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(RNS) — Earlier this month, Andy Stanley announced that North Point Community Church, the large, multicampus church that he leads in the Atlanta area, will not be holding in-person gatherings until 2021. At the church near Nashville, Tennessee, where I am pastor, we’ve resumed worshipping in person and intend to continue. Here’s why.
The question about canceling church services is usually framed as “loving your neighbors.” For us at Conduit, the question is: What do we do when the needs of neighbors are in conflict with each other? Which neighbor do we choose?
Medical and government officials have said that if the cause is important enough, then gathering in a safe and sensible way is permitted. Grocery stores are considered essential and therefore people are able to purchase food in a safe and sensible manner. Tens of thousands of children continue to go to day care. The cause of speaking up on behalf of our black brothers and sisters is considered essential and thus protests continue across the country.
What this means is that the question isn’t just simply about what is “safe” or “not safe.” If you’ve worked at Walmart or Sonic you have not done so with zero risk. It’s just that the risk was deemed acceptable for the service you provide.
Is gathering weekly as a church an essential activity? If you’re not a person of faith, the answer is most likely an immediate and enthusiastic “No.” For some people of faith, the answer is also “No.” This is evident in the fact that 1 in 3 active Christians have stopped attending church during the pandemic, according to the research group Barna.
Part of being a body is coming together. The hip bone connected to the thigh bone, etc. He designed us and knows exactly how we are wired. We are wired for purpose, for meaning, for belonging, for a mission that is beyond ourselves.
When we were making the decision to return to in-person gatherings, we took into consideration wisdom from multiple sources and applied thought, conversation and prayer. But our decision rested on whether or not gathering as a church is essential. We decided it is, based on four important points.
Gathering saves lives: If church gatherings were simply about coming together, sitting and hearing a “good relevant message,” we can do that sitting at home. But the Bible tells us when we come together that we inspire one another to do good works. When my church comes together, the energy of being together in the same room with the same mission has a tangible effect.
We have given away millions of dollars to drilling wells, building schools and setting slaves free in Southeast Asia. Can this be done online? Yes. And no.
My experience in more than a decade of leading a mission-based church is that contributions for a specific initiative will double if we talk about it in person. There’s a reason organizations like Compassion International sponsor tours where personal appeals can be made to an audience to sponsor children. Every week we aren’t gathering is a week we aren’t talking about injustice. It’s a week where a slave’s voice from Southeast Asia isn’t represented. Every dollar not raised represents a meal for a child in Uganda or medicine for a widow in Haiti.
Gathering for emotional health: “Online community” is an oxymoron. You can call it online church or “church at home” or any other euphemism, but watching someone sing songs and preach a sermon is not online community. It’s watching TV.
My 14-year-old son, looking at the options for public school this fall, said it best about online learning: “But Dad, none of my friends will be there. I’ll be all alone.”
Emotional health is already at code red in the United States. Loneliness and isolation are increasing. The isolation of lockdown policies pours fuel on the fire. Phone calls to suicide prevention hotlines have skyrocketed and addiction recovery centers are overflowing with clients. The research is in and there are side effects of the lockdown that are emotionally devastating large numbers of people. If we can be a source of encouragement and hope for them, that’s essential.
Size of the gathering matters: Andy Stanley told Christianity Today that his church wanted to focus 100% of its resources on online communities — it didn’t make sense to focus so many resources to in-person gatherings where maybe only 20% of the people would attend.
That’s a legitimate challenge for them and I have no judgment against him on making that call. It costs an enormous amount of money to keep the doors open on a facility that size. Churches like Stanley’s also have enormous investments in professional content creation. It’s much easier for them to shift their focus to something they were already staffed for.
For small to medium-sized churches like mine, that’s simply not the case. Opening our doors on Sunday takes very little additional resources. It’s wrong to suggest that what’s right for North Point is right for Conduit or any other church. We intend to keep our focus on what we are already doing really well, and motivate one another to good deeds and meeting needs, both in our community and abroad.
The mission of the church: If I were to ask the schoolteachers in Haiti that we provide salaries for, or the children in Kenya we are feeding, or the flood victims in Nepal to whom we are providing relief if we are essential, the answer would be yes.
If 10 years of anecdotal evidence has proved we can double the impact in those places by meeting on a Sunday, that feels pretty essential. We have an opportunity to bring hope and healing to people struggling with anxiety and depression in our own country. Let us not allow division to weaken or dilute our impact.
We genuinely support and love those who feel safer in their homes. Some who have underlying medical conditions or are considered high risk won’t be able to join us, but that doesn’t mean you’re less spiritual, that you are living in fear. (I take malaria meds when I go to Uganda because we are high risk there.) We will continue to livestream our services as a part of what God has called us to do.
And we will continue to meet in person. We live in a state that has been very supportive of the church and we have not violated a single law in our gatherings. Should that change we will continue to find a way to meet. We’ll gather in the sanctuary, or we will gather in the parking lot. We will gather on a farm or in the woods. We will gather in homes or in barns. But we will gather. Jesus compels us to. And the world needs us to.
We’ll love our neighbors, all of them.
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