In the past month, I received several emails asking, "When are we going to have church again?" Some of these inquiries come from folks eager to get back to normal. They long for the rhythm of Sunday: getting up, getting dressed, singing the songs of faith, hearing God's word face to face. Occasionally the email will say something like: "If people can go to Walmart or Lowe's, then it should be safe enough for us to have church." I'm not sure we can trust that Walmart's or Lowes' motives are the same as God's.
I talked to my fellow pastors. We tried to figure out what data point to use to show us it is safe to gather in the building again. The problem is there is not a data point specific enough to make that decision for us. This is the problem with data: It is good at telling you what is happening but lousy at making decisions. One of the pastors said, "I think we can't wait till it is safe enough to remove people's anxieties. We will just need to trust God to tell us." Amen, brother.
Some church members have informed me they will not return to corporate worship until a vaccine is developed. They are in the "at-risk" group and do not want to risk exposure. I respect that. Every person is responsible for his or her own health.
I saw one church's plan for regathering. The writer of the plan must have been in the military. Every detail, every possibility was spelled out. However, a German general once said, "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy." Every church that regathers knows a lot more after the first Sunday back than they did before they regathered.
Some of the problem is the way we think about church. The word translated "church" in the New Testament is "ekklesia." It is a verb that means "to gather a group of people to do something." When translated over into Old German, they used the word "kirche." It is a noun originally meaning "castle" or "fortress." The word came over into English as "church." Maybe this is why we began to associate the word "church" with place. Maybe this is why some churches regard their building as a fortress, a place to be safe from the world.
I know churches that value "place" over "gathering." They make idols of their buildings, complete with 50-page documents detailing how the building is to be used (mostly "not used'). Funny that Jesus never had his disciples build a building. When his followers pointed out how wonderful the Temple was, he told them it would be torn down. Jesus was not into buildings for buildings' sake.
The answer to the question, "When should I go to church again?" is to be the church right now. Church is being the body of Christ. Bodies are designed for action. We can be the body without a building. We can love our neighbors. We can sew masks for medical personnel. We can call and check on our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can listen to good teaching of God's word. We can even sing songs of faith - you do not need a building or an organ or a fog machine to lift up your voice in praise.
Most of all, we can encourage one another. Jesus followers can remember that we are Easter people. Our greatest fear is not death. Our greatest fear is being distant from our leader. When Paul wrote, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his purpose," he was telling us no matter what situation we are in, God is at work. Find where he is at work and join him.
In the Bible, the word for "worship" also means "serve." Serve God right now. Do what he wants. Love the people around you. Going to a building is good; being church is better.
The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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