CHURCH IN THE AGE OF COVID
There’s an interesting story concerning the early years of the Billy Graham crusades. The renowned evangelist did have critics of course, and one of them declared that his type of “fire and brimstone” preaching would set the church back 200 years. Later, at a news conference, a reporter asked Graham if he thought that he was setting the church back 200 years, to which Billy Graham replied, “Actually, I am trying to set the Church back 2000 years!”
I’m sure what Billy Graham meant by that ingenious answer was that the church needs to recapture what it had in the beginning, that which made it the irresistible, irrepressible force that it was as it conquered the Mediterranean world of the first century. The Book of Acts attests to the fact that the Church in Jerusalem was “great,” as it experienced great power, great grace and a great reverence (Acts 4:33, 5:11).
The modern church it seems is always trying to figure out how to reclaim any of that greatness. As someone said, the early church unleashed on Jerusalem a flood of love while the modern-day church unleashes a flood of resolutions. The greatness and the power and the grace is going to be found at the source, where it all began and from where it is to continue to this day (Acts 1:8).
In our day, when there is so much confusion and controversy about the church, and now so much uncertainty, given the impact a worldwide pandemic has had on the church, it may be time for us just to get back to some basics concerning the church. What is the Church? Who is the Church? Why is the Church? Where is the Church?
What exactly does the word mean? Most commonly, we identify the term with the Greek word ecclesia used in the New Testament, although technically our word church does not originate from ecclesia, but rather from kuriakon, which means “belonging to the Lord.”
The Greek word ecclesia, is a noun derived from the preposition ek (out) and the verb kaleo (to call). Hence, the most basic idea of the word ecclesia refers to "called-out ones." In classical Greek, it was understood to refer to any called out (and therefore, assembled) body of people.
The New Testament retooling of the concept of ecclesia always referred to the church as being a body of people and never to a building where the body met. Recognizing this important distinction allows us now to consider what is happening to the church in this age of COVID-19.
We all know that we are experiencing an unprecedented time in our country and in the church. The pandemic that has spread worldwide due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has disrupted virtually everyone’s lifestyle and livelihood. Infections have affected countries, cities, communities, businesses, groups, teams, families, and, of course, the church.
Christians especially have had mixed reactions to the various lockdowns that have limited involvement in that which is an essential component to our lifestyle – attending regular church services and participating in ongoing ministry activities. For the many churches that were equipped to do so, the alternative was to provide online opportunities of connecting with your church. This “virtual” experience was initially met with skepticism, reluctance, and a sense of temporal support, but then, after lockdowns dragged on, it became embraced and adopted.
Now, as we face the prospect of lockdowns ending and the freedom to meet once again, church leaders are alarmed at how attendance may be significantly altered due to this rather abnormal experience. Will Christians come back to church? It seems almost ridiculous to pose such a question, given the spiritual reality that a “churchless” Christianity makes about as much sense as a Christless Christianity. Neither one will be Christianity.
Will Christians go back to Church?
Carmen Joy Imes explored this question in the blog Jesus Creed, “Church after COVID – Why Bother Going Back?” She writes:
It’s Sunday morning. I sit by the gas fireplace snuggled up in a warm blanket, relishing the quiet. Before long, the rest of the family will stir, and we’ll have a choice to make: Get ready to go to church? Livestream the service at home? Watch it later? Or skip it altogether? Some of these options have emerged in 2020, thanks to the global pandemic. After 6 months of worship at home with church on Zoom or YouTube, rhythms that used to be automatic are no longer a given.
Imes points out what may be a real problem for getting people back into church. We may hate to admit it, but people have grown comfortable not attending physically, as well as allowing for other things to flood into the time vacuum now left open by no longer going to church. In an article discussing the “Five Types of Church Members Who Will Not Return after the Quarantine,” Thom S. Rainer reports that many church leaders indicate that somewhere between twenty to thirty percent of church members will not return to church.
This is indeed alarming. And it is not just that people may not be returning to church once in-person gatherings are allowable again, they are not tuning in to the online opportunities as much as before as well. During the early days of the coronavirus lockdowns, online attendance was vibrant and vital, but as time went by, the surge started to slump. Surveys increasingly revealed that many churchgoers were no longer watching online services. This could be the result of any number of things, but the most distressing would be that it is an indication that people are becoming increasingly detached from what was formerly a spiritual discipline. And worse, that they are no longer even concerned about that discipline!
