Category: Church (Page 1 of 57)

COVID and Church Online

I got distracted last week and neglected to finish my thoughts on where we are and what we’ve learned as churches during COVID.

First, we’ve learned that temporary emergency measures can become standard operating procedure in a church if we’re not intentional in our communication, reflection, and practice. We didn’t as much learn this as it’s just been reinforced. During the early days of the pandemic, most churches complied with government recommendations and shut their doors to the Lord’s Day assembly. For the first time in history, healthy people in the United States were not allowed to worship God in their church building on Sunday. Most of us scrambled and began livestreaming our assemblies online so, at least, we could sing and pray, listen to a sermon and eat a communion meal in a virtual gathering. We understood that we were spiritually connected. And it was appropriate and good in this unprecedented emergency situation.

But now, nearly two years later, church online has become an acceptable and even sanctioned option for Christians and their churches. For a lot of disciples, the livestream service is normal now. It’s like the communion meal. I suppose there was a time when those “rip n sip” individually packaged communion kits were appropriate. But now, way past the emergency, many Christians and churches are still using them. (For my thoughts on communion during COVID, what we’ve lost with the “rip n sips,” and why we need to return to passing trays and “breaking bread,” please click here.)

The problem is that our language around the livestream was normalizing. We spoke in the very beginning about church online like it was already permanent. Instead of emphasizing that the livestream was a temporary, emergency procedure, we went out of our way to reassure the Christians who were staying home. Instead of saying that folks who are going to work, the grocery store, the gym, and restaurants should also return to the Sunday Christian assembly, we welcomed the online church and assured everyone watching that they were doing what was best by not coming to the building, even as a lot of those watching were attending football games and going out to eat.

The issue is that church online is not church. It’s something, certainly; it’s not terrible, of course. But it’s not church; it’s something else. By definition, church is a physical assembly. Flesh and blood people coming together in one place for a common purpose. Real, physical people gathering to worship God and serve one another together. Men and women and children, in the same place at the same time, being transformed together as they accept and forgive, bear with and love, compromise and laugh and cry with one another in the name and manner of Jesus.

Our faith is an incarnational faith in our incarnational Lord. God did not come to us virtually, he came to us in our flesh and blood. He didn’t send a text or a video, he sent us his Son. Our spiritual connections are important, but they are incomplete without our physical connections. Our Sunday gathering is not just any meeting that can be attended or substituted on a whim or out of convenience – it is the very Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is something that can be seen and heard and touched. Church online is a disembodied virtual experience. It’s not church.

Can you imagine being married and never going home to your spouse? I’ll just call her every night, it’s the same thing! Can you imagine telling your kids and grandkids at Christmas, “Don’t bother coming over for Christmas lunch and presents, let’s just Zoom it. It’s the same thing!

Of course, we all know it is decidedly not the same thing. What’s vital for some – the shut-in, the sick, those who work on Sundays – should not be normal for most.

But it’s normal now. It’s not surprising that something as convenient as online church would quickly become normal. If you’re out of town or on vacation, it’s much easier to hop online from your hotel room or your lake house and “do church” with your own congregation virtually than it is to hunt down a real live congregation of flesh and blood Christians and worship with them. To be shaped by the experience. To encourage other Christians and to be encouraged by meeting other disciples in a different place. To physically participate with the physical Body of Christ in all of its transforming power. We used to do that.

Maybe the compulsion to never miss church was misguided when, a few decades ago, we never dared skip the assembly. Certainly it was – a lot of us grew up believing that church attendance was the truest sign of faithfulness. The uncritical embrace of online church has exposed our shallow theology about church. As I’ve said before, the reasons online church is normal now and so many Christians opt to spectate from home instead of participate in person are three-fold: One, the pull of the culture toward individual consumerism is stronger than the pull of the Body of Christ; two, we’ve done a terrible job of teaching and communicating what’s really happening when God’s people come together in his presence, in the name of Jesus, and by the power of the Holy Spirit; and, three, our people have never really had a transforming experience in church. It’s all three.

