Disclaimer: The following is not a call to disregard healthy protocols. Neither is it necessarily a call for civil disobedience. I recognize that different cities and nations are affected differently and necessarily responding to Covid-19 in varying ways. This is simply an attempt to relate the sense of burning I have been experiencing in my spirit for a month now relating to God’s heart to be worshipped by the ekklēsi– the gathered ones!
Since the shutdowns due to Covid-19 began, one of the top issues of conversation among Christians has been ‘how essential are Sunday church meetings in the life of a church’. That is a highly relevant and important question. However, God may have a perspective on this were not considering.
The threat of Covid-19 is being viewed and responded to in a multitude of ways. Depending on one’s faith or anxiety levels, there are several common arguments as to why churches should not be meeting corporately. The first argument is the threat of corporate meetings, potentially being a place to catch the virus. First off, we need to look at the facts. The overwhelming percentage of people who have suffered dramatically from Covid-19 usually have had two or more preexisting conditions that made them much more susceptible to harm from Covid-19. That in itself should not make shutting church down mandatory, but rather limit who should probably choose to attend the meetings. As well, those who regularly come in close contact with the elderly or those with preexisting conditions, quite possibly should avoid crowds.
As to the supposed threat of being in crowds- I have been in grocery stores, DIY stores, airplanes, and many other locations filled with people over the last five months. Yet they have not been deemed ‘nonessential’ by the government. Why do some governments that have forbidden church meetings allow vast crowds of protesters to stand shoulder-to-shoulder shouting on the streets? Suppose it is safe for large crowds of chanting protesters to gather. In that case, church worship meetings, which practice social distancing, should also be considered safe. This morning, I received a pertinent email from a pastor in the US. Their state will not even allow forty people to gather and worship. Still, it will allow up to 300 people to assemble for a marriage. Aside from constitutional rights being ignored and trampled on, it’s becoming clearer which values govern our governors.
Another argument is one made quite a bit over the last five months. It goes like this; ‘if a congregation is dependent on Sunday meetings to survive, then maybe that congregation is not authentically a church’. I would have to say there is some truth to that argument. When we examine the early church life in the Book of Acts, they had several arteries for the church’s life to flow. Besides praying for the sick and doing evangelistic works, the church fed the widows and orphans, met house to house for prayer and fellowship, and gathering together for apostolic teaching. It is only that last activity that required the congregation to meet in large assemblies.
It’s interesting that in times and places of persecution when corporate church gatherings become illegal, the church often not only survived, but actually prospered when it came to numerical growth. For example, the church of Uganda suffered tremendous persecution under the reign of Idi Amin from 1971 – 1979. By some estimates, possibly 300,000 Christians were slaughtered by Amin’s henchmen. Much of the church went underground and could only meet in clandestine house meetings. However, those eight years of brutal oppression proved to be a catalyst for revival. The gospel actually spread, as faith in God replaced the fear of man for many, many hearts.
If we are merely considering the importance of corporate church meetings regarding the church’s mission to man, then, no. In that case, they may not be completely essential, especially as many churches have begun to implement Zoom and live streaming as somewhat viable alternatives. However, it needs to be noted that online church attendance has severely dropped over the last five months by some 30% compared to live church attendance in January, according to recent polls.
You can’t Fear both God and Man!
Another case some Christians have made against congregations meeting is that it offends non-Christians in this season of Covid-19. If one truly takes their direction and values from God and His Word that argument must be found to be a non-sequitur. One cannot seek to please both God and man. You can only have one master, as Jesus pointed out. It is a long slippery slope when Christians allow fear of offending man to swallow up the fear of God.
The hard truth is that God will always be offensive to the naturally minded simply because He claims to be who He is- God Almighty. As the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the church of Corinth’ The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.’ (1 Cor.2.14) When evidently, many Christians fail to value corporate worship actively, why should anyone ever expect a non-Christian to do so?
The politics of appeasement never work with a bully. They totally failed Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of England, during the years that Hitler rose to power. It was during Chamberlain’s time in office when Hitler began his quest to dominate Europe. Chamberlain attempted to quench Hitler’s onslaught of tyranny by placating him. Chamberlain’s well-intentioned but very ineffective phrase “peace in our time’ unfortunately became how he is chiefly remembered. History views him as a nice but highly naïve leader with a fear to fight. Likewise, the thought that Christians simply need to play nice and get along with everyone flies in the face of Jesus words ‘I came not to send peace, but a sword.’ (Matt.10.34)
That mindset of appeasement can lead to such a watering down of the gospel that it seemingly renders it unnecessary and irrelevant. This precise fear of offending has entrapped many pastors into compromising with what the Bible actually says of contemporary issues such as gender identity and same-sex marriage. In contrast, the apostle Paul stated, ‘I did not withhold from you the full counsel of God.’ And for the record, it is possible to say hard things lovingly, without condemnation! Jesus came in both grace and truth. (John 1.14) One without the other, though, is dangerous!
