by David Christensen
Some pastors are clamoring that Christians should stand up for our constitutional rights because the state has shut down our churches. One pastor in Maine defied the orders of the state to gather his church in corporate worship. He said, “I believe that we have been commanded by Jesus to gather together. The great commission will not be put on hold” (Bangor Daily News, 5/3/2020). However, most pastors choose to comply with the state regulations not out of fear but out of love for their communities. The precautions seem reasonable, not discriminatory. Whether in defiance or compliance, we will regather in our churches sooner or later. What should we consider as we regather in corporate worship?
Corporate worship is important, of course, and we miss it. However, the state has not shut down the church. The church can never be shut down by any government. Many have tried. All have failed. The church is neither the servant nor the master of the state. We belong to Christ, and our citizenship is in heaven, not earth (Phil. 3:20). As disciples, we relinquished our rights here to follow Jesus no matter what happens (Mt. 16:24-26). If the state prohibits us from preaching the gospel, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The great commission is not about gathering. It is about going. We do not go to church. We are the church wherever we go (Mt. 28:17-20).

The trappings of church are not the church. A biblical ecclesiology reminds us that the church is not buildings. The church is not defined by the American traditions and programs that we cherish. I have visited believers in the underground church where small handfuls meet to study the Bible in secret. The underground church is more alive and far healthier despite the limitations placed on them by the state than many large American churches I have visited. The state may shut down the trappings of church, but, perhaps, God intends that for good so that we might focus on His values, not our comforts.

We are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, but we are to consider how we can stimulate one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24-25). The author of Hebrews was not referring to gathering in large buildings dedicated to corporate worship. The early church did not own church buildings. They worshiped in homes, in small businesses, in courtyards, and on riverbanks. The command is not about assembling in a religious sanctuary or else much of Christianity throughout history and around the globe has disobeyed this command. Pastors are to equip believers to serve one another in their personal relationships for the growth of the church in love and good works (Eph. 4:11-16).

We have been gathering all over this country during the shutdown in small groups, online, with family units, in our homes, and via technology. Pastors are free to perform many essential services. The state has not prohibited us from pastoral counseling, evangelism, discipleship, preaching, and teaching. Churches have been free to distribute food and meet other community needs. Christians have been helping people with groceries, serving in food banks, and on the frontlines in places like hospitals and grocery stores. This is the church, alive and well!
The Good Shepherd calls us to shepherd His flocks. Christ entrusts us with the feeding and care of His people. I think all of us as pastors seek to feed the people well. We miss the weekly preaching ministry because it is central to our responsibilities as shepherds. Yes. We can use technology to preach and teach our people, but it is not the same as being together. The Sunday sermon is still the most efficient and effective way to feed the sheep. However, as we seek to return to gathered instruction, we should consider some other aspects of pastoring the flock.

Ezekiel challenges us to feed the flock but warns us to care for their needs as well (Ezek. 34:1-10). He indicts the false shepherds for not caring for the flock, and we would do well to consider his warnings. He wrote: “those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought the lost” (34:4). Ezekiel’s prophetic metaphor of shepherding reminds us that shepherds must do more than preach. We must care for the broken and protect the weak, the vulnerable, and the hurting in our churches, not just spiritually but physically and emotionally as well.

God’s prophetic warning should give us pause in the rush to reopen our church buildings. There are cases of people contracting COVID-19, which can be traced to church gatherings, and some have died. Our situation in Maine is mild compared to other parts of the country, but, even here, I know people who have been sick with the virus. Pastors in some parts of the country face widespread sickness and death in their churches and communities. One pastor in the Bronx has faced 13 deaths in just his own church during this epidemic (Bailey, The Washington Post, 5/5/2020). We mourn with those who face such suffering and death as we pray for the Lord to give them strength in their pastoral ministries.

Ryan Burge wrote an interesting article in Christianity Todayentitled “Churches Should Not be the First to Reopen” (April 23, 2020). Many church attendees fall into the high-risk category and so are vulnerable to the virus. He wrote, “The demographics of many U.S. congregations make sanctuaries a risky place for gathering to resume.” Maine is still the oldest state in the country. Our churches are full of older people who are vulnerable, but they are not alone. We have people who are immune-compromised, have high blood pressure, cardiac problems, and diabetes. All of these and many other factors make gathering in church a concern. As pastors, we need to consider how we will protect these vulnerable people as we regather in worship.

