The American Church has been plunged into a time of questions, confusion, pain, and uncertainty. Everything we have known about our so-called “freedoms” to gather and worship together has been turned upside-down. To make matters more painful for some, our churches have suddenly been labeled as “non-essential.” Before we move any further, we must together determine that this is in no way about persecution or religious freedoms. Church gatherings have been canceled for the very same reason the NBA was canceled and strip clubs were closed. Christians in North America still have yet to experience true persecution (see Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or opendoorsusa.org if you’re unsure of what I mean). We have simply been labeled “non-essential.”
It’s been so interesting to watch how pastors have responded to this news. For some, their particular church being labeled “non-essential” has been more painful than the reality of COVID-19 itself. One particular post that I saw in a pastors’ Facebook group really brought this to light. One pastor posted: “Why are pot stores considered essential, but churches are not?” He was suddenly realizing that things are very different than he thought they were. I was tempted to respond, “If you’re just now realizing that your community values cannabis over Christ, then you haven’t done a great job of exegeting your community.”
At my wife’s suggestion, I ultimately did not post that response, but at the same time, it does not change the statement’s truth. For far too long, the North American church has been comfortable slapping an “open for business” sign on the front door while forgetting to actually get to know the people that they are trying to reach.
Here is the reality: In North America, Church has been considered “non-essential” for quite some time, whether we’re willing to admit it or not. Even in the “Bible Belt,” trends are not just moving post-Christian, they are post-Christian. On July 11th, 2017, the Barna Group published an article on its website that began with this paragraph:
“It may come as no surprise that the influence of Christianity in the United States is waning. Rates of church attendance, religious affiliation, belief in God, prayer and Bible-reading have all been dropping for decades. By consequence, the role of religion in public life has been slowly diminishing, and the church no longer functions with the cultural authority it held in times past. These are unique days for the church in America as it learns what it means to flourish in a new ‘Post-Christian’ era.”
In fact, I think the argument could be made that the Church, generally speaking, has been viewed as “non-essential” in North America since long before 2017. Church leaders have simply been unwilling to admit this for decades.
In response to this reality, we need to do two things: redefine “essential,” and redefine “church.”
In John 4, Jesus had an encounter with a Samaritan woman at a water well. The woman was drawing water that she deemed essential for life, but Jesus told her, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life” (John 4:13-14, NLT). Obviously, water is essential for physical life, but the water that Jesus is offering is even more essential for eternal life.
When Christians hear that what they deem most essential for eternal life has now been labeled “non-essential,” it’s a hard pill to swallow. But, believe it or not, the United States government is not primarily concerned with your eternal life, but your physical life. When the U.S. Government labels something as essential, they are strictly referring to our physical life and well being.
There is a dear friend of mine who posed this question: “If we can go to the airport, grocery store, auto parts store, abortion clinic, etc., then why shouldn’t we be able to go to church?” I thought this question was a really good one, expressing many Christians’ thoughts. But we need to be careful when comparing churches to airports, grocery stores, auto parts stores, and abortion clinics because those places are all brick and mortar buildings where you go to receive goods or services. We simply cannot define church that way. If this is our definition, then we were doomed from the start. We must instead define Church as “a group of people who love Jesus and share a common mission to make disciples.”
When we move to this definition of Church, then we start to realize that this is something that should not and never will be shut down. Working from this definition, we must find new, innovative ways to carry out what we believe to be of the utmost importance. This is forcing us to be missional, whether we want to or not. This is an opportunity for us to move from going to church on Sundays, to being the Church seven days a week.
Alan Hirsch, a thought leader among the missional church and founder of the Forge Mission Training Network, said this: “If you want to learn how to play chess, you should start by removing your own queen. Once you’ve mastered the game without the most powerful piece, then put the queen back in and see how good you are! For the church, the Sunday service is our queen. We’ve been relying on it too much. Now that the queen has been taken off the board, it’s time to rediscover what all the other pieces can do.”
When adjusting how our churches operate, the question is not, “How do we make the future look as much like the past as possible?” Our queen has been captured; now we must continue to play the game without her. But the good news is this: The game can be won, nay, will be won, without our queen. The message has not changed, and the mission has not changed… but everything else has. If we get stuck trying to make our future look like our past, we will end up like the churches on the wrong side of the Reformation.
It is time to innovate and move into the world’s future after COVID-19. The Bride of Christ is going to be OK even if we were never allowed back into our buildings. Although our queen (Sunday gatherings) may have been captured, the church is the Bride of Christ, therefore we are the queen to King Jesus. And rest assured, that King Jesus will NEVER allow His queen to be taken out of the game.
So where do we go from here? How do we move forward without our Sunday morning gatherings? The answer is simple, although it might make us a little uncomfortable. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, “Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.”
If the disciples had a “Joe six-pack,” it would have been Peter. He was likely among the least educated of the disciples, a simple fisherman. In fact, he was one of the disciples directly referred to as “ordinary and unschooled” in Acts 4:13. He denied Jesus (Matthew 26:69-75). He had a habit of arguing with Jesus (Matthew 16:22). He was also called “Satan” by Jesus Himself (Matthew 16:23). But Jesus made plans to build His church on this guy.
What if Jesus has plans to build His church on the “Joe six-packs” of America in 2020? What if Jesus wants us to take that whole “priesthood of all believers” thing seriously? In fact, it was “Joe six-pack” himself that wrote, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5, ESV).
1 Peter 4 tells us that all believers have been given a spiritual gift. Ephesians 4 tells us that we are to equip the saints so that they can build up the church. 1 Corinthians 14 tells us that all believers can play a part in what church looks like. As uncomfortable as this might sound, what if God plans to use the “non-essential church” to bring about His desire for all people to know Him (1 Timothy 2:4)? What if the term “missionary” is no longer reserved for only a select few, but is applied to every believer regardless of their level of education? Going back to the chess analogy, too many churches act as if the pastor is their queen. Maybe it’s time to rediscover what all the other pieces can do.
It took a global pandemic to awaken the North American Church; here’s hoping and praying that she never goes back to sleep. As one of my mentors recently said, “A tragedy is a terrible thing to waste.”