The Church has not been closed; it is public worship that has been suspended.
I am reminded of one of my favorite stories about Dr. Halverson, the pastor of a large Presbyterian church in D.C.
One of the students asked, “Dr. Halverson, where is your church?” This seemed like a perfectly reasonable question to me, but Dr. Halverson looked quite perplexed and hesitated to answer. Then he glanced at his watch.
“Well, it’s three o’clock in Washington, D.C. The church I pastor is all over the city. It’s driving buses, serving meals in restaurants, having discussions in the Pentagon, deliberating in the Congress.” He knew exactly where his church was, and he went on and on with his lengthy listing.
Then he added, “Periodically, we get together at a building on Fourth Street, but we don’t spend much time there. We’re mostly in the city.”
A bomb went off in my head. All of my out-of-joint ideas about the church suddenly snapped into place. The church is people!Jerry Cook, The Monday Morning Church, Howard Publishing Company, 2006, p. 12-13.
Though I do not have a practical solution to the issue of reopening, I want to challenge the church to consider how it needs to approach this next phase with a Biblical mindset not a consumeristic one.
Recently I came across the recommendations that churches should restart public worship with these protocols: staggered seating 6 feet apart and temperature scans as people come in while limiting capacity to 50 people. The politician recommending these measures then said, “The sick and vulnerable should not be allowed in church.”
Immediately, I was struck by how anathema that is to specifically why Jesus came into this world: “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners'” Mark 2:17.
The sick and vulnerable should not be excluded from public worship–again I do not have a practical solution to this problem–but I am perturbed by this attitude that public worship should be “for me” while we exclude others. As the Christ Hymn reminds us, we should look “not to our own interests but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4). Even in public worship attendance, are you going for your sake or for the sake of the person sitting next to you?
Take for example the suggestion that worship be limited to 50 people. How is a church supposed to monitor that? Suppose you are number 47 in the parking lot are you going to out sprint ahead of that young family who is struggling to get their kid into the stroller? Suddenly church is only available for those who are on time and have their acts together. This, too, seems counter to Christ’s command that: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16).
Perhaps you would recommend that people could register online. Therefore, it excludes the marginalized who would not have internet access or those who are disorganized, depressed, and the ones so busy trying to keep their family afloat they cannot “register” to go to church. Jesus, however, did not wait for people to register online to be one of his disciples–He inserted Himself into their lives; He entered their homes: “When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.'” Jesus tells Zacchaeus that He is coming over to Zacchaeus’ home because His mission was a rescue mission: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” Luke 19:10).
Also I heard of one church that is assigning numbers to members alphabetically so that they can attend when it is their turn. While that is very effective for people on the list, what about the one not on a list? In fact, Jesus had a whole parable about rejoicing over that one: “Then Jesus told them this parable: 4“What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the pasture and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders,6comes home, and calls together his friends and neighbors to tell them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep!’ 7In the same way, I tell you that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who do not need to repent.” So, as you prepare for worship, how can you make sure to leave room for the one who is missing?
There are two streams emerging in this drive for public worship. One is the desire for the community to gather again. It is a living out of the word “ecclesia.” This is the greek word used to describe the church and means: “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place.” It is the bringing out into the public square what is being done in our personal homes. It is God calling us to publicly demonstrate what He is doing personally in our hearts. It is a longing for our private lives to engage with others in praise of God.
The longing and drive we feel for this is good. And this season of shutdown should be a season of lament. We are sad that we cannot get together. Lament is good because it shows what our hearts desire: we need to publicly demonstrate our faith. However, this desire is in response to what we are doing on our own terms, in our own homes, in our private worship. This longing is good, and this desire needs to be cultivated. Cultivating this attitude can forestall public worship, however, through intentional private worship and relational connection with one’s neighbors.
The other drive–and the main one in our American church–is the selling of religious commodities. Like Best Buy needing to reopen, the church has been so heavily built upon the production of Sunday worship that the shutdown has stalled our religious economy. This desire for public worship is because we have an anemic understanding of private worship and an individualistic nature of worship being done amidst a crowd; We want the Church to do it for us so we can spectate.
In speaking to a fellow church planter, I appreciated his attitude when he said, “We want to be the third to last church to reopen in our city.” His intentional and thoughtful delay will place the emphasis upon a continued lament for the loss of community. His philosophy of ministry has an emphasis upon community groups, so this phased approach to reopening will allow him to place the focus back upon the gathering of people in their homes.
This season hopefully will cause us to consider why do we publicly worship in the first place? How can we be the Ecclesia by bringing into the public square what God is doing in our private hearts?
As your church considers restarting public worship, I would challenge you to make sure you consider how can you include the sick and vulnerable into the community? How can the last and lost be first and found?