The livestream should be done well for those who need it. And we would do better to address this from the pulpit on Sundays by saying things like:

“We’re so glad to make this livestream available to our sick and shut-ins; we pray it blesses you. For the healthy and mobile, please don’t let church online be the extent of your connection to God and to his people. Please come join us in person on Sundays and participate in all that God has planned for you through the Body of Christ.”

“We hope you are blessed by watching our worship service online. We also hope that you can join us here in person next Sunday.”

“If you are unable to be with us physically this morning, we’re grateful to be with you virtually. We understand that church online does not provide you the connection and the transformation that happens with the Body of Christ in here – but we hope this is beneficial. If you are able to be here but you’re watching online, we would encourage you to come join us in person next Sunday. Don’t let watching online be the extent of your engagement with God and his people. We would love to welcome you here to participate in what God is doing in us and through us together on Sundays.”

To be clear, I do believe there are benefits to livestreaming a worship service. Other than the aforementioned blessing for the congregation’s sick, shut-ins, and those forced to work on Sundays, I believe a livestream can be a wide on-ramp for people in your city. Folks in your community can be introduced to God and his people in your congregation through your livestream. But it must go beyond that. Strategies must be devised and resources must be deployed to engage those viewers and invite them into the physical assembly. We can’t be content with “hits” and “viewers;” we cannot mistake “time spent viewing” with engagement with Jesus and his Church; we must work hard to connect those online to the physical flesh and blood Body of Christ.

Finally, it’s on church leaders – shepherds, preachers, pastors, worship ministers – to teach and communicate better what God is doing during our worship assemblies, and to plan and practice so the holy community and transforming encounter of church is experienced on Sundays.

Peace,

Allan

COVID and Church

I was recently asked by the editor of a Christian journal to share with him my experiences with COVID and the Church, specifically the challenges of leading a church during the early stages of the pandemic, the shutdowns, and the re-opening of churches during the Spring of 2020. I posted my answer to his first question in this space yesterday. I am posting my responses to the other two questions today and then will elaborate a little more and process a little further tomorrow and Thursday. As a reminder, I was the Senior Minister at Central Church of Christ in Amarillo during that time. So my answers reflect the experiences in that setting.

What was the greatest success or unexpected blessing for your congregation that came out of COVID?

The most immediate blessing was that we were forced to think outside the box. The situation demanded creativity and allowed a flexibility to experiment with almost anything. We held an Ash Wednesday drive-thru service, we organized prayer parades that blessed our local missions partners, we did online talent shows and hosted livestreamed ten-minute “Word and Prayer” sessions four days a week. I began hosting a weekly podcast that highlighted our local missions partners and favorite “Passages and Prayers” from our elders. Some of the ideas were brand new and some were things we had talked about before but never had the space to try them out. Some of the things we tried failed terribly and others turned into meaningful events that will continue to bless that church for years to come.

With two-thirds of our church family participating from their homes on Sunday mornings and most all Bible classes and midweek activities canceled for a full year, we were given a wonderful opportunity to reimagine what we were doing as a congregation, and why. We had the space to rethink our priorities and the freedom to refocus our church programming and events. As shepherds and ministers, we developed criteria for using our time and resources on only those things that synced up with our congregation’s vision. We surveyed the church and put together a few focus groups to identify those things that truly transformed our members and brought them closer to God and to one another. We radically changed our Wednesday night programming, made significant adjustments to our Bible class and small groups structures, and refused to restart any program or event just because we had been doing it for twenty years – it had to match the criteria. We made the decisions to pour our church resources and our volunteer hours into fewer things that yield the most Kingdom and Holy Spirit fruit. We made things simpler and more streamlined to match our church’s twin values of transformation and mission.

What biblical passages or principles have taken on more importance for you – or have you seen in a new light – during and after the lockdowns?

The incarnation of our Lord and that same flesh-and-blood nature of his Church took a hit during COVID. As a society, we were already well down the path of increasing individuality and isolation. But the pandemic sped us along so that, somehow, church online has become a viable substitute for the physical presence of and in the Body of Christ. Our salvation is not a one-time event. Yes, we are connected to the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior when we are baptized. But our salvation continues – in fits and starts, with ups and downs, slowly but surely – in church. With people.

