Two years ago, I was reading my Bible and praying on Sunday morning. It was one of those moments when God’s Word was alive in my heart and He was speaking so clearly and prophetically to me. I was in the presence of the Almighty and my heart was filled with worship. My wife walked over to me and said something about the time. I do not remember what she said, but it meant if I did not get ready soon we were going to be late for church.
As I pondered the time, church felt like an interruption to what God was doing in my heart. I thought and prayed about it. I felt stuck. My heart yearned to stay where I was, but my “duty” told me I needed to go to church.
After a few minutes of pondering, I told my wife I was staying home. I told her why, but also promised that I would watch the service online, not because I wanted to, but because there was a part of me that felt shame for not going. I read and prayed and journaled until service started. Then I closed my Bible and began to stream my church’s service online.
The next week, I wanted to do the same thing again, but to keep my wife from thinking I had apostatized, I went. In the middle of the service I realized something -- the only difference between the week before and now was proximity. Last Sunday, I sat in my living room; this Sunday I sat in a dark auditorium, surrounded by a crowd of which I hardly knew. I watched people play music, sing, and teach. For an hour and fifteen minutes, I was a spectator, not a participant, just like the previous week when I watched the same templated service on an iPad screen.
For a month now, churches have been streaming services online and I honestly have been encouraged by what I have seen. I have enjoyed getting to hear preachers and worship leaders that I would never hear otherwise. Of course, in the midst of this, I see leaders speak of how they cannot wait to get back to church again, but at the end of the day, we have to ask why? What is really different about watching online than watching in person? Are we not mostly spectators either way? The problems we have seen in this pandemic are the same problems we saw before: people are not giving, people are not being discipled, people are not surrendering to missions, and people are just not as interested as pastors wish they would be. Streaming services online for the last month or so should cause us to realize it is not the medium through which the church model is presented that is the problem, but it is the model itself.
Back up to the Sunday I did not go to church. During that time, my wife and I attended a traditional church on Sunday mornings, but we were also part of a house-church network that strove to meet as biblically as possible (I’ll save what I mean by that for another post). The traditional church felt like an interruption to what God was doing that morning because I had to “close the book” and say, “not now God. I’ve got to go to church.” Yet, that same morning, I could not wait to meet with my house-church that afternoon. They did not feel like an interruption because I was not a spectator in that gathering, but a full participant. So instead of “closing the book” and saying, “not now,” I was saying, “God I can’t wait to share this with my church this afternoon.” And most of the time, I would find I was not the only one that God had spoken to in this way.
It was the tale of two churches. One church had me longing to be with them so I could share with them what God was teaching me. The other church had me longing to avoid it, because I was a spectator watching others use their spiritual gifts while I sat on the proverbial bench - I mean pew.
I do want to be clear that I am not advocating Christianity without community; nor am I suggesting a house church is the only biblical way to meet. I am suggesting, however, that any model that strips the relational aspect of connecting with people organically is less than what God desire His church to be. One of the lessons of COVID and history is that God can move in small as well as big gatherings. Further, the opportunity before organic churches and digital churches are similar: our people no longer want to sit on the pew, or couch even. We don’t want to watch. We must participate.
Honestly, there is a large part of me that hopes that we do not return to “business as usual” when the quarantine ends. What if after the economy restarts and social distancing wanes, we go back to church as usual? What if we just keep doing the same thing we are doing Sunday mornings now, but in a building instead of on Zoom or Facebook live?
What if all of this time apart and all of this learning to do church differently only results in us showing up to a building on Sunday again to do the same thing we have always done, with the same results we’ve always had?
My hope is that during this time of what may even be called “forced Sabbath,” we would take time to evaluate the effectiveness of our church model and strategy, and consider how God may be calling us back differently than we left.