Leadership is tough. That’s not a complaint. It’s a fact, like saying the sky is blue. Doug Wilson recently did a piece where he highlighted some of the unique issues surrounding leadership but there is one that I feel bears the time and effort of writing this. This is one that Wilson didn’t mention, but that is equally important, especially when making significant decisions. Later today, my fellow pastors and I will sit down to make some decisions about how we will lead the church that Christ has entrusted to our care over the coming days, weeks and potentially months, in light of the COVID-19 precautions that everyone is talking about (for more on this see Wilson’s article).
There are tough decisions to be made. They are particularly tough in this case because we don’t have all the variables nailed down with this virus. There are still a lot of unknowns and those unknowns make decisions more difficult. So, how do you make decisions when there are a host of unknown factors? I would submit that you make decisions based on what IS known. Therein lies the sticky topic that I am sure will rub some of you the wrong way but I feel needs to be said. As leaders, we are often (too often) reactionary and rushed. When we make decisions in reaction and rush mode, we tend to overlook unintended consequences. Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Allow me to take the spirit behind that law of motion and translate it into a law of leadership. Every decision we make has a host of consequences that in many cases, might not be fully understood until much later.
That means that every leadership decision we make, for example in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, does not just impact us here and now. It will impact us for years to come. It’s called precedent. It’s like tossing a pebble into a calm pool of water and watching the ripples drift out and back. The bigger the rock, the bigger the ripples. Sometimes those ripples turn into tidal waves. That brings me to the topic of this article. I am hearing many pastors (and keep in mind these are godly pastors who I respect, not charlatans) talking about how they will not be having church in person but instead, encouraging their people to “attend church online through the live stream”. Here is where I object. My objection is not a condemnation on deciding to suspend the worship service. That is a decision each congregation needs to make (and one of those tough decisions). My objection is this: that phrase “online church” is a contradiction of terms. And that decision to phrase it that way provides an excellent case study for how important it is for leaders to think through unintended consequences.
Words matter and therefore definitions of words matter. When I was in the army, I was a Cav Scout. This means (among other things) that I spent a lot of time in a vehicle moving from point A to point B and during those long drives, the intercom was normally a very chatty place. I discovered that my driver had a particular and peculiar gift. You could name any animal and he could tell you what a group of them was called. This became a kind of stump-the-driver game where we would say every possible animal we could think of and he would respond. Monkeys… barrel or troop. Squirrels… a dray or scurrey. Squid… squad. Sharks… gam. Meerkats… mob. You get the idea. This went on for hours.
That brings up an interesting question for us. What is a group of believers called? The answer is intuitive but has some pretty significant implications. A group of believers is called the church. We always hear that the church is the people, but is that a sufficient definition? Words have meanings.
What is the Church?
I’m going to get a little nerdy here for a moment, but bear with me because it is germane to the discussion at hand. The word in Greek that denotes the church is Ekklesia. Now, like with many words, this can have varied meanings. It is used of all who are in Christ, or of those in a specific town united into one body. The other ways it can be used however, have to do with “assembly”. The word, like so many Christian terms in the 1st century church was hijacked from contemporary culture and given a uniquely Christian meaning while still preserving the cultural meaning. The term means assembly. In Roman culture, it was used of citizens who gathered together who were called out of their homes and into a public space. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word is used of the assembly of Israelites. In the New Testament it means (as far as it’s use concerning our topic) “an assembly of Christians gathered for worship in a religious meeting”. So the church is not just the people of God when we are talking about it in the context of the Sunday morning worship service. The church is the people of God gathered together for the public worship of God. This is significant. Allow me to nerd out a bit more and support this assertion with some Scripture so you can assess for yourself if this in fact matches what I am saying.
1 Cor 14:26 - What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
1 Cor 11:18 - For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part,
1 Cor 11:20 - When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat
1 Cor 11:33 - So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another--
1 Cor 11:34 - if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.
Eph 5:19 - addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,
Col 3:16 - Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
Heb 10:25 - not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
James 2:2 - For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,
Acts 20:7 - On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.
You get the idea. The point is an essential element of the worship service is the church is together. Physically. As in the same room. This has always been understood that an essential part of the church gathering is the church (the people of God) gathering together for worship and mutual encouragement.
