What do we do when God interrupts our schedule as a church? Right now, it seems, like churches are scrambling to keep doing everything they were doing before. Technology is the savior who is rescuing us from our fear of deprivation. With the click of the button, you can listen in, sing along, comment in real time, and all from the comfort of your living room! Though this impulse is presumably well intentioned, perhaps we should step back and consider whether it’s the right response.
We live in a technological age that gives us a sense of control. Your bank might be closed, but you can still login to your account. Your retail store might be closed, but you can still go to Amazon for anything you need. Your church building might be closed, but you can still worship online. For some of these options, we can be very thankful. The existence of these online platforms certainly makes our current crisis not as disruptive to our lives as it could be.
Yet, have we ever paused to consider that perhaps God is purposefully seeking to disrupt our lives? I’m not suggesting that He’s disrupting our lives in a malicious way. Instead, the current disruption might just be the discipline and pruning that we need. In other words, His purposes are fatherly, redemptive, and wise.
As churches, why are we trying to stay his hand? Is the right response to continue business as usual? Or, should we instead humbly submit to God’s providence by leaning into the void and receiving what He is seeking to give? I’d like to suggest that the latter is a better way.
Here’s What God Is Taking Away (for now)
By it’s very definition the church (ekklesia) is the called out assembly. A church isn’t simply a crowd of disconnected individuals who show up for a spiritual fix. We are a creature of the Word, baptized into the Triune Name, joined to one another in covenant, observing the commands of our Lord. There are many things individual church members can do when we are scattered. We can pray together, serve one another, show hospitality, encourage another, etc. These things are still happening, albeit in new and creative ways.
Yet there are some things that we can only do when we are gathered. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul speaks to the whole church of Corinth, and repeatedly says “when you come together as a church” (v.17,18,20,33). This is in the context of the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Paul understood that the Lord’s Supper was a unifying meal meant to be observed in one place at one time for one church. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, since all of us share the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). In fact, Paul tells the Christians who are partaking of the Lord’s Supper without the rest that they aren’t actually taking the Lord’s Supper at all (v.20). Even more, they were drinking judgment on themselves because they weren’t discerning the body of Christ (v.29), and were despising the church of God (v.22).
The Lord, in His purposeful providence, is removing our ability to assemble as a church. That means, he is also removing the sacred meal that marks out that sacred assembly. When the LORD raised up the Babylonians to destroy the temple and bring God’s people into exile. We don’t see the Israelites erecting altars in their homes for sacrifice. They don’t run for a creative solution. Instead, they leaned into the void and accepted God’s providence. There were certain things they just couldn’t do.
As God’s Spirit-filled Temple (1 Cor. 3:16), we have been disassembled for a time. The common bread and cup are on hold. The assembly of united voices has been silenced. The assembly where the Word rings out from pastor to people has been fragmented.
This should sadden us, and cause us to long for God’s restoration. And yet, as we submit to His sovereign hand, we are in a position to receive what He is seeking to give.
Here’s What God is Seeking to Give
Sometimes God has to shake things up. When He does, He pushes us out of our comfort zones. Consider the Jerusalem Church in Acts 8. Due to a “severe persecution” the people are scattered. The result is that the word is preached (v.4) and new people encounter the joy of the gospel (v.8). God used a major disruption to accomplish salvation!
The current pandemic is forcing us to get back to basics. Our lives can get busy and chaotic, and sometimes our churches get busy and chaotic. Restlessness and distraction should not be our modus operandi.
In Leviticus 26, the LORD told the people that if they did not observe the Sabbath laws, that a Sabbath would be forced upon them and their land (v.34-35). Could it be that when our priorities are imbalanced, and our hearts are hurried, that God might want to re-orient us to a place of balance, contentment, and simplicity? It seems like God just might be forcing a sabbatical upon everyone, and especially the church. As one pastor friend suggested to me, all of us have been removed from the bridal party so that each of us is pushed toward the Bridegroom. Every Christian is being called to return to their first love (Rev.2:4-5). I pray that we each will.
Another gift we are being awakened to is the gift of Christian community. One ancient poet said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. When community is available, we can often take it for granted. The worship gathering is always there, so we might be tempted think we can opt in and out as we please. The prayer meeting is always there, so we think we can go when we feel like it. But what happens when suddenly they’re not? Especially when the stakes are high and times get tough? We come to realize the gift that Christian fellowship is. The result should be that we appreciate it, long for it, and prioritize it. I pray that our experience is like that of Paul who wrote to the Thessalonian Church, “you always have good memories of us and…long to see us, as we also long to see you” (1 Thess. 3:6).
Lastly, God is seeking to give us His eyes for the world. One little germ has unmasked all illusions of invincibility, disrupted our lives, and brought us to our knees. There are people who are hurting, looking for hope, ready to listen, and ready to receive. In Isaiah 58, God’s people patted themselves on the back for being those who fasted and drew near to God, and yet God tells them that He is looking for something more – justice and mercy (v.6-7). The harvest is abundant right now (Luke 10:2). It always is; but now our eyes are being lifted to see that in a fresh kind of way. Our Lord Jesus’ Great Commission has not been placed on hold. May we be faithful to make disciples (Matt.28:19), do good unto all (Gal.6:10), adorn the gospel message with good deeds (Titus 2:10).
God may be taking away our assembly at the moment, but praise Jesus for His promise that He will still build His Church and the gates of Hell won’t prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). Not even a famine at the Lord’s Table can separate us from the love of Christ. May we trust God’s sovereign wisdom at this time, and receive what He is seeking to do in us. Lean into the void. This is not business as usual. When this is over, and we are reunited, we will join with churches throughout the world to joyfully declare, “The Lord has done great things!”