2020 will be one of those years that no one forgets. A season of unexpected pandemic and protests has caught us by surprise. And it is showing us what we’re made of as individuals, as churches, and as a nation.
It is in the hard times that we discover what we really are and what we have our faith in. When nothing seems normal, when everything seems harder, and when there seems to be no end in sight, what is inside us comes spilling out. This is true of people. It is true of nations. It is true of churches.
It is sad but true that churches in this time of hardship have struggled not to respond like others in our society. Many pastors report challenges coming from believers who are dividing over issues along political and ideological lines. Many pastors are exhausted and discouraged, taking fire from multiple camps in their congregations. It can be hard to keep a flock together that can’t gather. It is even harder to keep a flock together that has lost sight of the essentials that unite them.
My church has experienced little of this kind of thing—something for which I’m grateful. Still, it hasn’t been easy for us. But I see a real kingdom opportunity for churches in this season. It is the opportunity to:
1. Rediscover what church is
2. Reclaim why the church matters
3. Return to the basics, the essentials.
Rediscovering what the church is. This season of pandemic and protest has exposed the false idea of the church as a building in which worship happens. We all know that the church is not a building. But overtime, the concept of the church can become easily just that: a place we go and an exercise we do on Sundays. For those who see the church as a place or a program of worship, one of two discoveries is made. Either they’ve discovered how necessary the church is for spiritual community, health, and growth, or it has been exposed as irrelevant to their lives. The former will love the church more. The latter will not come back. Now is an excellent time for pastors to help their people take a fresh look at the New Testament view of the local church as God’s gift to Christ—and His gift to those who’ve been made His people in Christ.
Reclaiming why the church matters. Here’s the hard, cold reality I think many of us were missing before 2020 became 2020: we cannot make it without each other. We weren’t meant to make it alone. By “making it,” I mean, we cannot grow and stay healthy in Christ without the work He does through His people. Christianity has never been a solo endeavor. I think we’ve made it that way unintentionally, of course, but almost certainly. Think about how easy it is to attend a worship service, observe it or participate in it, and leave with nothing more than a “Good morning!” or “How are you today?” In many worship settings, the gathering and the worship lack real horizontal connection and community—as if public worship were nothing more than personal devotions made better with a trained speaker and music. It is so easy for us to come, sing (or not sing), listen (or not really listen), and then go off to our next thing to do for the day (of which we have so many that we can barely keep up). In many churches, the music and lighting setup an experience where we can feel alone though hundreds are all around us. It is safe, but it is not, in the end, spiritually satisfying. Why? Because we need each other to help, comfort, challenge us—to “provoke us to love, and good works” as the King James puts it. We need to see and hear other people singing and affirming the greatness of God and His grace in Jesus. We need conversations with others about the message we just heard. We need prayer. We need to pray for others.
Returning to the essentials. By essentials, I mean the basics of belief and practice. This return includes a refocus on the Bible as a book about God rather than us; a focus on worship as an encounter with God rather than an experience of Him; a focus on prayer as an act of need and dependence on Him who made us, redeems us, keeps us. It includes a focus on praying together kingdom prayers, pleading that His kingdom comes and His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
In 2020, we have yet to face a presidential election in November. No one expects it to happen without acrimony and political and social confusion—perhaps chaos. When that happens, the church can be healthy and united in Him, if we will remember and keep central who Jesus—and who we are together in Him.