What’s Really at Stake?
It is critical to realize we are in a far greater fight than merely overcoming a virus. There is powerful warfare on several levels right now, flowing straight from the antichrist spirit attempting to disable and even crush the church’s voice! There are some things worth fighting for- and the right to assemble and worship God is undoubtedly one of them! Our thinking needs to be shaped more from Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego rather than fear-mongering politically correct talking heads and godless politicians! After all, we are called by God the ‘ekklēsi’ which means ‘the assembly’, or ‘the called out ones’!
I hear no one reversing the question by asking, ‘what are the needs of God’. I write this somewhat rhetorically. God is, after all, Yahweh- the all-sufficient one. He is never dependent on humanity for His well-being.
Recognizing that truth, however, we must also acknowledge that God has stated He desires to be worshipped in spirit and truth. Through the cross’s grace, He has brought us into a vital relationship of love with Himself. He highly values the authentic expressions of our adoration and honor for who He is, what He has done, and what He does.
Of course, some might argue we can undoubtedly worship from home as we watch an online service. Yes, that is true, but it falls short of the premium God places on actually coming together in one place and in unity, lifting our voices and hearts to Him. While online church services are of value, they are not a replacement for coming together in unity and making a joyful noise unto God and responding to His manifest presence. There is something lost to the church if we’re trapped in our caves of isolation!
Again, the unasked question is what God requires of us, not merely what’s convenient or useful for us. I suspect for some it’s not so much the fear factor, but a lukewarm heart that governs our actions, or lack thereof.
Several years ago, I spoke at a bush pastors conference about halfway up the long coast of Mozambique, just south of the Zambezi river. Some of the attending pastors asked my hosts if next year they could have the conference north of the Zambezi. They related how dangerous it was to get in tiny boats when crossing the Zambezi due to the river’s crocodiles. I thought to myself, ‘what a contrast’! These saints were willing to face crocodiles to get to a church conference. In contrast, in the Western World, many Christians can barely get out of bed on Sunday mornings to drive to church.
The Value of Expensive Worship!
Possibly God’s whole purpose in allowing our cultures and finances to be shaken is to shake off our complacency and wake us up to our real wealth- the person and presence of God! Possibly we need to rediscover the value of worship, which actually costs us something!
The Gospel of John, chapter twelve, relates the story of how Mary- Martha and Lazarus’s sister, ministered to the person of Jesus. Verse three reads: ‘Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus’. It goes on to say the whole house was filled with the smell of the perfume. So it will always be when we offer up worship as a sacrifice to Jesus- the essence of His presence will fill the room. He inhabits the praises of His people! (Psalm 22.3). However, like with Mary’s sacrifice, there will always be a religious critic present. There will always be someone in the crowd who will perceive expensive sacrificial worship as a waste because it detracts from our ministry to man. While the great commission is of great importance, there is one thing that overshadows it. The great commandment to love God, with all of our heart, mind, and strength, supersedes everything else!
Faith, or Fear?
What about the risk of exposing healthy people to Covid-19? We, possibly, need to grow up in the faith department a bit. The gospel of Mark, chapter one, tells the story of Jesus confronted by a leper from whom everyone else would have run. Jesus not only healed the man’s skin, but also his soul. When He dared to touch the man, He broke the curse of being untouchable. Jesus walked in faith, not fear.
I am not advocating we take silly chances with Covid-19. Neither am I suggesting we throw out practical guidelines such as social distancing and temperature taking at gatherings. However, we need to have more faith in God’s promises and protection than fear of all the countless what-ifs! After all, greater is He who is in us, than the devil and his works! I remember the first time the Lord had me lay hands on someone with leprosy and pray for them. I rather vividly remember the huge question looming within me as I sensed the Holy Spirit say to do exactly what Jesus did in Mark 1. That question was ‘is their leprosy the contagious, or the non-contagious type’. I never found out the answer to that question, but as I obeyed the Holy Spirit anyway. Not only did the Holy Spirit touch the woman, but I stayed healthy, as well.
Faith cannot be measured by social media posts, virtue signaling, and doing what passes for good and acceptable, in man’s eyes. We are called to be the salt of the earth, which makes people thirsty for Jesus- the living water. We are called to reflect not the wisdom of man but the light of Jesus. We are called to be a people set apart for God’s own glory. If we lose our saltiness, then indeed, our mission to both man and God is both lost! And if we end up seeming to be foolish in the eyes of man, then we’re in good company. Daniel and the great host of witnesses are right there us!
‘Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!’ Psalm 150, 1-6.