For many of us who are followers of Jesus, COVID-19 has shaken up our rhythms of gatherings and life within the context of a church community. Many Christians have pushed back on governmental orders not to gather while quoting Hebrews 10:25.
And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
I believe that we tend to think that our way of doing church here in America is the way the church is and should be done. We think that Hebrews 10:25 is giving us a command in America in 2020 where our church “organizations” that own buildings with auditoriums that hold anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand people. I believe that COVID-19 is an opportunity for us to allow our understanding of the church to shift in healthy ways.
What is the church?
The word “church” comes from the Greek word “ekklesia” which means “the called out”. This mirrors Mark 1:17 where Jesus calls his disciples by saying,
“Come, follow me (call),” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people (the mission they are called for).”
Yes, Jesus was going to spend the next season in fellowship with them, but He didn’t call them just so they could hang out as friends. He called them so that they would be sent out on mission. Let me say it this way… the mission of the church isn’t to gather. The mission of the church is to love our neighbors and to make disciples, and our gatherings help align our hearts, shape us, and equip us to go outside of our walls to do this. This begs us to ask the question, “when we talk about our church life in COVID-19, are we more concerned with getting back to our large gatherings or with reaching people?”
The Persecuted Church
I believe that looking at both the early church and the global church can help us. Right now, there are Christians all over the world that live in places where it is illegal to gather for Christian worship. They do not need a government to permit them or call them essential. They know that they are essential. However, they cannot gather in large buildings and public places, but they still gather. Many people meet in homes and backrooms of business spaces. They sing at whisper level or don’t sing at all. Some listen to music and watch a sermon on a computer. Some don’t have a Bible. Some have one Bible that they all share for their small gathering. Many of these gatherings are five to twenty people. We can meet together in a way that contextually works with the needs of our time and places. I want us to understand this because some are fighting to get back in their worship spaces that seat massive groups of people, while people in other countries are just happy to meet in a home and gather in a group of about ten people around one Bible. I want to ask, “what would the voices of the persecuted global church tell us today?” First of all, I would be embarrassed to have the conversation, knowing that at times I have been entitled and shaped by my American privilege and freedom of religion. I also believe that they would encourage us to be creative in how we can gather in ways that are different, but still help us not neglect to gather.
The Early Church
It was not legal to practice Christianity during the first 280 years of its existence. The disciples, Peter and Andrew had a house in the region of Galilee that became one of many house church gatherings. Their house is not as much known as their house as it is known as “The Church of the Apostles”. The Christians believed that their mission was essential and of the utmost importance to the world.
In Rome, the majority of church gatherings happened in apartment complexes called “insulas”. These were two to three-story buildings. Normally, the bottom floor was a place of business and the top two floors were residential areas (similar to when people live above their businesses in places like NYC). Often gatherings would take place in the business portion because they could fit closer to twenty people instead of five to ten in their residential apartment spaces. It was this network of house churches that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, and it was some of these house church leaders that he included names of in Romans 16.
Larger gatherings didn’t start happening until the third century. The houses of rich Christians in the community were retrofitted for Christian worship. Pools and baths became baptismals. Large rooms would become sanctuaries. When the churches became legal within the next hundred years, these houses became the first basilicas. After Christianity became legal in 313 A.D., Christianity became known as the Roman Catholic Church. This is where there was a tie between the empire supporting the churches, and big worship gathering spaces became the norm and began to evolve into the direction that we have today.
I believe that this is an exciting time for the church. This is going to test us to see if we can creatively contextualize and move forward. This will also question how missionally focused we are.
What about mission?
Just like the disciples were called out for the sake of not just hanging out with each other, but for being sent out on mission, we are called to do the same.
In 251 A.D. there was an epidemic that hit the Roman world and in 260 A.D. another one hit. Christianity grew from 1 Christian to every 249 pagans to 1 Christian to every 4 pagans in this time (pg. 89 “The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries” by Rodney Stark). This wasn’t because they fought to meet together in their worship gathering spaces amid sickness. This happened because when everyone fled the cities in fear and left their sick and dying, the Christians stayed behind and were willing to lay down their lives to show love for the sick.
Emperor Julian in 362 A.D. was against Christianity, but he said this,
“the impious Galilean (what he called Christians) support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us” (pg. 75 “A history of Christianity” by Paul Johnson).
He wanted pagans to equal the virtue of Christians (pg. 83 Stark).
I think about our world now. We are experiencing so much pain, and our nation seems to be in a state of chaos. Rodney Stark says this as he concludes chapter seven:
“To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”
They showed that they were called out for mission!
Let’s make a difference!
In this pandemic and other chaos of our time, can we see this as an opportunity for mission? Many of us are being challenged by what it means to be the church. For some, we still think that if we just get back to our big buildings, everything will be okay. Let me ask you, are people that are part of your mission going to feel safe attending your building now, or will it just be you and a few from your congregation that just want to be back together? Are you willing to go about regathering in a way that will hurt your witness and ability to reach people as part of your mission?
When people one hundred years from now look at Christians at this moment, will they see that all we wanted to do was fight to regather so we can gather with other like-minded Christians, or will they look back and see that we seized this as an opportunity to love our neighbor as the called-out ones by Jesus in a way that makes a difference?