Due to the current global pandemic, we now live in a day and age where gathering together physically in large groups is deemed as undesirable, unwise, and for many, simply not possible. In places where large gatherings are being allowed, new protocols such as mask wearing and limitations on the number of persons present are being employed to ensure physical safety. Functions like weddings and funerals, kids’ birthday parties and graduations amongst others have all taken their hit from COVID-19. Coronavirus has robbed each of us of the oft taken-for-granted freedoms we once enjoyed like a simple hug or handshake, a visible smile, and proximity to others outside of our nuclear family or cohort bubble. This great COVID disruption has, might I be so bold as to say forever, changed the way we gather physically with others.
And yet, when it comes to church and traditional Sunday large group gatherings, I’m not convinced this new inability to gather together is for the worse… Perhaps this disruption to the way we 'do' church is actually a gift to the church?
Before going any further, I want to be clear: I am not anti-big or mega church, nor am I against the traditional, Sunday morning gathering church. I spent 10 years pastoring in a large, growing congregation with a high value for the Sunday gathering - and frankly, I enjoyed every minute of it. In the same vein, I’m also not solely pro house or micro-church or the missional movement, believing that that is the ‘right’ or ‘best’ way we’re called to live out Christian community. To be honest, I’m neither a smaller nor bigger is better, kind of guy. Rather, like the good, typical fence-dwelling Canadian that I am, I tend to agree with Paul’s sentiment in 1 Corinthians 9 where he says he became “all things to all people” so that he might save some. Like Paul (presumably), I’m of the belief that it’s going to take a wide variety of shapes and forms of ‘doing’ church in order to see as many as possible come to saving faith in the person and work of Jesus.
So why do I say this change in our ability to gather together physically in large groups is not necessarily a bad thing? Here are a few positives I see:
The great COVID disruption has provided the church a new opportunity to adapt and innovate away from what was once ‘normal’ to something entirely new – and possibly, even more effective.
Last month, North Carolina megachurch pastor, J.D. Greear, announced to his congregation that in light of COVID-19’s far-reaching effects on large gatherings they would not be reopening their worship facilities until the start of 2021. Instead, rather than operating as a church of 12,000 meeting in 12 different locations, Greear re-envisioned Summit Church gathering together in smaller groups in homes for the remainder of the calendar year. According to Greear, this adaptive move from a handful of (very) large gatherings to many, many small gatherings – 2,400 small gatherings to be exact – is not only seen as a viable, safer option for his church and her guests, but so too a new opportunity for the people of Summit to engage more intentionally in discipleship relationships with one another.
For more on Summit Church’s journey, check out this article from Church Leaders.
This forced moved away from the large gathering has reignited Greear’s church to lean into relationally driven discipleship. And I believe it has the same potential for your church as well.
Discipleship the lifelong practice of following Jesus, being changed by Jesus, committing to the mission of Jesus, and doing so with others, was always meant to be the primary foci of the Church. Self-admittedly though, through the multitudinous array of books and conferences of recent days all calling the Church back to this primary endeavour to “go, make disciples,” it would seem many of us have failed to hit the mark. I’m convinced this move away from the centralization – and dare I say it, idolization – of the Sunday gathering will only heighten the Church’s awareness of our need to once again place first things first, including the intentional pursuit of discipling relationships with those both near and far from the Kingdom.
In our own family of churches known as the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada, a number of our leaders are similarly pausing in this season of COVID disruption, seeking to reposition their churches and ministries to place first things first. Churches like RockPointe, a large, multi-site church in Calgary, AB, and Stony Plain Alliance Church are just two examples of this kind of wrestling with how God might be calling us to ‘do’ and ‘be’ church differently in these strange days. These churches, amongst others, rather than running to reopen their Sunday gatherings, are intentionally asking Jesus what kind of adaptation and innovation, however inconvenient or painful, might be necessary to spur on greater disciple making and community pursuit of the person of Christ. This kind of wrestling needs to be celebrated and embraced.
Might the Holy Spirit be inviting you to focus more intentionally on disciple making in this season?
For more on the two Alliance churches mentioned above and their reimagining of Sundays, check out this video on reKindle.tv.
Another benefit of the COVID-19’s effect on large gatherings is the (re)centralization of ministry into the places where we live.
