I cannot even imagine being a Pastor during this season of COVID 19. With recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)and the World Health Organization (WHO), along with Federal Government recommendations, all of which limit the group gathering size to as little as 10 people in one place at one time, gathering a church together becomes nearly impossible, even for the smallest of churches. I have heard of churches that are going to use a ‘mini church’ concept in lieu of the large gathering where the church will meet in small groups to learn and grow together. But even those gatherings are suspect to living the recommendations that the powers that be have offered to keep ‘social distancing’ a practice that is conformed to. As effective small group size is more than 10 people, I’m not sure how this will even work and can’t imagine the manpower that it will take to try and organize these meetings to be effective/productive. Complicating matters is the ever lingering question of how the church will fund its expensive operations in the U.S. With large buildings, mortgages, staff, and utility bills to pay, this season may become a difficult one to navigate with meager resources for churches that are already living week to week, on giving budgets.
The church in the U.S. is and probably has been on the verge of dissipation for many years. With statistics that are staggering regarding conversion costs (How many people come to faith per year compared ot how much money is spent) reaching close to $250,000 per conversion in the U.S. it’s a wonder that churches have held on so long doing things that way that we have done them for so many years. I wonder if the coronavirus epidemic will systemically change the way that churches operate moving forward.
I have thought more recently about all of the intricacies of trying to lead through the crisis that has us on edge. I don’t envy the Pastors that have to make the decisions that they have to make right now, in regards to their congregations, nor do I ever want to step into any role where I have to make the difficult calls. I have watched as former colleagues, current pastoral figures, and American churches have struggled to make sense of the Coronavirus shutdown. The more I watch, the more queasy and uneasy my stomach feels. Today’sPastor that has to make the decisions regarding whether his or her church meets, is screwed with whatever decision they end up making. If they decide to meet for the edification and good of the people that are part of their church, they risk having someone get the virus or spreading the virus. They risk being highly criticized by other organizations and churches around them for drawing a crowd together when the common practice and even law prohibits them from doing so. They risk an even more sinister critique of those within their own congregation. The people that say, “You are going to make us come out during this worldwide pandemic to meet with a bunch of people?” or “Aren’t we supposed to be obeying the law?” Those will be some of the most critical people of the Pastor who makes the decision, to meet. Then, there is the Pastor that will decide to not meet. They risk having their building foreclosed on, their paycheck revoked, and the clear path to personal poverty revealed. Their congregations will not give (even if online giving is an option) and their church will fade into oblivion if there is not a regular meeting to put together a weekly operational budget. They will also be critisized by those that offer that they must ‘have no faith’ or that they may not really ‘believe that God can protect.’
What a hellish spot to be. An American Pastor balancing the expectations and realities of the people that fund the organization with the need for prudence during a not so insignificant reality of people dying off from a pandemic. I do not wish to criticize either decision in the following words. Rather, there is a critique that goes even deeper than the symptom that we are experiencing. That critique is that our U.S. churches are not able to withstand the many hailstorms that are bound to come our way. Why? Because the focus of the church is and has been for many decades centered around how many people come to church and how much they are willing to give. Will the impact of the coronavirus help us rethink and reassess our very focus on something different?
Years ago, I remember being under the illusion that someday the church that I would lead in would be ‘persecution proof.’ I was convinced that someday our congregations would be under attack either from the government or from another group. And while that is not the case today, churches are under attack from the effects of the Coronavirus. Looking back in history, to the early church, we see that the early church persisted during incredible persecution. The early church gathered together regularly even through turbulent times. At times, the government told them not to meet, and they still met. The government gave them a pretty harsh discipline when they disobeyed. They could be jailed or even killed for meeting together. During the Roman empire reign, there were several worldwide pandemics that threatened the very existence of, not just the people of God, but many nations and tribes. But the church persisted. Somehow, they were “persecution proof.” Maybe it was because they were brilliant strategists who knew how to manipulate time and space and get the right amount of people in their house groups, giving the right amount of money, so that they could continue. But I doubt it. Maybe, just maybe, it was just because they were the people of God and God sustained them. We could probably learn a few things from the early church.
The early church was NOT prescriptive in the way that it was able to sustain itself. The folks were not putting on a clinic on how to make an organization survive, nor were they putting together podcasts or write-ups of how to ‘survive the slaughter of 67 A.D’. They were simply surviving or trying to, with a deep hope in God. And for many of them, God didn’t come through like they thought he would. Many early Christians found themselves on the wrong end of the pointed spear, the other side of the gladiator ring, or in deep cahoots with the latest worldwide viral pandemic. God didn’t save them from death. The only offer was hope. Was that why they were able to show as ‘persecution proof?’
They Had Fear.
Imagine, living each and every day wondering if it would be your last. Wondering if this would be the day that you would be found out and put in the gladiator ring for an audience to observe being slaughtered. Imagine not knowing where your next food and provision would come from. Imagine having the entire world pitted against you, and knowing that you were just a breath away from certain death, if you took a wrong turn. In Paul’s letters in the New Testament to different churches, he references fear nearly 40 times (and maybe more depending on how you view some sections of his writing). Sometimes, he is referencing a ‘personality trait’ of being fearful. But most often, he is referencing ‘fear and trembling’ which is an emotion and then a response to that emotion. You can do your own word study on the phrase and I think you’ll find that he addresses the fear and trembling with the antidote of ‘having faith.’ It’s easy to tell people we ‘should not fear’ and in fact, I have heard via video (because I am practicing social distancing) many online Pastors say that we should not fear. It’s harder to say that we probably will fear, as Paul seems to acknowledge in his letters, but that faith trumps fear because God is the author of faith. I don’t think Paul was being trivial when he makes these suggestions. Nor do I think he was prescribing some sort of wonder treatment to alleviate fear in the lives of those that he was engaging. Rather, I believe Paul himself had hope that God would sustain the early church, and even though fear was a significant obstacle, it would not stop the reign of God from continuing. Paul himself even pointed out that if he died, God would still reign. Nothing could separate him from the love and care of God. Not height, depth, authorities, or really anything. Even a virus. In fact, his death would be a gain if God was still reigning on his throne.
They Cultured Faith.
Looking at scripture, there were no ‘culture experts’ and there were no ‘strategists’ to help navigate building an organizational culture. But an organism naturally builds culture when it springs up from nothing out of a deep hope that God exists. The faith was cultured over many years of death, fear, and hiding. The people of the early church knew that they could be killed for their faith when they came to faith, and at the very core of their existence as Christ-followers was a commitment to potential death. This seems very different than how most Americans ‘come to faith.’ This is not to minimize those that have come to faith and say that their faith or conversion experience is ‘lesser.’ Rather, it is to simply point out that our current construct of the church in the United States stands on very different foundations than that of the early church.
The Twisted Stomach of a Former Pastor
Again, I don’t envy anything about today’s Pastor having to make the decisions that they are making. My stomach is sick when I think about having to be in their shoes. But I am hopeful that the current reality will be a catalyst for a reassessment and possible changes to the very core of what the U.S. church, in general, has been about for so long. Maybe it will become less about people in the pews (numbers) and dollars in the bag (money) and more about facilitating genuine faith that is willing to go to any measure to love, care for, and minister to the world. Maybe there will be a small awakening in the lives of those that are deeply committed to what God says is true. Maybe, just maybe.
In the meantime, I’ll keep socially distancing myself.