Many of us have been conducting our worship services online for the past six weeks or so. We are looking forward to the time that we can once again gather together on Sunday mornings. Before that happens, it is helpful for us to consider what we can learn from this experience. What lessons can we learn from the Coronavirus pandemic?
What is the Church?
We usually think of ministry as something that happens in the church buildings. For many people, the most important ministry event of the week is the Sunday worship service. That’s why many churches keep records and report their Sunday attendance numbers. But the first century church did not own any buildings. They met primarily in homes. They usually did not have a big meeting on Sunday morning.
Sometimes I hear people talk about the church building as "God’s house." That language is sometimes used in the OT to describe the temple, but in the NT it is never used of a building. The NT teaches that God dwells in the "spiritual house" made up of believers as "living stones" (1 Pet. 2:4-5). The current situation in which we can’t meet in the church building on Sundays is a great opportunity to reset our thinking to a more biblical understanding of the church.
What does it look like to be the church during this time when our church buildings are closed?
The building is closed, but the church is open!
What really matters?
During stay at home orders in many parts of the world we have needed to decide which businesses should be closed and which are essential and must remain open. It has forced us to decide what is really most important. We have discovered that groceries are essential but haircuts are not. We can categorize everything as essential, important, or optional.
What about our spiritual lives and our church ministry? How would you categorize each activity in those areas? By using our technology we can gather online for Sunday worship, fellowship meetings, and prayer meetings. Of course all our personal spiritual practices can continue as before. There may be some ministry activities that are non-essential that we can suspend during this time.
The Apostle Paul had a clear perspective on what was most essential. When he was in prison awaiting his trial and possible execution, he rejoiced that the gospel was becoming more widely known through his imprisonment (Phil. 1:12-13). He struggled to decide whether he would rather be acquitted and release, or executed. He believed that it would be far better to die and be with Christ, but for the sake of the Philippians and others he hoped he would be spared (Phil. 1:21-24). Clearly for Paul the gospel was absolutely central to his life.
This is a great opportunity to reset our priorities. What is truly essential? What is optional?
How can we adapt?
We have all needed to make many adjustments to our daily activities. Many of us wear masks in the grocery store and stand six feet apart in the checkout line. People are learning to cut their own hair at home. Business owners are looking for ways to shift their business models to fit the new pattern. Many more employees are working from home. Restaurants have shifted to take out service. Everyone is trying to figure out how to adjust.
People throughout history have needed to adapt to major social changes. In Acts 18:1-4 we read about Aquila and Priscilla, who were forced to leave Rome when the emperor ordered all the Jews to leave town. Think for a moment about how their lives must have changed. They were small business owners who made tents. When they were forced out of Rome, they had to leave their business and customer base behind. In Corinth they needed to relaunch their business, find new suppliers, and attract new customers. When Paul arrived they became business partners. When he left about 18 months later they went with him to share the gospel in Ephesus (Acts 18:18-19). After a short visit, Paul left them there to continue the ministry. Once again they needed to relaunch their tent making business because that is how they supported themselves.
How do we need to adapt at this time in our churches and our ministry? How can we not simply survive, but thrive in our current situation?
What is the "New Normal"?
We are anxious for everything to return to normal, but we hear people talking about the "new normal." Restrictions will be eased gradually, and even when we can return to gathering on Sunday mornings things will still be different. Social distancing, masks, and sanitizing will be a part of our lives for months to come.
There has been speculation about whether some of the changes we have made will become permanent. Will more people be working from home? Will large events be less popular? Will businesses that have shifted their business model retain some of those changes post-pandemic?
What about the church? What will be our "new normal"? If our goal is to go back to exactly the same way things were before, we will have wasted a valuable opportunity. What is God saying to his people through this challenging time? How might we shift our spiritual lives and our ministry to be more vibrant, more resourceful, and more effective than before? How can we move into greater depth in our relationship with God? What non-essential things should we leave behind, and what essential things should we embrace with renewed passion? Let’s not pass up this opportunity for a spiritual reset and renewal.
This post is a summary of a message about lessons from the pandemic that I shared with my church on 5/3/20. If you want to see more you can watch the Sunday worship video.