Early in the book of Acts, persecution broke out, Christians scattered, and the Gospel spread throughout the world. What was hard on the church was used for its expansion and the fulfillment of its mission: make disciples of all nations. On the other hand, a lot of church historians would point out that after the fourth century, as Christianity found itself in power instead of in weakness, something changed. Was Christianity meant to be part of the ruling class, tied to emperors and governors, or does it become watered down by such connections? What is the relationship between Christianity and persecution? What is the relationship between Christian growth and trials?
There is a lot that can be said in response to these questions. Instead of attempting a direct address, I’ll offer a few observations about how this COVID-19 stay at home situation has brought about seriousness and focus that the ease of the American life seemed to prevent.
THE CHURCH BODY
I’ll start with just my own church family. MABC has had a lot of interaction over this past three weeks. Our community groups are growing, our Men’s Bible Study has been meeting weekly instead of monthly, our women are meeting every other week instead of quarterly, and our worship service has received maybe ten times the normal number of views online that we normally receive.
Church family members are calling each other, texting me for other people’s numbers, and connecting in new and wonderful ways. Being away from the Body is making our people realize their need for the Body. The local church and how important it is has become existentially clear to our and many other churches. This is good. Actually, this is great. Membership in the local church matters because the people we are committed to and responsible for matter.
There’s more good coming out of the stay at home orders. We normally partake together in the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of each month. Today we missed that sacrament. It hurts. We feel the lack. But should we do communion remotely? Is that even possible? Well, it depends on how we understand the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and all that the Scriptures teach us about its purpose.
This stay at home order has forced pastors and elders to think carefully about the sacraments, probably in ways we never have before. It has forced us to consider the significance of being together for the purpose of “communion” and it has insisted that we ask questions like: do the elements used matter (I heard that some were suggesting using even chips and soda for this purpose, an awful idea!); do we really have to be physically present together for there to be communion; can non-pastors offer it to their families; how often is the Lord’s Supper even required?
These are good questions that help get to the heart of why Jesus gave us this glorious sacrament (or ordinance) in the first place. And notice how thinking about Jesus forces us to think about those who Jesus came for. This is good. No, this is great.
What about baptism? Similar questions are being asked about baptism as well. In extraordinary circumstances, does the mode of baptism matter? Does it have to be in front of the Body? What is the nature of baptism in times of crisis? These questions of a practical nature are unanswerable in strictly pragmatic terms. They are driving us to think theologically and biblically in careful and nuanced ways. This is good. No, this is great!
Another question being asked is, does remote service count as a real worship service? One podcast I listen to insisted that it cannot be, others are predicting this may become the norm. Regardless of where one lands (land on the former though, please), I am thrilled that we are asking these questions, because it will cause us to have a more robust theology of worship when we get through this. We are being forced to once again consider what is essential and what is not. How does the liturgy (formal or informal) change when doing the service remotely? The answer to this question can help us either find what’s extraneous in our services or indicate why gathering in person is just so imperative.
This process, this filtering, is extremely important for a variety of reasons.
- It will weed out man-made traditions we have added to God’s Word.
- It will deepen our appreciation for each aspect of what we do together as a local Body of believers.
- It will, I pray, help us to find greater unity with other local churches who are again majoring on the essentials too.
The practical benefit of the church struggling through this trial doesn’t fully answer the opening questions regarding the church’s identity. But it does seem to fit a pattern—when faced with adversity, the Spirit-filled, Christ-bought church grows in holiness and obedience.
Amen, Lord. Let it be so today as well.