons” without reminding ourselves and or congregations that these things MUST be temporary.
I wonder, how difficult will it be to retrain new Christians and recent disciples of Jesus after hearing that virtual, online church is everything that they’ll ever need? We know this isn’t true, but unconsciously we may have delivered that message.
We will have to come out of this crisis ready to teach the essential nature of incarnational ministry.
Just as a human being can temporarily survive without food. So can the church temporarily survive without assembling together, IN PHYSICAL FORM.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
Just as the incarnation of the Son of God allowed us to physically be with Jesus Christ, talk with Jesus Christ, and look into the eyes of Jesus Christ; so ought the church practice incarnational ministry. We must, eventually, be physically ministering to our congregations.
Online church is a temporary bandage. It’ll work in the short term. But we will need to return to incarnation ministry – sooner rather than later.
So then, when do we assemble again?
WHEN? AND, WHO DECIDES?
I know! This is the million-dollar-question. It’s the same one asked at the daily White House briefing. I’m sure they’ve begun to feel like parents on a long road trip, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
I genuinely feel badly for these federal and local government officials.
It’s not easy to answer that question when the GPS isn’t working and nobody really knows where we are on this journey. Even our best experts seem to be guessing, at best.
And that’s totally okay, I suppose. This is uncharted territory for all of us.
Hey, everyone is doing the best they can. I applaud the efforts of the Trump administration. I cheer on Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Brix. Even our Governor has attempted to do his best. Each of these dear people are working like crazy, doing everything they know how to do to bring the American people to a place of health, peace, and an inner sense of security.
Yet, I cringe every time a reporter asks, “What kind of timetable are we looking at here?”
Because I know, like you do, that they just don’t have a plan.
A few weeks became an extra 15 days. 15 days became 30 days to slow the spread. We’ve also heard at these briefings, “we hope” “maybe” “perhaps” “sooner than we all might think” “possibly June” “no later than end of summer” “we need to be prepared for a second wave this fall”.
I find it extremely difficult to say this. But…
Even those who “know what’s going on”, don’t seem to know what’s going on.
Josh, what’s your point?
The church of Christ is currently waiting on the political leadership of our society to let us know when it is “safe” to assemble once more. The political leadership is currently waiting on the medical experts of our society to let us know when it is “safe” to assemble once more. The medical experts continue to wait upon the daily data that will inform their ultimate decision.
I guess I have a few questions.
At what point does the church respectfully disregard government mandate and start assembling once more?
I’d like each Christian reader to be intellectually honest with me at this point.
If the government said we aren’t to reopen until September 1st, would you be okay with that edict?
Why would you be okay with 6 months but not 2 years? At what point are you willing to humbly say “no” to temporal authority and act in civil disobedience like the great Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks? Ever?
“But, out of an abundance of caution…” I know, I know. I’ll be addressing that heavily used phrase in this Sunday’s online sermon at Southern Hills.
What if this is a seasonal virus and, out of an abundance of caution, we are asked to shut down the church for 3 months every spring? Or, perhaps, every spring and fall?
Christian reader. At what point would you ignore the government’s request and resume Sunday assembly?
Yes. Perhaps we lose a building and must meet secretly in homes. That’s okay, the church is not a building.
Theoretically, what will you do when the 10th person shows up for our new home church? Would you call the police? Would you ask them to leave?
I hope it’ll all be over soon. I hope we’ll never have to answer these questions. I trust that our government leaders, our scientific community, and our passionate media outlets all know exactly what they are doing and will lead us out of this global crisis very soon.
But…if they don’t?
Josh, 2 months or 2 years, why not trust the government to decide?
To be blunt, they have proven themselves untrustworthy. Too often our political leaders have demonstrated their loyalty to personal advancement, political party, and only then to their own constituency.
Here’s what I mean…
I predict that the Coronavirus will have a major shift this week from world-wide pandemic to partisan political issue.
Sure, some have attempted to make it political already, but not like we’re about to see this week.
I’m guessing there will be some Republican Governors, believing it too soon to open their state, will be pressured to open too quickly.
I’m guessing there will be some Democrat Governors, knowing that reopening is the right decision for their state, will be pressured to keep things closed.
All of this will happen…
1. in opposition OR support of Trump 2. with future political aspirations in mind 3. while the national media is invested in crisis 4. lastly – thinking of what’s best for my state
I know this is cynical, but am I wrong?
Eventually, Christian leaders will have to rise above the political posturing and do what they’ve done for 2,000 years. We will have to lead the flocks to which Christ Himself has made us overseers. We cannot permanently abdicate responsibility to temporal powers. We cannot fear the public shaming that will certainly come from the world’s media. We cannot tremble at the consequences of disappointing temporal powers when we know that we shall one day answer to a higher power. We are NOT at the moment of Christian persecution, yet we are naïve to think that day will never come.
And, if we are unable to answer these hypothetical questions in moments of relative peace, we certainly won’t stand for truth when true oppression actually arises. How we respond during this crisis will surely set an example for the generation following us.
In a time of great uncertainty, I do know a few things to be absolutely true.
God is in control and working a master plan.
He loves us even though we are undeserving.
And when it comes to a true Christian church…
Some assembly is required.
 I did not say that we are only Christians so long as we are practicing the ancient rituals. I do not believe that our salvation depends upon the performance of rituals. We are saved by grace through faith. I did not say that God likes us better when we perform these rituals. There is nothing we can do to merit the love of God or bring about His grace.
 I should probably use the singular personal pronoun rather than the plural for I cannot claim to know the inner workings of another church nor the heart of another pastor.