God’s Spirit transforms us in community. Our Lord changes us and shapes us into his image with other people. When we give and receive forgiveness. When we sing each other’s songs. When we bear one another’s burdens. In the hugs and during the meals. No matter what we’ve been told or what we’ve been doing for the past year-and-a-half, you can’t experience communion at a drive-thru or do church over the internet. We must work overtime, now more than ever, to reclaim the sacramental view of the Christian assembly. We are required now to teach and re-teach, to reassert and reaffirm the transformational purpose and effect in regularly meeting together in person. And we must work just as hard to make sure our Sunday assemblies cultivate the kind of life-changing transformative environments our God intends.

Peace,

Allan

Considering COVID and Church

I was recently asked by the editor of a theological / ecclesiological journal to answer a couple of questions related to the ways our church responded to the COVIDĀ  pandemic. He is in the process of dedicating the upcoming issue of his journal to reflections regarding COVID and he’s gathering input from a variety of church leaders. His questions to me dealt specifically with the problems encountered and the lessons learned during theĀ  lockdowns of the Spring of 2020 and the re-opening of churches in the early Summer 2020. I was the Senior Minister at Central Church of Christ during that time, so my answers to him were about what we were doing in Amarillo.

I’m going to post my answer to his questions in this space today and tomorrow and then expound on them a bit more near the end of the week. Once his article and journal are published, I’ll link you to it from this blog and we can further discuss this important topic.

What were the greatest challenges for your congregation to navigate during COVID lockdowns?

We experienced what a lot of church leaders encountered in the polarization of our congregation over the wearing of masks and other mitigation techniques. We, like most elders and ministers, found ourselves in a lose-lose situation: some of our members refused to come to church unless we mandated masks and others vowed not to come if we did. We told our church we were making our decisions based on the science and the medical recommendations but, in reality, we were making our calls based on our own gut feelings and the current mood of the church and our community. The longer the pandemic conditions continued, the more our shepherds relied on the culture instead of the science, and the church became a place that mirrored the inconsistencies and fostered the same mistrust as people were suffering in society.

A challenge I wrestled with personally – this is still a challenge for us to navigate faithfully as church leaders – is the dilemma between telling people to stay home for the sake of their health and asking them to worship with their church family in person for the sake of their souls. We made it really convenient for Christians to “attend church” from the privacy of their own homes, so much so that church became the last place some people would go. We worked hard to purchase additional cameras, add more lights and microphones, and pre-record communion thoughts and announcements so the livestreamed version of church rivaled most any other option. We did it so well, a lot of our folks felt no need to leave their homes. I had one older gentleman, a former elder, tell me he and his wife would probably never come back into the building. “We can turn up the volume to exactly the right level,” he told me. “We can rewind the video when we miss something, we can start it from the beginning if we accidentally sleep in; it’s too easy and nice to just do church from the house!”

I began seeing people out at restaurants and grocery stores who had told me they weren’t coming to church because of COVID. My wife and I attended a Saturday night July 4th dinner and fireworks show with about twenty people from our church. We were all eating at the same tables, sharing the same food, talking loudly and laughing with each other in tight quarters. But at least half of those people told me they would be doing church from home the next morning because of COVID.

Had we turned church into something you could do just as well watching a screen from home as participating in a pew in a sanctuary? It must go further back, to our teachings and our experiences together at church. Why do our people not view the Sunday assembly as uniquely transformative for their lives? Why do they not crave the physical presence of God’s people together in God’s presence around his table? Why do they not miss the inspiration and the transformation, the sheer glory of worshiping God and responding to his movement among his people? Have they not heard anything I’ve said in here for the past ten years?

It’s one of three things. Either the culture of individuality, personal preference, and convenience in our society is too strong and overpowers anything I say about the sacramental importance of the worship assembly. Or I haven’t communicated it very well. Or our people have not experienced much transformation in church.

Probably all three.

