Today it was reported that over 40% of the earth’s population is currently in lockdown. The 60% who are not in lockdown are undergoing some version of quarantine rules. These legislative decisions have seriously impacted all facets of our society: schools are closed, businesses are curtailed, social interaction limited or prohibited, and large gatherings of all sorts are illegal. And as a result, churches have been forced to change the way in which they “gather.” Livestreaming and virtual gatherings have become not only vogue in the church but a necessary part of church ministry.
Being challenged to review normality is often a good thing, and I am sure that much good will come of these new ventures in the years to come. But these changes have also caused many of us to seriously consider what we know about the church. What it is that COVID-19 teaches us about the church? Let me suggest a few things.
First, God is faithful. Now, an international pandemic is not needed to teach us this truth, but it does indeed bring this truth to mind. Many of the foundations that the world holds onto have crumbled: economy, health, education, and future prosperity. But amid this time, the Lord stands unchanging. We get to navigate through times of uncertainty because we have as our foundation the faithfulness of a good and gracious God. The church’s anchor is not its financial strength, its membership numbers, or its leadership’s popularity. Its foundation is and always will be the faithfulness of a God who has promised that nothing will prevail against it.
Second, the church is resilient. The church has often faced persecution and has not only survived but has thrived. To be clear, the COVID-19 pandemic is not persecution, but it is a real trial that is indeed challenging and straining the church. The church has thrived and will continue to thrive under adverse circumstances. I have been impressed by the way the church has seemingly rolled with the wave. Livestream watch parties are popping up all over. Grace Community Church (Los Angeles) servers crashed under the weight of demand. Other churches are getting unprecedented numbers listening to the online services. The church does not cower at these times but is resilient and able to endure these difficult times.
Third, gathering is a priority. Preaching is a key part of what a church does, and preaching needs to be the centre of our gatherings, but it is to be noted that the gathering of the saints is as great a priority. As the saints gather corporately to sing together, and to hear God’s word together, and to pray together, they fulfil the greater role of encouraging one another. This mutual encouragement and building up are not achieved through virtual gatherings. People do not get to interact as they should when they are gathered around their own screens, miles apart. The ability to livestream preaching into your homes should never excuse a believer from gathering together with other likeminded believers. As we gather, God uses us to grow one another in areas that we ourselves will not grow alone. This rubbing together is essential for our own personal growth and for the growth of the local church. The love of Christ for us is fully fleshed out in our love for one another.
Fourth, ordinances are an intimate time. Christ has given the church two ordinances: the Lord’s supper and baptism. Both these ordinances are intimate occasions for the local church. Baptism, the proclamation of a believer’s faith, is done in the presence of the local church. The believer publicly professes his faith in Christ before those with whom he gathers so that they can corporately rejoice in God’s work and corporately hold the believer accountable to his profession. This is the same with the Lord’s Supper: The local gathering of the church corporately proclaiming the gracious nature of Christ’s death and resurrection. As we meet and break bread together, we all agree that we trust in Christ, and that we gather because of his victory over sin. Just as one should not be baptised in the confines of one’s own home, so Communion should not be normative within the confines of one’s own home. Many have taken to having virtual Communion during this time, but in our understanding of the Scriptures, this practice circumnavigates the real purpose of this corporate meal. What a joy it is that God has given us these two wonderful gospel reminders within the context of the local church.
Fifth, gathering is a manifestation of love. One of the tenants of the church is the true expression of love amongst the brothers and sisters of Christ. There are numerous ways in which we can continue to show love for one another even when we are not meeting. But love is real and tangible when we gather corporately (on the Lord’s Day and throughout the week). As we gather, we get to touch, see, and hear each other and this promotes love within the body. And it is this real and tangible love that becomes a witness to a lost world. When people from all cultures, economic positions, and religious backgrounds come together and visibly love one another, the world takes note. As this was especially true in the Roman culture, imagine how true it is in our own fragmented culture. The inability to gather one with another robs us of the opportunity to show real love one to another. We can try to overcome this through calls and videos, but it is a poor substitute for the real thing. I, for one, can’t wait to gather again so that I can love and be loved in tangible, God-exalting ways.