This week, a drastic change has taken place in many American churches. Because of COVID-19, restrictions have been placed on the number of people allowed to gather in one place, and many churches have been forced to suspend on-campus gatherings until further notice. Now, church staff and volunteers are scrambling to adjust and adapt. Pastors are preparing to preach to empty sanctuaries and full living rooms. Worship leaders are choosing songs people can participate with from their couches. Student ministers, children’s ministers, Sunday School teachers, and discipleship leaders are rushing to send out content and organize virtual meetings with their groups. Finance teams are nervously eyeing the church budget. Everyone is trying to figure out how live-streaming works and how to get church members to watch. And all of these things are being done while those staff and volunteers also keep an eye on the news, try to sanitize everything, and worry about protecting themselves and their families while still ministering to those God has called them to shepherd.
It’s a tricky time. Most of us have never experienced anything like this. A common echo around my church office has been, “This is weird.” And in the midst of all the questions about what life will be like on the other side of the pandemic, a common one is, “What’s going to happen to the church?”
Is This The End Of The Church?
In a word: no. It shouldn’t be and it won’t be. In fact, I even suspect that the church will grow stronger as a result of this. Consider the events of Acts 7-8. In Acts 7, Stephen, a deacon of the (very young) church in Jerusalem, was stoned to death for preaching the gospel. Immediately after, in Acts 8:1, we read:
“On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria.”
This seems like a dark time in the history of the church. It seems like it could have been the death of the fledgling church. A deacon was publicly and brutally murdered. An outbreak of persecution was ignited. Believers were forced to flee Jerusalem and the synagogues they gathered in. But what seemed like cause for despair actually became one of the earliest missional movements of the Christian church. Acts 11 shows us the result of the persecution and scattering of the believers.
“Now those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11:19-21)
The church had been forced out of its comfort zone. It had been pushed away from its usual meeting places. Believers had been scattered into small groups and driven out in different directions. Sound familiar? But that scattering wasn’t the death of the early church. It was the launch of a new phase in its growth. In a short time, believers traveled hundreds of miles away from Jerusalem and began proclaiming the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. The church didn’t fade away in the face of difficulty. It grew.
Church In The Time Of Coronavirus
Today, many of us find ourselves in a similar situation. The church has been forced out of its comfort zone. It has been pushed away from its usual meeting places. Believers have been scattered into small groups and driven out in different directions. The threat is different, but I believe the result will be the same. The church will not fade; it will grow.
Certainly, conditions are not ideal. As long as they are able, local churches should gather as one body for worship. But even in the midst of this adversity when they can’t, good things are happening. Churches are learning to use technologies that will help distribute information more widely, more effectively, and more efficiently in the future. Church staff members are learning to come together and rely on one another instead of siloing ministries. Group leaders are discovering ways to keep in contact with members beyond the twice-weekly gatherings on campus. Church members are teaching their families, friends, and neighbors that the church is resilient and will not be deterred from worshiping its King. All of us are experiencing firsthand what we have professed for so long: That the church is about the body, not the building. This is not the end of the church. It is the beginning of something new.