Over the past two millennia, the Church of Jesus has survived brutal persecutions, the chaos of invasions and wars, plagues, famines, revolutions, and, perhaps the most dangerous of all social conditions, the church has even survived economic prosperity. Nothing that has happened in America or the world in 2020 will prove to be a deadly threat to the existence of the Church. That said, 2020 has been a really, really tough year for the Church in America and particularly for pastors and church leaders.
In my particular congregation, the church elders and I found ourselves confronted again and again by what felt like impossible, “no-win” decisions. Often none of the options available to us seemed good, and yet we had to make some decision. There are no ministry playbooks that we could follow that would tell us exactly what was the right thing to do in any given situation. We prayed. We leaned on Scripture. We pooled what wisdom God granted. Yet, even so, we often felt as if we were groping in the dark.
I’m sure we’ve made mistakes, and yet I’m not sure I would change any of the decisions we made. No doubt church historians will pore over this period in the years to come. Future generations will learn from our efforts. But we don’t have that now, and so we will have to continue prayerfully and in good faith, trusting God to redeem our mistakes and increase our wisdom and faithful obedience.
Busyness as Faithfulness
It is very tempting in these circumstances to become focused on programs and activities, to fret about the fact that programs and activities that have kept us busy during “normal” times are not happening in these days. I myself fret about that. After all, if we aren’t busy doing programs and having meetings, then ministry must not be happening, right?
There was something somehow comforting about the unceasing busyness of American church life in those “normal” times. A church calendar bristling with meetings, classes, programs, and activities somehow persuades us that we are faithful, that we are successful.
Programs, classes, meetings, and activities can certainly be useful tools in the work of building the kingdom of God and making disciples for Jesus. Of course, sometimes a full church calendar doesn’t mean anything except that you’ve filled your calendar with busyness. Busyness does not necessarily equate with fruitfulness or with faithfulness.
In most times during its history and in many places today, the Church’s life has not and does not focus on busyness, on programs, meetings, and activities. The core mission of the Church does not require complicated programming or crowded calendars. Worship, prayer, growing in the knowledge of the Lord, serving those who are vulnerable and in need, and making disciples for Jesus—these core missions of the people of God can and should be happening whether the church organization is scheduling them or not. And through the centuries right down to the present, especially in places of great poverty or great persecution, the people of God have faithfully and fruitfully carried out all of these core missions through the simple, everyday faithfulness of men and women who love Jesus.
My pastor’s heart is far more concerned about the habits of heart and mind that American church people may develop during this strange and troubled time. There is, of course, great hand wringing in American churches, a fear that church people will simply get out of the habit of coming to worship. I hear worry that people will simply get too comfortable sitting at home in their pajamas, drinking coffee, and watching worship on their phone or computer. I confess that I don’t fret much about that. I am inclined to believe that the people we will lose that way are people we never really had in the first place. I believe that people whose lives are committed to following Jesus will return to worship, when in their particular circumstances it seems wise and responsible.
Right now, accepting the advice of public health officials, I am convinced that crowding a lot of people close together in a room for public worship is irresponsible. (I’ll have more to say on the topic of responsibility shortly.) But before too long it is reasonable to believe that with the wide distribution of Covid vaccines, we will again be able to gather in large numbers to worship together. What kind of “normal” church life and ministry will we chose to build at that point?
Rights or Responsibilities?
This pastor (and others too) is much more concerned about what I see as a growing tendency among American church people to insist upon their rights. Mind you, as an American citizen, I value the rights that our system has established for all Americans. I believe that the protection of the rights of all Americans is an important civic value that we should guard carefully. Let me emphasize, though, this matter of rights is a civic matter applying to all Americans with absolutely no regard to their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Rights have to do with my relationship to the civil government.
When, however, it comes to our relationship to God and to his people, the Church, rights go out the window. We have absolutely no rights before God. And when it comes to ordering the life of the Church, there is no place for talk of rights. In our relationship with God and in our relationships within the Church, there are no rights. The life of faith is built not on rights but on God’s grace and our responsibilities.
The life of the Church should be built not around our rights as people of God but around our mutual responsibilities. Before God, I don’t have a right to worship; I have the responsibility to worship. I don’t need the government to give me the right to worship. I appreciate the fact that the American system grants me the right to worship. The right certainly makes our church life easier and more comfortable and less costly to us personally. But I don’t need the government’s permission to worship. It is my calling and responsibility to worship whether the government likes it or not. If you want to see how that works, look at how our brothers and sisters in China or Iran do it.
Certainly, I am glad that we don’t have to face the hardships and pay the price that Christians in China or Iran have to deal with, but if Christianity in American can only survive if we have rights and freedoms to live out our faith, then I have to wonder whether American Christianity is the real thing or not.
I worry that American Christianity will import “rights” thinking into the life of the Church. If American Christians learn from this pandemic time that the most important thing for us to do is to insist on our rights, we will be teaching ourselves a lesson that will distort and weaken our faith, a lesson that will make us self-centered and concerned only about ourselves and about protecting our own comfort and ease.
What I as a pastor have become more and more determined to do is to teach us to shift our focus from “rights” thinking to “responsibilities” thinking. What are our responsibilities before God in these challenging times? How can we live out those responsibilities faithfully in the circumstances of a pandemic? What I have found over the past year is that the task of leading the people of God through a pandemic such as the one we are facing involves balancing out competing and sometimes contradictory responsibilities.
We have a responsibility before God to gather to worship him. Church leaders are called by God to bring the people of God together to worship and to learn together and serve together. There is no question about that. There is no escape from that responsibility.
We also have the responsibility before God to take care of and protect one another. We are called to love one another and to do only good to one another. That means that we must be careful not to do each other harm and particularly not to make each other sick. To crowd people together in a way that we know will endanger their health and well-being would be irresponsible and a failure to fulfill the law of love.
How are we to balance out the conflicting responsibilities—that of gathering together for worship and that of protecting each other’s health and well-being? That has been the challenge that my church’s elders and I have wrestled with over the past year. I don’t know if we’ve done that perfectly. But that has been what we have sought to do with much prayer.
Technology has given us some tools that past generations of church leaders haven’t had available to them, but these digital tools are not perfect. We’ve tried to use those tools creatively and are aiming to try to do that even better in the coming year. We’ve have also tried to use older technologies too, such as phone calling (we’ve done lots of that) and mailing cards and letters (I have done lots and lots of that). We’ve delivered care packages and love gifts to all of our people. We’ve created funds for helping people who encounter financial needs in these harsh times.
This balancing of responsibilities isn’t easy. We will look for better ways to do it. But building our church life around our responsibilities to God and each other is the main and most important habit of heart and mind that any church can learn during such times as these. It’s certainly my prayer that my congregation and others will strive to take that commitment with us as, by God’s grace, we soon move out of these pandemic times and into whatever our new “normal” looks like.
Forgiveness, Forbearance, and Grace
In order to do that well, we will need to resist the temptation to simply get “busy” again. Not everything we filled our church calendars with in the past were worthwhile uses of the church’s energy, time, and resources. We will need to use wisdom and prayerful discernment as we begin to re-program our churches. In this work of organizing the post-pandemic life of our churches, it will be important that we do that not as an effort to get our rights, but instead as an effort to be wise and faithful to our responsibilities, recognizing that responsibilities are really just the living out of love—love for God and love for neighbors (that is, everyone we encounter). It will no doubt require considerable exercise of forgiveness, forbearance, and grace.
(c) 2021 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.