11 May 2020

Unity, not Uniformity, During Church Reopening

Yesterday, here in North Carolina, churches were allowed by the governor's executive order to meet outdoors without a number limit as long as social distancing was observed. Our church gathered for the first time in 55 days on a beautiful Spring morning. And it was wonderful! About one-third of our average regular crowd participated. Although our county has had little health impact from the coronavirus, two-thirds of our congregation choose to stay home. Let me tell you why that's okay for now.

In Romans 14, Paul lays out a principle for the church that perfectly fits our current circumstances. In that chapter, Paul is directing believers to be gracious to one another over matters on which they may have differing opinions.  He mentions certain observances and dietary choices as examples. Over these kind of things, Paul says, "not to quarrel over opinions."  

You may think of the Apostle Paul as that guy who was always impassioned about his opinions, but Romans 14 (as well as 1 Corinthians 8), show that Paul (under the inspiration of God) didn't lump every issue into the same level of concern.  

If the matter at hand was a gospel issue, related to correct belief or Christian conduct, then the gloves were off! Paul would vigorously defend God's truth (see Galatians).  However, on non-gospel matters he urged understanding, compassion, and grace. He posed the rhetorical question to the Romans, "Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls." In other words, in these secondary issues, each believer is accountable to God, the one he or she serves.  

The Bible teaches us here that these secondary, non-gospel issues become matters of personal conscience. The mandate is not for uniformity among us, but for each of us to behave in such a way that maintains unity.

As the church reopens, within the parameters that each state's governor will issue, church-goers will personally weigh out their circumstances and comfort level. Some of us are comfortable with more risk. Some of us are not comfortable with much risk at all. Some of us are not in that higher risk category. Some of us are part of the more at risk crowd. Some of us feel we can take our kids out and properly protect them. Some of us feel we can do that best by keeping them home for now.  With all of these variables in play, it's no surprise that people will have differing opinions about how and when to head back to church to physically gather with others.

As pastor, my commitment is to do all that I can to comply with my governor's reasonable restrictions to protect you and the public health as we reopen. Additionally, I want to encourage the whole congregation to posture themselves with humility and grace toward one another during the slow process of reopening.

First, don't judge one another over personal matters of conscience. We must all remember that our opinions are nothing more than our opinions. The more cautious among us should not accuse others of being careless. The more risk taking among us should not accuse others of being cowardly. To point fingers and say snarky, judgmental things creates disunity and causes stumbling. "Therefore, let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hinderance in the way of a brother."  

Second, we should make this a time of congregational unity, focused on mutual support of one another.  We should love and respect one another, even if we don't agree about the speed or manner in which we all engage the church reopening. "So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding."  
Summer is almost here, and many people enjoy the water during the summer heat. Some go to the swimming pool and run and jump in.  Some approach the swimming pool by first sticking in a toe, then the foot, then sitting on the side with both feet in, and then slowing sliding in the rest of the body. Which approach is right? You probably think that question is absurd and improper. If so, then you get the point.

This current crisis, and the fear and precautions that goes with it, will eventually pass. At some point, we will all gather together again. In the meantime, whether you are the jump-right-in kind or the gradual-slide-in kind, please know I love you and respect the manner in which you will choose to engage reopening. Do this for one another.      

Romans 14     

14 April 2020

Why Our Sad Hearts are a Good Sign

The COVID-19 crisis has cause most churches to get on a steep learning curve to leverage technology to keep their congregations connected. Some large churches on the top of the technological pyramid were already poised to jump into production because they were already swimming in that pool. However, the vast majority of pastors, who shepherd the more typical small flocks, scrambled to figure out live streaming options and how to utilize Zoom for smaller virtual gatherings. Now, that we are several weeks into this temporary, new normal, we have figured out how to record and upload, go live online, or preach to folks in the parking lot, while they stay in their cars like attending a drive-in movie. 

I am grateful for the technology that does allow us to see and speak to each other on a screen for a small group. I am appreciative to have the means to record some Bible teaching or sermons, so that the congregation can still be under the instruction of the Word of God. I am delighted that our music ministry can record a set of songs and upload it to our website for folks to enjoy. Being forced to be innovative and think about what is truly important can be one of the blessings in this whole ordeal. 

However, this experience has affirmed what I already believed. Even though we have all this technology that can keep us virtually connected, it does not and should not mitigate the natural grief of physical separation or ever be an alternative for actual, physical gathering.  

Online broadcasts, even if live, are a one way street. There is nothing wrong necessarily about that. Reading a book is similar, and much profit intellectually and spiritually can come from reading a good book! Watching a good movie or documentary can be entertaining and informative. I have benefited greatly by listening to or watching recorded sermons. But that is not the point. 

The point is that a church cannot worship this way.  Whether a congregation is ten people or a thousand people, corporate worship is a group activity that requires physical presence. If you find yourself truly growing more sad each week because you can't physically gather with your church, then you are in the right emotional place. We need to be reminded that this is a time to lament the temporary loss of what we typically take for granted - our gathering. 

In the New Testament the underlying assumption, hardly worth expounding on, was that a congregation was by definition a group of people that physically gathered. As they gathered, they were instructed in the Word of God, worshipped together, prayed together, and served and gave together. When they came together they baptized new believers and shared in the Lord's Supper together. They guarded their membership, supported the work of the gospel, and protected the integrity of the message. All of this and more was done eye to eye, voice to voice, and heart to heart with the conjoining of leadership, the congregation, and the power and presence of God's Word and Spirit.           

Yesterday, I came across one of those typically pragmatic articles that are put out to encourage pastors with 3 tips about that or 5 ideas about this. The title of the article was, "5 Principles for Avoiding a Drop in Online Worship Attendance."  Although the content of the article was fine - simple reminders of ways to stay connected and still be fulfilling purpose during these days of social distancing - the title itself was like fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul.   