This pandemic is an opportunity to show Christ’s love to our communities by how we care for the needs of people. It isn’t about our right to open the church doors. It is about our responsibility to love others. We limit our liberty out of love for people, and we reach out in faith to care for people. The church has always faced epidemics with faith and courage. Justinian’s Plague (542-546), the Bubonic Plague (1347-1351), and the Spanish Flu (1918-1919) were times when the church shined her light brightly in a dark world. The early church grew by caring for the sick and broken, and so can we. As we open our churches, will we demonstrate Christ’s love for others, or will we rush to get back to “doing” church as usual?
Never in my life have I seen a time when we canceled church services for multiple months! This crisis poses a unique challenge for the church as we move forward. The likelihood is high that the virus will be with us as we regather in our church buildings for corporate worship. The H1N1 virus, nicknamed the Spanish Flu although there is no evidence it came from Spain, ravaged the world in three waves during 1918-1919. The second wave in the fall of 1918 was the most lethal in America. We should anticipate that we will face ongoing challenges as we reopen our churches. COVID-19 will change how we carry out our ministries during the next year.

In the immediate future, we can use drive-in services in the church parking lot to gather our people. Maine regulations allow this format for worship. One pastor simply put the audio speakers in the windows overlooking the parking lot and held church with people in their cars. Others are using FM transmitters so that people can tune their radios to listen. The state of Maine plans to allow gatherings in groups of less than 50 beginning in June. Churches can run multiple services with less than 50 in attendance as they worship together, making sure to allow some space for visitors at each service.

We will need to restore confidence that we can gather safely. Church needs to be a safe place for vulnerable people. Yes, we must preach about faith in a sovereign God who cares for us in our needs, but people need to trust the church leadership too. New regimens of cleaning and disinfecting must be put into place, and we may want to consider investing in periodic professional cleaning to disinfect our buildings regularly. Social distancing practices will continue for now, and we will need to adjust our brotherly and sisterly greetings. Church suppers may need some extra protocols to make people feel comfortable. Small groups (home groups) may need to change since some people may not want to host outsiders in their homes. One solution is to set up a couple of rooms in the church building which meet social distancing requirements and are disinfected regularly. Bible studies could meet in these rooms instead of private homes.

We will need to adjust how we practice communion during this time. The “common cup” will undoubtedly disappear. We will no longer be able to pass the bread and the cup safely down the aisles. One solution is to use individually wrapped communion packets that are placed in the pews or seats. Another solution is to set up tables with bread and cup sets for family units. The head of each family takes a single set back to serve their families in their seats. Elders in the church could serve communion to small groups of believers scattered around the room.

Churches must recover financially. The impact on many churches is significant. Churches that have little online giving are faced with the loss of offerings each Sunday. It will take time to recover from that loss. Many are now unemployed or underemployed. It will take time for people to recover financially, so giving will suffer. Christians living paycheck to paycheck will find the recovery slow and painful. Churches that functioned with little margin or had incurred significant debt will face the task of digging out from the avalanche of bills. We may discover that some large campus churches with high overhead and deep debt may end their ministries. All of these challenges will affect church budgets for at least the next year.

As our churches emerge from this crisis, how will we respond? Crises reveal the values of a church. Will we view our culture through a socio-political lens, spending our resources fighting the culture wars and attacking the infidels in our society? What about the entertainment-oriented churches? Consumer Christianity may decline as people decide that, for now, it isn’t worth it to attend the big box, music and light shows that some churches have developed to attract crowds. Are we anxious to return to the status quo – get back as quickly as possible to doing church like we always did? The world is changing rapidly, and status quo churches may become anachronistic in the eyes of people in our communities.

We need to become missionary minded churches. COVID-19 is a great opportunity to reach our communities for Christ. People are fearful and uncertain. The virus has disrupted the comfortable and complacent lives that many have enjoyed. They will be open to hearing the good news we can offer in Christ if we look for new ways to engage them. My daughter’s church in Massachusetts worked with hospitals in their area to eliminate the medical debt of people in their community. They wanted people to see the extravagant love of Christ in practical ways! Now that is a missional attitude!

As we regather in our churches, will we look for new ways to show the love of Christ to our communities or settle for a return to normalcy?