In Psalm 137, while seated by a river in Babylon, an unnamed Psalmist recounts what it was like to gather with other Israelites at the temple in Jerusalem. Weeping as he remembers Zion, he finds it difficult to sing the Lord’s song when asked by one of his captors.
A similar refrain can be heard today among those who, due to quarantine, have been unable to gather with God’s people. As the time nears and churches return to gathering (many already have), some have realized they previously took for granted coming together. And many express a new desire to make fellowship with the saints a priority in the future.
But many also realize something best described by something my brother uttered when visiting our local Church several years ago. On that Sunday, we rented a building to accommodate all the people from both of our church sites. As we exited the building, I distinctly remember my brother uttering, “the church has left the building.” This was an obvious play on words spoken by an announcer at an Elvis concert. As Elvis left the concert hall, the announcer always commented, “Elvis has left the building.”
My brother’s remark has been on my mind frequently because I think it accurately reflects one lesson God intended for the Church at this time. There is no such thing as wasted time in the kingdom—God is always teaching. What are those lessons? There are many, but four stand out as central to the things God intends for us to learn, deeply rooted in Scripture and in the nature of the Church itself. They are: (1) The Church is not a building, but a community; (2) The Church must shed its Old Covenant way of thinking; (3) evangelism happens (mainly) outside of church services, and (4) in times of crisis the body must learn to function.
Let’s start with the simple truth; the Church is not a building, but a community of believers, learning to live out the Gospel together. While church meetings are an important aspect of the life of the community, God intends church to be more than an hour and a half on Sunday where I look at the back of my brother’s head and listen to a message. It includes the gathering together of the saints for worship and word, but it is infinitely more. In other words, church is not where I attend, but a people to whom I belong. I gather when the Church gathers, but I live in a family.
Sadly, for many believers today showing up on Sunday is the extent of their experience of community. Feeling obligated to show up and participate, they see little need to enter transparent relationships of accountability with others. They view the Church as a dispenser of spiritual goods to individuals, each as needed, and themselves as consumers. But the Scriptures present the Church primarily as a spiritual family. One might be able to hide from strangers our real-life struggles, but it is difficult to hide it from family members.
The gift of community assists in our sanctification. The writer of Hebrews tells us that as members of the community we must “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today”, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). To carry this out, one must live in close enough proximity with others to observe their manner of life. While our natural bent is to hide from others, the believer who recognizes his or her need of ongoing sanctification will welcome the gift of community as a major means to empower believers.
The second thing the Father is teaching us during this present crisis is to shed all vestiges of Old Covenant thinking. What I mean by that is much of the Christian world today lives an Old Covenant mindset, strangers from New Covenant reality. This has come home powerfully to me during this pandemic as I listen to people pray (including myself). It has been said that if you really want to know what a person believes about God, listen to him or her pray. We reveal more about our beliefs when praying than in any other act in which we engage. That being the case, I have been struck with how much our prayers reflect Old Covenant thinking rather than New Covenant reality.
One example is the frequent use of II Chronicles 7:14 as a basis for approaching God in dealing with this present crisis. I do think this prayer, uttered by Solomon at the dedication of the temple, can serve in some ways as a model for our prayers. But only as we first understand that it mirrors the typical ‘conditional-based’ prayers of the Old Covenant— prayers based on fulfilling certain conditions so that God can answer. But there is a great difference between Old Covenant prayer and New Covenant prayer. Primarily, in the fact that Old Covenant prayer is based on fulfilling certain conditions, while New Covenant prayer is based on conditions already fulfilled by our great high priest, Jesus Christ. When you look for conditions for answered prayer under the New Covenant, there aren’t any. That’s because the conditions of the Old are now the promises of the New!
We must urge leaders to instruct their people in New Covenant understanding and thinking. Only then can we be sure people will find grace to carry out what God desires. In the past, many leaders engaged in what can only be called, “will whacking”—beating people up for not exercising their wills in the things of God. We do not deny that the will must be very active in the pursuit of God. Yet, it is grace and grace alone that empowers the will to obey God. And that grace is only given through understanding and applying the Gospel.
The third thing I hope we are learning through this crisis is that evangelism is not only the task of gifted evangelists (though we certainly need more of them. But, it is also the privilege and responsibility of the whole body. By inference, this means that most kingdom advancement happens outside of the typical church gatherings (although God still uses the formal preaching of the Gospel in church meetings to expand his kingdom). The letter of First Peter portrays God’s people as aliens in this world, boldly proclaiming the Gospel to their generation. They do so through the natural avenues each has been given with friends, relatives, and people with whom they work.
This is what Paul means when he speaks of the five gifted ministries given for the “equipping of the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-12). Too often, we think of people being equipped mainly to do church work. But this biblical concept (that the saints are to be equipped through the five gifted ones) implies that the work of advancing the kingdom does not depend on paid professionals, but on each one being equipped to share the Gospel with others. It is difficult for many believers today to think in these terms. I remember a few years ago, a man from our church calling me and asking me to come down to a bar where he had just met a man and share the Gospel with him. He was asking me to come and lead this man to Jesus. I told him that since God had connected him to the man, he expected him to share the Gospel. The real problem was that this man felt inadequately prepared to share the Gospel with him.
The final thing I think God is vividly instructing us in during this time is that the focus in Scripture is on a functioning ‘body’, not just functioning leaders. While leaders are important, too many churches parrot conceptually the need for body ministry where each member functions, yet rarely sees it happening. Most churches foster a ‘leader-dependent’ model, which constricts the life of the body. Instead of equipping God’s people and releasing them to function, many leaders insist on controlling God’s people, fearful that if they release them, they won’t need them anymore.
But that is the goal of all equipping, to release people so that they are no longer dependent on leaders. As evidence of that, look at the book of First Corinthians. The Corinthians were abusing the gifts, trying to ‘one-up’ each other when it came to manifestations. What does Paul do? He doesn’t do what I am afraid many modern leaders would do; shut down the body from functioning and limit the operation of the gifts to one or two leaders. Rather, he gives them guidelines to insure the gifts function properly. He refuses to shut down the ministry of the body no matter how much these things are being abused, knowing that only the body can build up the body.