One of the casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic is the basic measurements of success for many North American churches. Commonly known as the “3 B’s” — buildings, budgets and bodies — churches have long prided themselves on the beauty of their physical campus, the bottom-line of their balance sheet and the headcount of those who attend worship services and other programs.
Those metrics cannot help church leaders gauge success right now. Physical campuses are empty. Attendance cannot be accurately counted for our virtual gatherings, so success cannot be measured by the size of the gathering. Finally, with a few exceptions, giving has decreased radically and will be uncertain for months to come as unemployment rises and the national economy sputters.
In the midst of the bad news, though, there is some hidden good news. These disruptions to our common church growth success measures leave the discerning church leader asking core questions about what really matters. In a timely article written for “The Gospel Coalition,” Brett McCracken has proposed that the coronavirus may actually “kill” the consumer church by stripping the church of its excess, blowing up the notion of a Sunday-only faith and challenging Christians to give without the expectation of getting.
This disruption, while frightening and unsettling, leaves the local church with a choice about how it will show up as restrictions are lifted. Some churches will return to business as usual and get back to the old metrics as soon as possible. But the discerning will seek to understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches, listen and obey. If they are listening, they will replace the “3 B’s” with “3 R’s” — repent, return, and reimagine.
Perhaps the church will hear God’s call to repent from the idols of the old measurements of success. Could the coronavirus be a tool God is using in our time as He used Babylonian captivity in Israel’s time to expose the broken cisterns from which we have been drinking and calling us back to Himself? He is the fountain of living water, and the only one who can quench our thirst (Jeremiah 2:13).
Several idols inhabit North American church culture. First, there is the idol of the event: seeing church as a Sunday, location-centered event instead of seeing the church as the people of God, both gathered and scattered. Second, there is the idol of success: being obsessed with high attendance and institutional church growth instead of being obsessed with lives transformed by the gospel through the power of Jesus Christ. Third, there is the idol of the gifted leader: relying only on a few gifted preachers instead of seeing every believer as a saint equipped for ministry (Ephesians 4:12-13). Finally, there is the idol of busyness: being over-programmed with church activity instead of fully invested in loving our families and our neighbors. In this time, may we hear the voice of Jesus, who called the Ephesian church to repent from losing their first love and to return to the works they did at first (Revelation 2:5).
Flowing from the Lord’s call to repentance is an invitation to return to God’s idea of what it means to be the church. The church of today must rely on the Bible to determine that meaning. Much that characterizes the church practices of our day are not seen in the Bible. These may not necessarily be bad things, but they are not biblical things. We must ask, “What is the essence of all that God intended us to be as a body?”
What we see in the Scripture is a God who is on mission for His own glory. This God is a sending God, who sent His own Son into the world to seek and to save the lost, who in turn sends out His disciples on the same mission (John 20:21). The church, organized for this mission, should reflect what we see in the New Testament. There we find a church characterized by worship, fellowship, discipleship, evangelism, service, and prayer (Acts 2:42-47). The New Testament church embodies core practices such as Bible study, observance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, generous giving, caring leadership, and multiplying disciples.
Every local church should immerse themselves in the New Testament to discover the non-negotiables of what it means to be a church. These things — the essence of the church — must be held tightly.
Finally, the church that heeds the call to repent and the invitation to return can be unleashed to reimagine. It is not enough to know what the New Testament says about being the church. We will have to apply New Testament principles to new modalities of practice.
No one really knows how a post-coronavirus society will operate. A church that thinks theologically about its identity, grounded in New Testament non-negotiables, can merge biblical foundations with innovation. This will require leaders who have the courage to shed their allegiance to their familiar paradigms and allow the Spirit to sanctify their imaginations. It will require leaders who are not satisfied with implementing someone else’s step-by-step plan but will seek the Lord for a unique and contextual vision. Such reimagining can lead the church to new heights as long as mission is the catalyzing principle and we stay faithful to our New Testament mandate.
Much is still unknown about what is next for our nation or our church. But the church has been here before. The infant church did not seek normalcy when they were persecuted in Acts 4. They cried out to God, rested in the finished work of Jesus and asked for boldness to stay focused on their mission. As a result, the Spirit moved in spite of the uncertainty, and the New Testament church thrived.
We must recognize this pandemic will lead to new, though uncertain, opportunities to make disciples in different ways. What is certain is that God has not changed, nor has His mission. What is His Spirit saying to your church, and how will you respond?
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