“Let us be concerned about one another … not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do” (Hebrews 10:24-25 HCSB).
This seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? There are good reasons to miss corporate worship. But we are not to miss it habitually.
No, this verse was not written during a global pandemic; but it was written against the backdrop of severe suffering. Then and now, wherever Christians face persecution, they endanger themselves, their families, and others every time they meet.
Yet they meet anyway.
Because that’s what God has told us to do. And because we desperately need each other. And we desperately need to experience Him together!
But HOW and WHEN should we resume worshiping together in times like these?
I don’t judge any pastor or church for the decisions they make about returning to in-person gatherings. No one knows much of anything with certainty about this virus or how to respond. Those who act like they do may just be arrogant.
But I do believe pastors and leaders need to ask the right questions during this time. And some of those questions will be difficult and challenging.
Right now, churches are facing unprecedented decisions. There have been pandemics before, but there has never been government response like what we are seeing today, where we have quarantined the healthy as well as the sick.
However you feel about the strategy of lockdowns and social distancing, the reality is that every church body will have to deal with a myriad of issues as they determine how to move forward—government restrictions, the possibilities of civil disobedience, legal ramifications, legitimate pastoral and safety concerns, and logistical nightmares.
It is certainly not my intention to tell anyone how to navigate all of this. Only the Spirit of God can do that.
But I thought it might be healthy to suggest questions that every pastor—and to some extent every Christian—needs to be asking as lockdowns ease and we navigate forward. I don’t want to overwhelm you, so let’s discuss a few of these questions today and others in later blogs.
1. Are there some things about your church that should NEVER be restarted?
Many pastors I am talking to see opportunity in this tragedy. Some things that should have been changed a long time ago can more easily be changed now.
Carefully consider and pray about how to allow God to restart your church in a more biblical way. Don’t try to go back to normal. Ask God to give you His new normal that focuses more intensely on the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. That’s really what revival is about!
2. How important should the concept of “safety” be to your church, and how should you communicate that?
Obviously, our churches should do everything they reasonably can to keep people safe from sin, sickness, or abuse. But to follow Jesus is by nature a risky venture! Churches should consider being careful that they not communicate that the comfort and unconditional safety of attendees is paramount.
Many of us believe that God will use this pandemic to bring revival to the American church. But where revival and awakening are happening today, mostly in the persecuted church, safety is not even an option. It certainly wasn’t for most of the New Testament church.
Taking up a cross and following Jesus has never been particularly safe.
Obedience trumps safety. Every pastor is always concerned about Christians living in comfort zones. Though there is not an easy answer, struggle with this question: How can our church shepherd people to safe pastures while not creating a whole new comfort zone culture?
3. At what point does honoring the government cross a line and dishonor God?
To me this is a challenging and difficult question that I am somewhat stunned to even have to consider. We know that Scripture tells us to obey those in authority over us. But when government tells us NOT to do what God tells us TO do, we have a problem.
Questions of civil disobedience may not be paramount for your church right now. I am personally not there yet.
But what if the government in your region demands that you not gather at all with fellow believers for a year? Or two years? Or more?
The early believers whose suffering eventually brought the gospel to us obeyed the government when they could. But they would not disobey God to obey the government.
Corporate worship and biblical community are not nonessential. They are commands of God to His people!
Perhaps God will bring major change to the ways many Christians worship and fellowship together. Smaller groups and house churches may end up being a healthy movement in the American church.
But shouldn’t that be up to each church to decide, rather than the government? Especially when there is healthy scientific debate about the strategy of social distancing?
Our faith is not to be lived out alone or through computer screens indefinitely. Hopefully these issues can be worked out in the days ahead without civil disobedience.
But American church leaders today may need to begin thinking more like persecuted church leaders. This is a serious issue to be carefully pondered.
One thing that excites me about these days is that they resemble times in history when the church has been most vibrant and missional, more than the recent years of tepid spirit and steep decline in American Christianity.
If this is not our time for revival, when would that time be?
I know these are hard questions and hard times. I don’t have all the answers, but I pastored churches from micro to mega over almost four decades. If I can help you or your team work through some of this practically, it would be a privilege. To contact us, use this form to set up a time.
In this series of blogs, I will break down these and other questions to some practical components I hope will be helpful in actual implementation.
Finally, might I suggest that all of us be patient with each other. Listen to each other. Be kind to each other. Even when we disagree. After all, the very reason God tells us to meet together in Hebrews 10:25 is for the purpose of “encouraging each other, and all the more as we see the day drawing near.”
No one knows exactly what will happen or exactly what to do next. But one thing we do know—Jesus is coming again, and He WILL help us until then!