Contributed by Kajle Radbourne, MDiv, Associate Director of Operations and Innovation and Academic Mentor, Northwest Baptist Seminary.
The Church Is Still The Church. In the past few weeks, it seems like everything about church ministry has changed. Churches have scrambled to provide alternatives for what for many of us was the central focus of our efforts and energy – the Sunday morning service. Everything has changed. And yet, nothing has. The Church is still the Church. This is not the only time in the history of the church that large, public gatherings have been impossible and it certainly will not be the last. And while this global pandemic and the social distancing measures enforced to stop its spread force a change in our methods as churches, they are no challenge to our nature as the church.
As we as churches adapt to a new reality, let us do so in full consideration of our understanding of the nature and mission of the church.
The Church is the people of God
If we gain one understanding of the nature of the Church from the New Testament it is the concept of a community. Think about the images used of the Church – images like the body of Christ or the building of God. These are necessarily collective images. And that is to say nothing of the “one another” commands. It is no secret that forming and practicing community is challenging in these times when we cannot physically gather in groups. There are creative solutions that some churches are engaging in to mitigate what we are losing.
But let us also embrace what that loss is forcing us to. Part of the idea of the church as a community and the image of the Church as a body is that every member is a contributing and productive part of the whole. It has been well established that the initial spread of the gospel beyond Jerusalem occurred because persecution scattered the congregation. It was not (primarily and initially) the leadership of the church that spread the gospel outside of Jerusalem. It was the others, the laity, many with no formal training but a changed life. In these days with empty auditoriums and sound systems that only reach as far as a weblink takes them, the reach of those on the stage is limited. Let us take a lesson from the virus we are fighting. There have been other, far more deadly viruses that have not shutdown entire countries. But their power was also their downfall. They made their presence known immediately and as a result, were easily isolated from spreading. What makes COVID such a challenge is those that have the virus and don’t know it. Spreading it around. It is the everyday carriers that bring the most effect.
A decade ago in their book The Trellis and the Vine, Colin Marshal and Tony Paine presciently painted a picture of our current reality. With stunning accuracy they present the exact scenario our churches are facing with a ban on public gatherings and ask, “How would your congregation of 120 members continue to function – with no regular church gatherings of any kind, and no home groups?” The author’s answer to the question was that it would be necessary to equip and empower disciple-makers to lead groups and disciple others, creating a cascading series of believers leading and discipling, reaching out to those around them. It is an astonishing and compelling picture. Most powerfully they conclude by asking “After 18 months, when the ban was lifted and you were able to recommence Sunday gatherings and all the rest of the meetings and activities of church life, what would you do differently?” The implied answer is that the new reality would look a lot more like the pandemic response than the old reality.
The Church is on the mission of God
The Church is the physical manifestation on Earth of the continuing mission of Jesus. In the introduction to Acts, Luke connects it to his gospel saying, “And you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea any and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).” From the very beginning mission was baked into the nature of the church. The call to be a Jesus’ witness is not just to His redemptive work and resurrection, but to His Kingdom. As N.T. Wright recently said, “The church … is to be in the new creation what the Tabernacle and the Temple were before: small working models of new creation.” This is call for the church lives out what it means to love God and love your neighbour. Social distancing presents both an enormous challenge and an enormous opportunity in this regard.
The challenge is that the mission of the church is fundamentally embodied and incarnational. Churches must find ways to be involved in the lives of others even if they cannot be in their vicinity. But the opportunity is there is enormous need and openness for the church to demonstrate hope and love for our neighbours.
This is a mission in which the Sunday gathering has historically been an important force, but it is also a mission that goes far beyond what Sunday can do alone … and always has. Whether or not we try to duplicate what we used to do on Sunday through some other means, this mission remains central to our calling as churches.We can and must find other ways to equip and mobilize our congregations for it.
The Church is for the glory of God
The Hebrew word “glory” (kavod) means “weight” or “importance.” There is nothing like a global pandemic to show what carries weight in our lives.
Some have taken that quite literally, weighing down their vehicles with enough toilet paper to last an entire generation. But even in the slightly subtler cases, what we value has been both questioned and revealed by our situation.
Many things that used to be important to us, occupying our time and mental energy, have simply stopped. But here the Church has a unique opportunity to give glory to God, not only in worship but also in life.
How we respond shows what holds weight in our life. Will fear control us? Or greed? Will our thoughts and actions be driven by protectionism? Selfishness? Despair?
Or, will we be driven by the Good News that there is a Good Shepherd made King. Can we be small working models of new creation, a sign to the world that God is God and Jesus is Lord who died and rose again proving that nothing can defeat Him or separate us from His love. As we move toward Easter may that empower us to be the people of God, on the mission of God, for the glory of God.