The home, the original gathering place for the Church, and centred around the table, a place of deep fellowship and conversation, has once again become the locale of worship, community and mission. It is also a place of proximity, where one cannot indefinitely hide their life from others, an option all too often available in large gatherings. Instead, the home invites us to authentically open our lives to one another, including our pursuit of Christ in community. I believe this new – albeit forced – move away from large gatherings, where anonymity and relational disengagement are far too easily accessible and embraced, and toward the intimacy of the home is truly a blessing to the Church, the family of God. COVID is teaching us again the meaning of authentic relationships, dependency on one another and the togetherness of our communal faith.
Further, invitation into the home, particularly those who do not (yet) identify with the Christian community, has profound implications on one’s sense of belonging prior to his or her belief in Christ. Jesus modelled the inclusion of all people through his invitation to fellowship with them around meals and in homes. Jesus ate with sinners – the broken, the dangerous, the unclean and unseen. Such a radical, countercultural thing for him to do that he was deemed a glutton and a drunkard by the crowds. And yet this invitation of Jesus’ into the sacred space of the home was also the doorway for many to enter into the Kingdom of God. The parallel accounts of Jesus’ time in the home of Levi, a despised tax collector, is just one example of this. The home is a tool that can and should be used by the Church universal to invite those far from Christ into the most intimate spaces of our lives, and us into theirs. Let us not miss this.
A third positive I see from COVID’s imposed decentralization of the gathered church is the expanse of missional opportunities.
Back to Greear’s and Summit’s decision to meet in thousands of homes rather than a handful of buildings. In essence, in one, innovative and adaptive move, Summit now exists in 2,400 different geographical locations, each of these home-based churches uniquely positioned to reach out to the people and neighbourhoods surrounding them. The missional potential of something like this is endless.
And this is just one church. One.
Just imagine if every church in your city engaged in this same kind of missional strategy… How many churches would suddenly come into existence in your city? 10? 100? 1,000? 10,000? How many churches would find themselves located in neighbourhoods and communities where there previously was no physical gospel presence? How many of your people would be instantly catalyzed and commissioned, as Evangelist Bill Hogg says, as downwardly mobile missionaries strategically sent into the most broken postal codes in your city? How many new missional outposts might be established through this?
The missional potential this kind of decentralization and scattering of the gathered church is not a small thing. COVID-19 is forcing us to re-imagine, to re-strategize, to dream of what the Church can and needs to be in these days. Let us not take this moment for granted. And let us not miss out on new possibilities and opportunities to be beacons of light, hope and good news.
Are you willing to adapt to the unique realities of our day, embracing a new identity as a church for the sake of reaching and discipling the lost? Will you dare to dream of new possibilities, new mission fields, and new methodologies for reaching the abundantly ripe harvest fields in your city?
A final positive from the current moratorium on large gatherings is what I’m calling the re-activation of the priesthood of all believers.
I don’t think it’s new news to say that the professionalization of the clergy has unintentionally, yet essentially, pigeon-holed the laity to that of simple spectators in much (most?) of the church’s day-to-day operation. Sure, we may have a developed leadership pipeline for lay-leaders in our churches or an empowerment-heavy, lay-led philosophy or approach to our ministries, but the reality is, a major portion of what is done in the Sunday gathering and in the week-to-week is entirely dependent on a handful of key volunteers and paid pastoral staff.
I wonder, is there is a better way?
Now, again, please don’t hear that I’m against or opposed to paying pastors. Once more, having been on the staff roster of a local church for more than a decade, I was clearly the beneficiary of such compensation. This is not meant to be a critique of the Church or of the clergy or vocational pastors. I’m not trying to throw stones here…
What I am saying here, however, is that the move away from large Sunday gatherings to something like what Greear and Summit are doing demands the activation of the saints to actually do the work of the ministry – to shepherd one another, teach, prophesy and pray, catalyze each other for evangelism and mission. And this greatly excites me. When church looks like you and a handful of your friends or neighbours engaging in worship, community and mission from your living room, a positive result is that everyone is involved, everyone gets to play, everyone carries the mantle of priest again.
If this move away from large gatherings helps us to re-activate each and every man, woman and child as priests and co-laborers with Christ in the places they work, live and play, I eagerly welcome this change.
In light of what I’ve written, here are a few questions for you and your church to wrestle through:
- How are you embracing or wrestling with the current inability to gather together these days? Are you running to reopen? Pausing to prayerfully reposition? Pursuing a new ‘normal’? Something else altogether?
- How are you seeking to capitalize on this historic moment to dream with God of new, innovative, and maybe even better ways of ‘doing’ and ‘being’ the church?
- How are you positioning your church for greater missional and/or disciple making impact in this season of COVID disruption?