Over the past few years there has been a trend of churches, particularly large churches, doing “online campuses”, “online church”, “online worship experiences” and the like. It has been rightly pointed out in the past that these are not church services. Why? Because they lack an essential element of the worship service, namely the gathering of God’s people. It’s like saying you are a part of a Christmas dinner while watching everyone else eat at a table in a warm dining room from outside the window eating a Big Mac. You’re watching, but you cannot participate because you aren’t there around the table with the people. As I said, this has been rightly pointed out and an error in the past.
Now, here is my question… has the definition of church changed because of COVID-19? Some might object (I can hear the fingers banging away at the keyboard) “but wait… I’m not talking about starting an online campus or encouraging people to make a habit of staying at home and worshiping at home while the rest of the church gathers. These are extraordinary circumstances and this is temporary” (italics are mine).
Granted, this is an unusual circumstance and I have not heard any of these pastors whom I know and respect advocating for online worship as a norm or seeing this as an opportunity to start that in the future. However, think for a moment about my initial point. Decisions have consequences. We are always discipling. Even the words we use disciple. They teach. They say something. I’m not attacking the intent or motive. I’m simply urging you to think about the effects this will have once the virus has subsided. What does this teach people?
I would argue that this teaches people that the church service and corporate, public worship of God’s people can be disconnected from the gathering of God’s people, an idea which is totally foreign to Scripture. That has consequences. The interesting thing is the definition of the church hasn’t changed. It’s just been hijacked for a moment because it suits the circumstance we find ourselves in. We have subtly changed the definition. We have disconnected it from it’s Biblical meaning.
This can bring on a host of unintended consequences. As pastors of Arbor Drive, we have labored hard and long to highlight the importance of the gathering of God’s people, and rightly so. The Sunday morning worship gathering is special. It is not special simply because of the preaching or singing, but because we do those things together. Because we are worshiping God together. Take the singing… we are singing as much to one another as we are to God (see Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16). You take away the one another, the physical presence, and you take away what makes it special. It is no small leap to go from there to “I don’t need to go to church. I can pull up some songs on YouTube, listen to a John Piper sermon (who by the way is a better preacher than you and I), give to a worthy ministry, eat some bread and drink some juice, and call it good”. And why wouldn’t someone jump to that conclusion? We have already said that you can attend church online. If it can be done because of COVID-19, why can’t it be done because I overslept or would rather enjoy church from the comfort of my couch rather than those stuffy chairs?
The answer is simple, because watching some YouTube videos and eating a scanty helping of bread and juice is not a church service. If church were just singing songs and hearing a sermon, why would believers in China risk their lives to gather together? Why not stay home and sing along with better music and hear better preaching if it was just about the elements of the worship service? I would submit that in our disconnected, social media world of America, we are being discipled that you can do anything online and that is a valid replacement for face to face interaction. You can have online friends, online communities around hobbies, play games online, go to school online, shop online, work online. Why not church? Add into that the issue of individualism and preference being the chief of all values in American culture and you have the recipe for a real issue. Once you walk down that road, you lose what makes the church the church.
A Healthy Alternative
So, what then shall we do? I think the answer is simple. If the leadership feels that the church cannot gather, you communicate to the body that the church gathering (the worship service) is suspended because of COVID-19. It’s that simple. Don’t seek to replace it with a modern solution that lacks the substance of what makes the worship gathering a worship gathering. Can families worship together at home? Yes. They can. In fact there is a host of things you can provide and do that will help them grow in their faith while the church suspends gatherings… just don’t call watching a screen together a valid replacement for the church gathering.
Brothers, don’t open the door to having to deal with problems later because you sought to avoid the term “canceling church”. If we are honest, that’s what it is, which makes this decision all the more weighty. Sorry that doesn’t help, but that’s really what we are talking about. Don’t undermine the ecclesiology of the church by teaching that the attendance in person part is not part of what makes the church service a church service. As I said, we have been pressing into this hard because it has consequences for how we love and care for one another. Many reading this would agree if we were talking about an “online campus”. All that work risks being undone if we teach that you can attend the church service without attending. At that point, we are just another online community no different from anything else. The words we use matter and have consequences. So, my admonition to you is stop and think about the ripple effects of your decisions and the way you communicate them. It might prevent you from having to undo things in the future and be seen as inconsistent. When it comes to the church gathering, assembly is required.
Jon is husband to Carlee, Papa to Finleigh, Ainsley, and Olivia, a pastor at Arbor Drive Community Church in York, Ne, and co-host of The Pastor Discussions Podcast