Peace,

Allan

The Second Incarnation

Jesus is the incarnation of God. Incarnation just means flesh and blood. The Gospel of John says the Word of God – the will of God, who God is and what God wants for the world – became flesh and blood in Jesus so we could see it and know it. In his own words, Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” You see it and you know it. You get it because you’ve experienced it in me.

The Church is the second incarnation. And, yes, we are mostly a mess. We’re just like the people Jesus called to follow him, just like the people he surrounded himself with: ordinary fishermen and business people, blind people, loose women, weak men, liars and cheaters and cowards. And people who’ve been hurt. All of us have been injured. We’re all wounded and put back together with duct tape and twistie ties. And grace.

Grace that in Christ we are God’s chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. It’s a great mystery, but for some reason the Church is the way Jesus has chosen to be real and present in the world. He lives in us and through us by his Spirit. His heart beats in our chests, his eyes see through ours; when we speak, his voice is heard; and his welcome is felt in our embrace. We are the flesh and blood Body of Christ.

When people see the Church, they expect to experience God. When Jesus says, “You give them something to eat,” he’s talking to you. He’s talking to us.

Peace,

Allan

Serve Like Jesus

“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants.” ~1 Corinthians 3:5

Around the table on that last night, our Lord Jesus personally washed the feet of his disciples. Then he told them, “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing” (John 14:12). Our model is the Lord. We serve others in the name and manner of our great high priest. We do our best to imitate Jesus, the Christ, who was always with people, always helping people, always serving people. In the crush of the crowd, in the middle of the multitude – healing, feeding, protecting, encouraging. In the quiet of the one-on-one conversations at night. Weeping at a funeral. Eating with a tax collector. Holding the kids. Dying on a cross.

The Church is not an end in itself. The Church does not exist to make rules, to pass laws, to be in charge, or to glorify itself. The Church does not seek its own power or privilege or comfort. And we’re not just a support group for people who have already been saved. Just like our Lord, the Church is sent into the world not to be served, but to serve. And to give itself up for others.

We know the words of our Savior who said it is more blessed to give than to receive. And we experience the truth of that, and the blessings, when we serve others in love.

Peace,

Allan

Spiritual Formation by Church

I’m having some of those standard conversations with Cowboys fans today. The main theme today with the Star-gazers is that the team should be 2-0. They ought to be 2-0. They could very easily be 2-0. It’s simple to argue back that it’s just as likely that this team would be 0-2. In many ways, they ought to be 0-2. They could very easily be 0-2. That’s the way it is every week with an eventual 8-9 or 9-8 football team.

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There is no spiritual formation without the Church.

“Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues, put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” ~ Colossians 3:12-14

How? How do we do this? How do we put on these virtues, these Christ-like qualities, these fruits of the Holy Spirit? How do we add them to our lives and develop them as critical components of our nature?

“As members of one body… Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” ~ Colossians 3:15-16

This sounds like worship. This passage is about worship in and with the Church. It shapes us.

And I know becoming like Christ is a full-time, all-the-time, seven-days-a-week lifelong journey. I know. But our formation radiates from and is nourished by the worship of the Church, gathered together every Lord’s day around the Word and the table. There is no spiritual formation without the Church. Not because there’s anything magical or superstitious about the church building, but because the Church is the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ, given life and sustained by God’s Spirit and formed by our Christian practices together. Worshiping together every week makes us more like Jesus.

We have publicly welcomed 32 new members to the GCR Church here in Midland over the past two Sundays. I’m certain your church has added a few new members over the past several months. You don’t get to interview these new members. Nobody gets to vote. All these new men, women, and children – nobody asks you if it’s OK to make them members of your church. God chooses people and moves them in and requires us to love each other. Our worship forces us to sing other people’s songs, to listen to other people’s opinions, to pray over other people’s cares, to forgive other people’s wrongs, and to eat and drink a meal together every Sunday. And it shapes us. It clothes us with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness. And patience. You know it does.

So we are devoted to the Church’s worship. We’re committed to it. We don’t miss it or skip it. We don’t quit on it or give it a lesser priority in our lives. We know our worship together makes us more like Jesus.

Peace,

Allan

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