“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”Hebrews 10:24-25
Tomorrow morning will be a first for me.
For the first time in my life — and certainly since becoming a pastor — the corporate body of Christ will be neglecting to meet together on the Lord’s Day. For a man who places the highest priority on corporate worship and fellowship with church family, this will be one of the most difficult days of my life.
I intend to be raw and unfiltered here, as I am using this post an outlet to process my thoughts and emotions.
First, I need to provide some context. I try to avoid looking at life strictly through modern, Western, “American” lenses because the church in this nation in no way reflects the church in other parts of the world. Following Jesus costs us little in America. We can go to church and be a “Christian” in America without really sacrificing any conveniences or giving up any comforts. I’m not trying to give a guilt trip. I’m just telling the truth.
Unfortunately, a consumer culture and a spirit of entertainment drives much — if not most — of evangelical America today. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the persecuted church around the world, where believers count the cost before following Jesus and are willing to give their own lives if necessary to meet together just to pray and study God’s word.
“Resist the devil, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brothers and sisters throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”1 Peter 5:9-10
Just consider this map from Voice of the Martyrs that helps put the persecuted church into perspective.
I guess what I am saying is that our brothers and sisters all over the world have been taking risks in the face of danger and walking in radical obedience for generations because they have embraced one very important principle of faith. No matter the cost … Jesus is worth it.
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.”Matthew 24:9
Now I get it. We still have religious liberty in America. I’m fully aware of that. I understand that at least for now, we still are able to peaceably assemble and freely worship — despite the fact we have used our freedom as a license to sin and grow spiritually apathetic.
So could the coronavirus shake up actually get our attention and help us learn to appreciate the blessing of corporate worship even more? Will we miss the personal presence and intimate fellowship of gospel community so much that our desire to meet grows even stronger?
Or will this season of social isolation, impersonal online streaming, and digital sharing actually become the new normal and feed into our sinful appetites of selfishness, laziness, and unwillingness to make commitments.
Only time will tell.
Second, I need to speak to this mantra going around that the church is not a building and that the body of Christ is not limited to our regular Sunday morning worship services. On the one hand, I completely agree with these sentiments, primarily because they are Biblical.
Of course the church — ekklesia — is not a building. The church is the blood bought, Spirit filled, born again people of God. Believers become the temple of God as individuals — so that wherever we go, God goes. The Holy Spirit indwells each believer.
I understand that this temporary quarantine will give families a chance to worship at home together. I hope they will. It gives believers a chance to be reminded of the personal presence of God, no matter where we are. That is certainly important.
I realize that the early church met house to house (still somewhat corporate) and also met corporately in the temple courts. It was both/and, not either/or [see Acts 2:46-47].
But I also see churches misapplying this idea of “the church is not a building” simply to justify shutting down the corporate gatherings and downplay the power of the corporate assembly of God’s people. Sure we can worship God anywhere and sure our families should be coming together to worship at home anyway and sure Jesus goes with us wherever we go.
But none of these truths are meant to be realized and practiced at the exclusion of corporate worship and Christian community. There is tremendous power in numbers. As a matter of fact, when Paul reminded the believers in Corinth, “you are God’s temple,” he used the plural pronoun for you. That means he was directly speaking to them about the corporate church and the gathering of God’s people!
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”1 Corinthians 3:16-17
There is power in the corporate church singing the gospel out loud as one voice together each Sunday!
There is power in the body of Christ gathering to hug and pray and praise and study the Word of God.
There is power in the body gathering to serve the community as the hands and feet of Jesus.
There is power in local churches submitting to the public preaching of the gospel under the leadership of their pastors, teachers and elders.
Not to mention, what about the marginalized, the single mothers, the widows, and others who depend week in and week out on their church family because they don’t have anyone else? What about them? What kind of message are we sending to them?
What about the recovering addict that needs the weekly accountability and encouragement from his church family? What about the new Christian who is struggling with falling back into the world and who needs to know her church is always there when temptation comes calling?
I understand that most of these scenarios and situations can be addressed without a meeting place or a regular weekly gathering, but then again, there is great risk that they won’t.
And honestly, as a pastor, I must admit that most church members already struggle to faithfully and sacrificially give to the Lord and support the ministry of the local church. What kind of effect will this season of isolation have on giving?
So as I preach God’s word to an empty house tomorrow morning, I will be wrestling with all of these thoughts and emotions.
I pray that this season is short, but if not, I pray that God will use it to create an even deeper desire in His people to never again forsake the assembly of meeting together. Sometimes we never know what we’ve got until it’s gone.
We are God’s temple — collectively and corporately. The body of Christ is meant to operate together — both in the Spirit but also in the flesh. We are both body and spirit. Jesus came to this world in the flesh to walk among us, touch and hug, heal and help, laugh and cry. God did not remain far away, separated from us, but the entire gospel message is that our God entered into our world and came near to us. That is why I am so torn right now, as I stare this spirit of fear and isolation in the face.
Just think about this one last thought before I go.
What if you were in these very same circumstances and you were told today that you had to be separated and isolated from your immediate family for the next two weeks? What if the government told you that you couldn’t see your spouse or children for the next 15 days? What if you were told you could only have limited interaction with your family through “distance communication” for the next 30 days?
What would stop you from getting back to your husband, wife, or children? What would keep you from doing everything in your power just to be together with them during this difficult time?
For many of God’s children, church family is the only real family they have.
Maybe we should stop and consider such things next time before forsaking the assembling together.
God have mercy on us.