“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb. 10:24-25)
To open or not to open? One of the great questions of our moment.
Immediately all the attendant questions come rushing through the door. Is meeting irresponsible? Are church gatherings essential? Couldn’t we do without them, if even just for a season?
We quickly find ourselves in a toxic quagmire filled with incomplete and often competing data mixed with cheap sloganeering and name-calling. We are, for the most part, worse off for having broached the issue. Or so we feel.
We are not equipped to answer such questions, I believe, because we do not yet know what the church is, or what the church is for. Without a robust ecclesiology, we will wind up in an unnavigable swamp. Every time.
What I’d like to do here is offer a brief reflection on the nature of the church, followed by some thoughts on why I think churches can and must meet–even if the circumstances are less than ideal.
What is the church?
In an extraordinary section of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Barth writes that “the Holy Spirit is the quickening power with which Jesus the Lord builds up Christianity in the world as his body, i.e., as the earthly-historical form of His own existence, causing it to grow, sustaining and ordering it as the provisional representation of the sanctification of all humanity and human life as it has taken place in him” (CD IV/2, 614, emphasis mine).
The section comes towards the end of the second book of the fourth volume of the Dogmatics, which is a full-blown treatment of the doctrine of reconciliation–how God in Christ has and is rescuing a world mired in sin. The Son of God, having suffered the humiliation of the cross under Pontius Pilate, has been raised from the dead and installed at the right hand of God as the exalted Son of Man, victorious over sin and death–the proper Lord of the whole earth. And what is the first, practical, visible impact of his victory? Barth is clear: it is the church–”the provisional representation of the sanctification of all humanity.” Everything else God does in the economy of salvation flows from and back to his work in the church.
That may sound strange to those of us steeped in the individualistic ethos of American Christianity, where personal reconciliation with God tends to receive the greater priority in our thinking about what God is up to in the world. The church, in an individualistic scheme, is secondary and subservient–something like a Jesus-club, or a spiritual YMCA to help people with their personal spiritual health. But it is not the point.
Such thinking, of course, is entirely foreign to the New Testament. The first efforts of Jesus following his baptism and temptation were directed towards gathering a community that would share his life and ministry, together (Mark 1:16-20). Upon his resurrection from the dead, he meets them huddled in the upper room together, breathes the Spirit upon them together, and sends them out as the ongoing expression of the mission his Father gave him, together (John 20:19-23). They are baptized in the Holy Spirit and fire at Pentecost together (Acts 2:1-13), and from that moment on “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47) through the visibility of their common life (Acts 2:46).
Accordingly, as the first century progressed, church leaders began to grasp something of the deep connection between the community of faith and the risen, living Christ himself. Perhaps no one grasped it as clearly or deeply as the apostle Paul, who wrote in Ephesians that
God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph. 1:22-23)
For Paul, the church was not a community related to its Lord like a club is related to its founder. Rather, the church was related to its Lord as a body to its head–a living, organic relationship through which King Jesus exerted his gracious, reconciling reign in the world. Paul’s words should astonish us. They astonish me still. To treat the matter catechetically, we may ask:
Q: What is the church?
A: It is Jesus’ own body–the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Or we may say with Barth:
Q: What is the church?
A: It is the earthly-historical form of His own existence.
Where the church is, there is Christ–reigning and reconciling all things to himself.
The Gathered Community
But that gets us right to the nub of the matter: where indeed is the church? Reflecting something of an anti-institutional bias that has grown up among us in recent years, we have become accustomed in our day to emphasizing the “scattered” nature of the church. Where is the church? “Wherever Christians are”, we answer. They are scattered like seed in the field of the world, embedded–often invisibly–in society as doctors and lawyers, as baristas and schoolteachers, as political activists and social workers, as ordinary moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas, doing their thing faithfully, as unto the Lord.
That is not wrong, of course; just as it is not wrong to say that the work of God in Christ is to reconcile individuals unto himself. Surely it is. But it reverses the biblical priority. The church is not first the scattered community, just as salvation is not first about individual reconciliation with God. The church is first the gathered community, just as salvation is first about the establishment of a community that serves as “the provisional representation of the sanctification of all humanity.” Barth expands his thought:
It is not only in worship that the community is edified and edifies itself. But it is here first that this continually takes place. And if it does not take place here, it does not take place anywhere. …Christian worship is the action of God, of Jesus, and of the community itself for the community, and therefore the upbuilding of the community. …If it does not edify itself here, it certainly will not do so in daily life, nor in the execution of its ministry and witness to the cosmos. (ibid., 638-639)
For Barth, as for the New Testament, the regular gathering of the saints for worship is the pulmonary center of the community’s life. Without it, the saints go on immediate life support. Therefore not without reason the writer of Hebrews admonishes us: “not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
The Value of Digital Worship
This all is a longish way of expressing my concern that churches are slow in re-establishing at least some form of gathered worship. When Covid-19 first hit us back in March, it was understandable, I thought, that churches would suspend in-person gatherings until they had a better grasp of the situation. Given the technology at our disposal, hosting “digital” worship services–in many cases, very high quality ones–became the perfect way to remain connected and to keep the saints rallied and encouraged. The church where I serve as a pastor did this. And my family was encouraged and strengthened. Indeed, over the next weeks we heard from hundreds of individuals and families in our church expressing their gratitude for our efforts to “bring church” to their living rooms.
