As I and every pastor I know follow the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, we have essentially been evicted from our church buildings. Our largest units of “gatherings” right now are single families. Every church I know of has done a great job of adapting and doing the best they can in the face of a crisis. I think people are having vibrant experiences of Jesus in this season.
Still, I cannot stop myself from thinking about what “church” should look like once we are allowed to gather in any unit larger than single families. I see an opportunity here. To my mind, it seems likely that we’ll be able to gather in small groups (size TBD) before too long. It also seems likely that it will be quite some time before we can meet in groups of hundreds.
Because of this, I think it is vital that we all think beyond what we did when we met in large gatherings in our church buildings. If all we do during this season is continue to export church services recorded in empty church buildings (I’m not knocking this, just saying it can’t be ALL we do), then our experience of church during this season of eviction will be unnecessarily anemic.
Now, that doesn’t mean modern church services are bad or unbiblical or ungodly. It just means that I’m convinced there’s more to the concept of church than what we have customarily squeezed onto a single stage and into a single hour on a Sunday morning. I’m also not saying that we should do away with our typical Sunday services when we eventually get the opportunity to resume. But I am saying that we should not equate those modern church services with church itself.“We have all been essentially evicted from our church buildings. If ALL we do during this season is continue to export church services recorded in empty church buildings, the church will be unnecessarily anemic.”
I am convinced that when we cancelled the large church gatherings starting on March 15, we weren’t cancelling church. Because the church has never been about a service, a building, or a nonprofit organization.
Here’s the biblical reality: we are the church. You won’t find a New Testament reference to the church as a building or a service. What you’ll find instead is that the church is a collection of people.
So, yes, we’ve been evicted from our buildings for a time. But that doesn’t stop us from being the church. It’s only a hindrance if we allow it to be. And we’ll only allow it to be a hindrance if we are unable to imagine church beyond what happens during services in a specific location. Given the fact that God launched his church 2,000 years ago in a setting that looks almost nothing like 21st century America, we should feel free to use our Bibles and our imaginations to pursue healthy and vibrant approaches to being the church in our cultural moment.
So what does it mean for us to live as the church when we’re essentially evicted from our buildings? One thing we can say for sure is that church has never actually fit onto a single stage or into a single hour. The temptation is huge to think that it does. The challenge for us, now that we’re evicted from our buildings, is to avoid taking our cues from the worship services we’ve always known. Try this as a thought experiment:
Person A has never read the Bible, but has a lifetime of experience in attending a typical American worship service. Person B has never attended a typical American worship service, but reads the New Testament incessantly. Person A and Person B each set out to create a meaningful gathering with a handful of other people in their backyards. What do you think is the likelihood that the gatherings crafted by A and B will look anything alike?“How do we live as the church when we’re essentially evicted from our buildings? Church has never fit onto a single stage or into a single hour. It’s going to be all about small gatherings in homes for a while.”
Or think of it this way. If I’m reading an English translation of a book that was originally written in Danish, I should expect that I’ll get the idea clearly enough but will probably be missing some nuances in the original text. Now, what if I’m reading an English translation of a Cantonese translation of that Danish book? I’ll probably get the idea, but there will be some quirks that come through this telephone-game approach to reading the text.
So as we think about what it will look like to meet together in homes or backyards in small groups, I strongly encourage each of us to think through what it will look like for us to gather and scatter as the church based on the picture of the church we get in the New Testament. For this unique season, I think it would be enormously beneficial for each of us to forget that we’ve ever seen a typical American worship service and to instead custom create home church gatherings that are specifically designed for meeting in homes or backyards.
This is the moment for all of us to use our best creative energy to imagine what the church could look like during this season of eviction. What will vibrant gatherings entail? How will we empower mission and keep it at the forefront? What about engagement with Scripture, worship, prayer, and communion? If we stumble into this season without critical thought and careful training, I think the church will be impoverished for a time.
To that end, I put together a short mini-book (32 pages) to help pastors, small group leaders, and church members imagine what church could look like in their small, unique settings. It’s called The Evicted Church. I’m not laying out a model, just pushing us all to engage in critical thought so we can be prepared. The reality is that the early church looked more like the season we’re heading into (small gatherings in homes) than what we’ve been doing (large gatherings in specific buildings). Let’s enter this season with enthusiasm and purpose.
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