COVID-19: A Theological Framework for Adjusting Church Practice
By Josh Ellis & Keelan Cook
The following article is part of a collective resource for considering your church’s current practices in light of COVID-19. This collection of articles is designed to help pastors, church leaders, and church members as they forge a path forward. The work of the Great Commission doesn’t stop for a storm, a shooting, or a pandemic. However, the methodology of transmitting the gospel will look different in each of those cases and as cultural and regional contexts play a role in shaping the channels through which the gospel most easily flows. There is a lot to unpack here.
With this collection of articles, our friends over at UBA Houston are attempting not to prescribe a particular program or method, but to encourage leaders to constantly reevaluate their circumstances through a healthy theological framework as new information becomes available.
Over the last week, countless churches have made some very challenging decisions concerning their church practice. Responses ranged from doing absolutely nothing different to completely altering every aspect of a worship service by taking the whole thing online. Between those two extremes are countless nuanced approaches. Of course, these are not easy decisions, and we urge pastors and church leaders to approach them with humility, demonstrating grace to others who handle them differently. But is the answer for each church to just do what is right in their own eyes? Should we accept all responses as equally valid?
Of course not.
While we must extend grace to others, we must also realize for a church’s response to be faithful, it must issue from a biblical understanding of the church and its mission. The Bible is rich with explanations of the church and her mission, but we want to point out four themes we find particularly significant in this moment.
THE IMPORTANCE OF WORSHIP AND GATHERING
First, the local church is an embodied assembly of believers that places extreme importance on gathering for the worship of God (Heb. 10:25), the edification of the saints (Eph. 4:11-16), and the proclamation of the gospel (Acts 1:8). The biblical congregation needs face-to-face gathering or it will die. We cannot forsake the assembly of the local church.
In another article, we mention how some have misused and misunderstood Hebrews 10:25 as poor justification for reckless practices in the middle of a pandemic. The importance of regular gathering for the health of the church cannot be overstated, but we start speaking out of our Western, American culture (and not the Bible) when we say those gatherings must be large, weekly Sunday productions that meet at 10am so that we can get to Luby’s by noon.
Consider the way churches across the world meet. When I (Keelan) was a missionary in Africa, our churches were often 10 people sitting outside under a tree. No pulpit. No praise band. The underground church in persecuted sections of the world has been meeting for years in homes and undisclosed locations. Do they forsake the assembly of the church because they’ve not had a capital campaign to erect a fancy space on the highway?
However, there is an error on the opposite side that we must also avoid, because the biblical church must gather. In order to navigate this well, those of us who make decisions about church practices for the coming weeks must find ways to create opportunities, as best as possible, for the gathering of the saints. The very identity of the church is found in its assembly (Acts 2:41-47). A great deal of the church’s vitality comes from the ability for members to engage in the “one-another commands” in Scripture (John 13:34, Rom. 12:10, Rom. 12:16, Rom. 14:19, 1 Thess. 5:11). Neglecting the assembly removes opportunities for our congregations to love one another and bear one another’s burdens, which is crucial in a time like this.
With the recent news from the CDC urging the suspension of gatherings over 10 people, that likely means this gathering does not need to take place in the large venue of your Sunday morning service for a few weeks. Even this, however, may not be enough. If we enter into a true shelter-in-place scenario, even small group gatherings may cease for a season. In times like these, we may have to gather by voice or video for a (hopefully) short time and use this as a moment to teach about the value of face-to-face gathering in our congregation. If we are forced into true isolation for a period, then perhaps we can create anticipation within our congregations for the return to an embodied meeting.
Regardless of the exact requirements on us, we must do all we can to encourage an atmosphere of assembly within our congregation. It may be smaller than we would normally have, or it may be through online means, or it may be irregular compared to a weekly worship event. Nevertheless, the church must come together as best it can.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LOVING THE SHEEP
Second, the pastors of a church are called to protect their sheep (1 Peter 5:2). Most often, we assume this protection has to do with heresy or wordliness or some form of unbiblical teaching. This is true, though we do not believe pastoral responsibility for the sheep stops at what they know. Caring for the sheep means caring for their heart, mind, body, and soul.