For evangelicals to think that online worship attendance is even a real thing shows how deeply we have drunk from the well of the consumer driven, shallow, darkened room, spotlighted singers, hipster preachers, highly produced, made-for-spectators church.  

If I have convinced myself that going to worship is essentially a passive event, then it is an easy transition to watch from my own kitchen table or living room couch. The only thing I lose is the energy of the crowd. I may benefit from watching and listening. Once again, that is not the point. But to worship corporately requires my presence with others.  To think that I can worship with my church while physically distant is like thinking a square triangle is a real thing.

Corporate worship by definition assumes an in-person participation.  When we sing together, we are making confession together of our faith and our gratitude and love toward God. When we hear the Word of God read and preached we enter into a dynamic moment of corporate discipleship in which the Word rightly divided, empowered by the Holy Spirit, works in the mind and heart of the hearer. In-person, corporate worship allows us to look each other in the eye, to offer the warmth of a handshake or hug, and to exchange words of encouragement. 

Preaching to a camera is still pretty awkward for me, even though I am grateful some are going to listen and watch and receive instruction from God's Word. I miss what God does among and through his people when they gather. I grieve the loss of that. As we come together and we place God center-stage of our worship and submit to the Bible rightly explained, interpreted and applied, and love and encourage one another from sincere hearts, God does his work among his people for his glory. I miss that!

If that is what your heart aches for during these days of physical separation, then let me affirm your loss. Your sadness caused from not being able to gather with that Sunday school class or small group in person is to be expected. If going week after week and not gathering is creating an increasing heaviness in your soul, then let me assure you of the appropriateness of your restlessness and longing. Be encouraged that the sadness of your heart is a good indicator of the place of your soul.    

However, if you are finding that as the weeks roll on in COVID-19 that your thoughts have been very little of your church, then you may want to pause and ponder. If your heart hasn't truly longed for the gathering of the church so that you could greet fellow believers, sing together, give together, listen to the Word together, and just be together, then maybe Christ's church is not truly that important to you. If you think that online options are viable replacements for actual gathering, then most likely you were already merely approaching church as a spectator activity, and you have been missing the point and the blessing.

I'm looking forward to that first Sunday back. In my mind's eye I see familiar faces that are singing, greeting one another, showing hospitality to guests, listening and receiving God's Word and being the church - an assembly of sinful people saved by God's grace, striving to greater faithfulness now, and looking forward to that blessed hope. Until then, my heart remains a little out of sorts, and that's okay.  

P.S. If this experience has a positive for the church, it may well be at least to help us empathize more deeply and sincerely with our homebound members.  For them, social distancing was a reality long before the coronavirus. We should remember this and do better to alleviate the burden of their isolation from their congregation.

06 April 2020

Facing the COVID-19 Uncertainty

Artwork by Libby Cornett (acrylic on black canvas)
The world is simmering in a pot of uncertainty as I write this morning. Here in the U.S. the deaths from COVID-19 reached 7,616 by 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 5, according to the CDC. That number is expected to continue to climb.

On top of the pandemic, we are feeling apprehensive about the economic impact. The situation feels as fragile as a house of cards that may come crashing down with catastrophic consequences for many people.

People are heroically pulling together and doing what they can. Nevertheless, just barely below the surface lies an uneasiness. We have become keenly aware how fragile are matters of health and economics. People, who have normally felt secure, are now dealing with an anxiousness about the uncertainty of the day.

As hard as all this is right now, especially for those in our larger cities, we can find peace of mind. When matters are threatening our well-being, a genuine reliance on God can bring confidence. Fear and despair can overwhelm us, if we feel alone and powerless in a threatening situation. However, when we know we are not alone, and we have confidence in the One who is with us, then we find peace that encompasses our fear.

The prophet Habakkuk lived in uncertain and hard days in the late seventh century B.C. Judah was on hard times. Enemies threatened them, and their society was plagued with wickedness and injustice. God revealed to Habakkuk that He was going to send the Chaldeans as an instrument of judgment. This was distressing news, however, Habakkuk prayed at the close of the book,

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer's;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

The prophet didn't know exactly how matters would unfold, but he had an idea that tough days were ahead. Yet, he spiritually dug in his heels to trust in God. He chose not to despair, but to place his confidence genuinely in the God of his salvation. He knew, even through the rocky and rough terrain of hard times, God would give His stabilizing presence. The difficulties would be real, but God would be present. The prophet knew what was certain in his uncertainty. We too can have that same assurance.  

Although we can be sincerely grateful for the contributions of those in government and medicine, our joy, peace of mind and assurance that all will be well can only come from the One who is really in control of us in life and death. 

We have this confidence through a saving relationship with our Creator through faith in Jesus Christ.  And when this relationship is real, then we can say with the Apostle Paul, "to live is Christ and to die is gain."  In life we trust and obey Christ; in the face of death, we are assured of God's favor.

Let me encourage you to be in God's Word now more than ever. In it's pages, we discover God's truth for our lives, which are always filled with uncertainty. But we will learn in it what is always certain. We will find the steadiness for our souls in times like these. Charles Spurgeon is credited with saying, "A Bible that is falling apart usually belongs to a person who isn't." 

Here are few encouraging places to read during these days.

  • John 10
  • book of Ephesians
  • book of Philippians
  • Romans 8
  • Psalm 19,23,30,34,46,73,91,139    

Unity, not Uniformity, During Church Reopening

Yesterday, here in North Carolina, churches were allowed by the governor's executive order to meet outdoors without a number limit a...

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