We are, after all, creatures of habit. We form good habits and we also form bad ones. In terms of certain spiritual disciplines, reading the Bible daily is a good habit. Praying consistently is a good habit. Going to church regularly is a good habit. And now, at least with respect to the regularity of going to church, that habit has been significantly interrupted. An old friend of mine once told me that once you pick up the Bible, it’s hard to put down, but once you put it down, it’s hard to pick up. I see something similar happening with church. Once you start going to church regularly, it’s hard to stop going, but once you stop going it’s hard to start going again.
Right now, due to the COVID lockdowns, as well as the fear that has ensued, many Christians are in a rut and don’t seem to be very intentional about getting out of it. But we have to! We must! Never forget the only difference between a rut and a grave is length!
What do we do Next?
In surveying the current landscape regarding the church, I have formulated two thoughts. The first is that, for many pastors and ministries, it will have to be a “re-boot” process that rivals almost starting over again. It will be the equivalent of a church-plant.
The other impression I have is that never before in history has one group of Christians had such a dynamic affinity with another group of Christians as now. And by that I mean twenty-first century Christians with first century Christians. Think about it. The mirrored dynamics are stunning:
The church of the first century existed in a “pre-Christian” environment and we live in a “post-Christian” environment.
The early church had to deal with a hostile government and the church today has to deal with a government that is increasingly hostile.
The first century church endured censorship and persecution and the church today faces similar scorn from a culture that has embraced “political correctness.”
The church in the first century was driven into the catacombs and now, with pandemic-driven edicts by politicians, the church has been locked down and forbidden to meet openly.
The similarities are intriguing, but don’t forget, the comparison also holds out much hope for us, if we endure and employ strategies and tactics from those early Christians. Billy Graham was right, getting back to what made the church great 2000 years ago, will continue to ensure the church’s greatness today!
That first century church grew, but its emphasis was on spiritual health and holiness. We spend a lot of time and effort in trying to grow the church, yet we need to focus upon the health of the church. There are far too many churches today that are not very healthy, and the subtilty is that they may not know it. Rick Warren is right when he suggested that the key issues for churches in the twenty-first century will be church health and not church growth. In fact, he admits that this distinction is the motivation that drove him (pun intended) to write his best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Church.
Years ago, Gene Getz reminds us that “The church exists to carry out two functions – evangelism (to make disciples) and edification (to teach them). These two functions in turn answer two questions: First, Why does the church exist in the world? and second, Why does the church exist as a gathered community?”
The Church R Us!
As Christians we are the church. As the church we are to evangelize and edify. Evangelization is our efforts to reach out and edification is our commitment to grow up. Evangelization is our engagement with the world around us, and edification is our encouragement of one another. And that engagement or that encouragement can occur at any time, scheduled or not. That is Jesus’ calling on us, as He builds His church.
IF you are a Christian, then you ARE part of His Church. There’s no choice about it. That’s why Christians who say they receive Christ but reject the Church have no idea what their talking about. You cannot have One without the other!
I am mystified when I hear someone say, “I like Jesus, but I don’t do church!” Really? Jesus would think that strange. I hear foolish comments all the time, like “I can be a Christian without going to church.” Well, granted, going to church doesn’t make you a Christian, but becoming a Christian puts you into the church. The apostle Paul wrote, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…” (First Corinthians 12:13). All of us, with none of us excluded.
Let me repeat, you cannot have a churchless Christianity, any more than you can have a Christ-less Christianity.
Once we understand this dynamic, we will realize that ecclesia is not something we do, it is something we are. You can avoid responsibility for something you should do, but you cannot avoid responsibility for someone you are!
You can choose whether you want to be married and start a family or not.
You can have a choice about whether you want to hold down a job or not.
You can reject the responsibility of whether you are going to be a law-abiding citizen or not.
But you cannot reject the responsibility of being the church!
As a Christian, when it comes to church there is no “or not.”
As a Christian, you have been called by God out of and in to. It is an irrevocable calling that carries an unavoidable accountability. And that’s why Peter said, “…you are a chosen people, a royal priest-hood, a holy nation, God’s special possession…” (First Peter 2:9).
How do you avoid that? The answer is, you cannot.
Why Go to Church?
Now, after all this talk about being the church rather than just going to church, let’s talk about going to church. It’s obvious that going to our local churches and enjoying the community of fellow believers, worship, the preaching and teaching of the Word, and the various outlets of service, is not only traditional but theological as well.
Providing Scriptural directive, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews wrote, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25 NLT).
Just from this one passage alone we get the idea that being the assembly, we should not neglect to assemble, and that when we do so it is for the purpose of encouraging and exhorting one another and that this is important because of the day in which we live and the impending events of Scriptural prophecy which will occur.
There are forces at work which are unseen to us. We are in a spiritual war, and as an old military maxim states, there is strength in numbers. Jesus would have us function effectively as members of His body. Satan would oppose that and do all in his power to stop that.