In times of uncertainty such as these, it means calling people to the assurance found in the gospel. It means pointing our congregations toward the all-powerful sovereign God who holds the whole world in his hands, and reminding them of the promise he has made to his church that they will spend an eternity with him. However, it also means protecting them from false gospels that would claim people can have enough faith (perhaps by coming to a large gathering in the middle of a pandemic) that God will bless them for it by assuring them protection from disease. Again, that’s a prosperity gospel not the biblical gospel. Tell that false gospel to the thousands in the history of the church who died alongside the diseased tending to their sickness during times of plague.
What is more, in extraordinary occasions like we now witness, the protection of the sheep extends to their actual physical well-being. It comes as no surprise to anyone that a great number of our evangelical churches in the United States are disproportionately skewed toward older people. We must consider those in our congregations, our brothers and sisters, who are at the highest risk for serious complications from this virus.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LOVING NEIGHBOR
Third, Christians are commanded to love their neighbors (Matt. 22:36-40). Assuredly, this is a complicated concept in an unprecedented moment. Just a few weeks ago, we thought we knew what it meant to love our neighbors. Today, this same command seems to require so much more. Al Mohler said it this way, “For Christians, the command to love our neighbor now looks very different given the realities of the coronavirus… But the church of Jesus Christ has been here before. Christians throughout church history have faced the challenge of plague. Our circumstances and situations are different, but the theology and our commitment as Christians remains the same.”
Many have taken to Twitter and Facebook to explain that, in moments like these, loving neighbors might actually mean staying away from them. Just as we consider those at risk inside our own congregations, we must also consider the risk generated by the rapid spread of this disease for those outside our congregations, those who may have no real knowledge of the true gospel. In a pandemic, creating social distance saves lives. Loving neighbor, at least in the near term, may mean working with the government and others to create the physical isolation needed to slow down this virus.
However, we must be careful and not overlook the other aspects of neighbor love that are as essential to the church’s witness as complying with the need for space. After all, our neighbors are not merely physical beings, animals without a soul. Feelings of isolation will come. Fear and desperation creep around the corner even now. A crisis such as this lays out in the open the emptiness of materialism and a host of other false gospels. Now more than ever, we must find ways to both love our neighbors by creating space and speaking with clarity to them about their only true hope and where it is found.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE GREAT COMMISSION
Fourth, we cannot pause the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). Now is not the time to retreat. The gospel is no less true today than it was before COVID-19. The message of salvation is only sweeter, and the command to go and make disciples still applies in times like these. It would be far too easy for us to take our eyes off the Great Commission this week, to make plans that care more about keeping our weekly receipts up than seeing new disciples made. We will be tempted to use physical isolation and social distancing as an easy excuse for inactivity, but this will not do. Disaster rips open hearts, but the gospel heals those wounds. We cannot miss the potential sensitivity and openness to the Spirit that will assuredly occur around us.
How do we fulfill the Great Commission in social isolation? As we said before, these are difficult questions indeed, but it is our responsibility to create those solutions with much prayer and wisdom from others. Ed Stetzer provided an excellent article addressing many of these concerns. In his piece, he challenges churches not to forsake the Great Commision. Stetzer provides a list of specific means of interacting with others during this time that demonstrate love of neighbor and provide outlets for gospel proclamation. He suggests actions such as:
- Providing childcare for healthcare workers whose kids are out of school
- Walking a dog for elderly neighbors
- Offering to pick up food and supplies for those most at risk
- Regularly calling and texting those in your neighborhood to check in
- Offering words of HOPE for those dealing with anxiety and depression
- When you have to go shopping, inquire with workers as to how they are and tell them you will be praying for their safety
He lists more, and we know that church members can be creative in finding ways to reach out right now to those who do not have the hope that we share. Of course, we must not only be quick to serve, we must also be quick to share the good news of the gospel. Be quick to meet needs right now, physical and spiritual, but be just as bold in your explanation of the hope that is found within you (1 Peter 3:15).
Finally, Stetzer provides one additional encouragement that we believe you should consider. When this passes, and by God’s grace it will eventually pass, we should plan to celebrate that moment as a church community and invite our neighbors into that celebration.
This much we know: your church doesn’t have to meet on Sunday morning at 10am in the large auditorium to be a church or even demonstrate that God has power over this, but it absolutely must bear the good news of Christ crucified and risen to a community in chaos. Equip your saints for this work, because it is the road we must walk in these desperate times.
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Union Baptist Association’s site.
View more posts in this series below