But the presumption was: this is very temporary; we will re-establish some form of regular worship as soon as we are able to. And we did. In late May we began meeting again, per city and county guidelines, with appropriate and reasonable measures in place to protect our people–masks, hand sanitizing stations everywhere, zero-contact greetings, physically distanced seating, caps on attendance, etc., in addition to encouraging people who are at-risk or even mildly symptomatic to worship with us online. You get the drill.
It hasn’t been ideal by a long stretch. You can feel the ache in the room to return to normal–to hugs and the waters of baptism, to anointing the sick with oil and coming to the Table together to receive the bread and cup from each other’s hands, to holding hands and locking arms, and to being able to smile at one another not through masks but with “unveiled faces” (2 Cor. 3:18), as it were. We are eager for that day to arrive.
As of right now, Barna reports that (roughly) only half of the churches in the U.S. have returned to worship (most with appropriate restrictions in place). Half. That staggers me. The remaining churches have either set a tentative return date or are waiting to see, relying on digital experiences until then.
What makes this decision easier for many churches is the supposed increase of their influence through online ministry. Tens of thousands of people are attending our church online who weren’t before–something like that is how the story goes, creating the appearance that all is well; indeed, that perhaps we’ve never been better.
But there are reasons to be suspicious. Another recent study by Barna showed that fully a third of practicing Christians (pre-Covid) are no longer attending church anywhere. Another third is now “church hopping” digitally. Only the final third has stayed committed to their church. Perhaps surprisingly, the study also showed that among practicing Christian millennials–who we might expect to be the most digitally inclined–half are not attending services online.
It’s hard to argue that “we’ve never been better”–indeed, it seems that Covid (or more accurately, our response to Covid) is washing a great deal of our congregations away. Many saints are now free-floating, with the all-too-predictable results that come from being far from the life of Christ that flows through his Body, the church: increased anxiety, ennui, insecurity, to name a few. The numbers don’t lie: our humanity fades in proportion to our distance from the church gathered together in worship and confession and mutual support. There is a reason that one ancient maxim of the church claimed: extra ecclesium nulla salus. Outside of the church there is no salvation.
I want to be clear here. I am not suggesting that we act recklessly and needlessly endanger lives. For the record, I thought the actions of John MacArthur and Grace Church last month were reckless and foolish. (MacArthur and company, in defiance of California’s restrictions on churches, decided to gather with no masks, no distancing, and no caps on attendance.) But I also think that it is both unwise and theologically unwarranted for us not to fight to return to worship–even if the circumstances under which we do it are far from ideal. It is unwise because it hurts the vitality both of the individual members of our congregations and the congregation as a whole. It is theologically unwarranted because the corporate gathering of the saints around the Word is the first and most basic definition of the church and we have no biblical precedent for simply giving it away–especially “indefinitely.” If I am wrong, please show me where.
It will be argued, of course, that large gatherings endanger public health. In response, I would argue that: (1), they need not be large (the size of ours have been greatly reduced), and (2) the impact of long-term isolation is also a significant danger to public health. A recent report released by the CDC showed that since Covid-19 “40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition. …31 percent of respondents were suffering from symptoms of anxiety or depression; 26 percent experienced symptoms of traumatic disorder; 13 percent were using drugs or alcohol more heavily, or for the first time, to cope with the pandemic; and 11 percent had seriously contemplated suicide.” Though isolation is not the only cause of these troubling trends, we would be fools to think it is not a significant contributing cause. We need each other.
It will also be argued that large gatherings endanger the most vulnerable. But they need not. We can and should encourage the healthy to attend while utilizing technology and good ol’ fashioned common sense to remain connected to those who are vulnerable and at-risk: phone calls and in-person visits when it is advisable to do so. Individual care for the most vulnerable can and should rise. But more than that, it is arguable, I think, that surrendering our public gatherings also endangers the most vulnerable, for it is a vibrant and vitalized church that has always been the most able and willing to protect those on the fringes. An anemic church is no help to anyone.
I offer this not as admonishment or prescription, but as consideration, and maybe just as my personal, humble plea–especially for you, pastor–if your church has not re-opened. I know there are many factors to weigh–our public health and the health of your people not least–and you feel the burden of all of those things. Bless you for that. But if you are waiting for some day to arrive when a large public agency–the White House, the CDC, the WHO–will suddenly pronounce that everything is fine and it’s safe for the church to resume business as usual, the odds are good you’ll be waiting a long time. And your church will suffer as a result. You have a commission from Jesus. And the promise of his ongoing presence and constant help as you obey him. And that is the hope of the world. Start reclaiming it.