Early church father, disciple of the apostle John, and bishop of Antioch, Ignatius, wrote to Christians at the end of the first century, "When ye frequently, and in numbers meet together, the powers of Satan are overthrown, and his mischief is neutralized by your like-mindedness in the faith." His admonition was not only appropriate for the first century, but it is especially so in the twenty-first century.
Why You miss going to Church!
Drawing some conclusions about church leads me to track along two lines. First, to acknowledge again that church is something we are, more than someplace we go. But, secondly, it is someplace we go. And it is along these lines that many Christians are having some difficulties as it relates to COVID and the unparalleled lockdowns and inability to meet in person.
Why is that? Why are we confused and struggling? I think it is because we are sensing the frustration of not being able to experience and therefore fulfill the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
Locked in and shut away does not hinder loving God one bit, but it does prohibit the in-person, actual ministry to and loving of our neighbor. And, do not forget, the two commandments of the Great Commandment are one commandment. You cannot fulfill one without doing the other!
Carmen Joy Imes was very much on point when she wrote:
My absence (from church) diminishes what Christ can accomplish in and through the church, while my presence is a tangible means of participation in the kingdom. Ultimately, it’s not about “what I get out of it.” The church cannot fully accomplish her purposes in the world when I withhold my presence. Physical participation matters.
If then I am right about this, we are actually being “forced” (due to the COVID restrictions) to NOT being able to fulfill the Great Commandment! Think about that for a moment. In reality, we are becoming irrelevant. De Facto the church is being maneuvered to not be a factor!
Now, of course, some of this loving our neighbor and being in fellowship can be accomplished online. But at some point, it has to be in-person, up-close and personal. That’s how Christianity thrives. That’s the whole idea of the Incarnation, is it not? Can you imagine if God decided to enact a virtual incarnation? No! Listen to John – “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life” (First John 1:1).
Church is like that. It has to be heard, seen, looked upon, handled! Do not confuse your spiritual family with a virtual family. They will never be the same. This is why no in-person gatherings are not normal with respect to the church. Church means “assembly.” Only gathering together gives us the sights and sounds, touch and taste, faith and feeling that defines the church and has defined the church for over twenty centuries.
I’m convinced that one of the emotions that Christians are experiencing due to the forced cloistering of COVID is the absence of ambience. Ambience means the feeling and mood of a place. It relates to the character and atmosphere of your surroundings. Even the Christians in Rome in the early centuries of the church, forced into the catacombs, had ambience down there! Today, sitting around in our bathrobes and sipping coffee as we listen to some online liturgy, just doesn’t quite have the same ambience.
Have you ever watched a cooking show on Television? While you can see it and hear it, TV has not invented a way for you to smell it or taste it. Technology can only do so much. Something is lacking. And we all know it. Think of what we are allowing to happen to our kids, to our youth. It’s going to be even harder on them to embrace ecclesia again. We’ve got to get back to church. We’ve got to get back to being the church. We’ve got to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8)!
I remember hearing the story of a pastor in the mid-west who visited a disgruntled church member who had stopped coming to church services. It was a cold evening and the older man had a nice fire going in the fire place. As the young pastor sat next to him and in front of the fireplace, neither spoke much, they just stared into the fire burning brightly in the fireplace.
Finally, the pastor got up, walked over to the fireplace, took the fireplace tongs and gently picked out a small burning piece of wood. He then set that small, glowing piece of wood on the hearth away from the main fire and sat back down. They continued to watch, and slowly but surely, the glow of that little piece of wood began to smolder and grow dim, lose its glow, turn grey and become cold. The pastor looked at his old friend, said good night, and left.
The next Sunday, the old man was back in church.
We need each other. We need the glow. We need the heat. We need the flame. We need the fire!
That’s why we go to church. That’s why we are the church. That’s why the church matters!
(The above article is adapted from a chapter in an upcoming book by Joe LoMusio, God At Center.)
Carmen Joy Imes, “Church after COVID – Why Bother Going Back?” Jesus Creed, November 1, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2020/september/church-after-covid-why-bother-going-back.html.  Thom S. Rainer, “Five Types of Church Members Who Will Not Return after the Quarantine,” ChurchAnswers.com, August 9, 2020. (https://churchanswers.com/blog/author/thomrainer/). Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 17. Gene A. Getz, Sharpening the Focus of the Church (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1974), 232. As quoted in A Commentary, Critical, Practical, and Explanatory on the Old and New Testaments by Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown  (see also https://biblehub.com/commentaries/jfb/hebrews/10.htm.)  Imes, “Church after COVID, 2.
Copyright © Joe LoMusio, 2020