Category: Christ & Culture (Page 1 of 35)

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

Two Boats and a Helicopter

You’ve heard the story. A man was trapped on his roof in the middle of a terrible storm while the flood waters rapidly rose around him. The man was in trouble and he cried out to God, “Lord, save me!” A neighbor paddled by in a canoe and called to the man, “Let me get you out of here!” But the man refused. “No, thank you,” he said. “My God will save me!” And the waters continued to rise.

An hour later a police rescue boat cruised down the man’s street. “Jump in!” the officer called. But the man replied, “I’m trusting in the Lord!” and stayed on his roof and prayed. And the waters continued to rise.

Another hour went by and a rescue helicopter arrived on the scene. A rope ladder was lowered to the man but he wouldn’t get on. “God is going to save me!” he said. “My faith is in God, not in man!” And he prayed. And the waters continued to rise.

An hour later the raging waters tore the man’s house apart, sweeping him under the river where he instantly drowned. Upon entering the afterlife, he complained to God, “Why didn’t you save me? I prayed to you, I begged you to rescue me, I confessed my faith in you, I publicly testified to your power! Why didn’t you save me?”

The Lord replied, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more do you demand?”

It occurs to me that we spent the whole spring and summer of 2020 begging our God to take away the coronavirus. Heal us, we prayed. Father, remove the virus from our world. Intervene, Lord, and give us a cure. You are the Great Physician, God. Save us from COVID-19. We were all praying those prayers. All of us. We were all confessing our faith in God to provide the remedy, we were publicly testifying to his sovereignty over the disease and the terrible effects on our health and economy. God, please heal us of COVID-19.

In his great mercy, he gave us three vaccines.

Yet, many Christians are still sitting on their roofs, proclaiming their faith in God while refusing his good and gracious rescue.

Seriously. What more do you demand?

Peace,

Allan

Mostly Untried

There’s a great line by Christian author Philip Yancey: “American Christians have become the kind of men and women people appreciate as neighbors but don’t want to spend much time with.” By great, I mean the line is penetrating and painful. Ouch.

I’m afraid to ask what people think when they hear the word “Christian.” Whatever they might think, we have only ourselves to blame.

At the Christian college, there’s a crusty theologian with a long face and a loud voice lecturing on the imperatives of the faith. At the Christian newsletter, there’s a prideful group of guys writing papers to counter other papers that were written twenty years ago which were written to oppose papers that were written a hundred years ago. On Christian TV, there’s a mess of evangelists with every dyed hair perfectly in place naming the current Antichrist and pointing our their own healthy and wealthy lives as the way to salvation. All over the internet and social media – God help us! – there’s the religious right talking about their issues, their great morality. and their hardline stances on what’s absolutely right and absolutely wrong with the world.

We’re so eager to point out how good we all are, I fear we’re neglecting the very basic fact that the Gospel is a spectacularly good things that is happening to spectacularly bad people.

G. K. Chesterton famously wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”

We are failing the Good News of Jesus Christ when we run around acting like we’ve got everything figured out, like we’ve got all the answers, like there’s no more mystery, no need for divine grace. We distort the Gospel and do violence to the Scriptures when we proclaim that God sent his Son to establish my vision of my church or my version of the United States as a beacon of Truth to the rest of the world.

As children of God and disciples of his Christ, if we have any answers at all to what’s wrong in this world, it has nothing to do with our morals, our laws, or our political positions. The solution to what’s wrong is not found in anybody’s constitution or declaration or form of government or economic system or military strategy. What’s wrong with the world is sin. And the solution is only found in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus.

God revealed himself in Christ Jesus to show us how he’s fixing things. It’s in sacrificial service. It’s through unconditional love. It’s by forgiveness and reconciliation. Gentleness. Peace. Obedience. Prayer. Worship. Suffering. Death.

Politicians are not going to save the world. Parties and platforms and partisan positions are not going to change this country. This country and this world are not going to be won by votes or armies or news networks or being woke. Only our God in Christ can save the world – God alone!

And his way is the way of death. His way is the way of suffering and sacrifice and service. His will is to change people and save people, not by force or through threats, not out of anger or with an attitude, but with humility and love and forgiveness and grace. And peace.

This world will change, not when more Christians vote, but when more Christians serve. This country will change, not when Christians get their man or woman in the White House, but when Christians get suffering and sacrifice in their hearts. This world will change, not when the Church is in power, but when the Church is persecuted for righteousness’ sake and suffers for doing good. This country will be changed, not when our enemies are shot and bombed and destroyed, but when our enemies are forgiven and prayed for and loved.

Of course, you already knew that. This is not new information. You’ve known it for a long time. It’s just that it’s very difficult. And mostly untried.

Peace,

Allan

New Normal

It’s one of those phrases from 2020 you’re sick of hearing and you never want to hear again: new normal. I get it. But we can’t act like nothing’s changed. Fifty-eight percent of American adults say the coronavirus pandemic has changed their lives forever. You and I are not living in the same world we were in this time last year. I don’t think it’s overly dramatic; it’s probably subtle. But the coronavirus has affected nearly every aspect of our lives.

We have a new vocabulary now: social distance, COVID bubbles, RAC nurses, Zoom meetings, hospitalization rates. We have new fashion accessories in masks that are printed with different colors and patterns, different prints and even logos; some masks even say, “I hate wearing this mask!”

And people are drinking more. Alcohol consumption in the United States has gone up 14% in the past year.

We’re more connected to our devices than ever before with online learning, work from home, and virtual church. We’re waiting in our cars for the next seat in the barber shop, we’re making appointments to work out at the gym, and it’s more drive-thru than dine-in. I don’t know what would cause Chick-Fil-A to ever open up their dining rooms again.

And there’s a general mistrust of information. With the competing news media and fake news and conspiracy theories and the constantly changing and sometime contradictory information about the virus, 41% of Americans say they’re overwhelmed by all the news and information and they’ve stopped paying attention.

Sociologists say Americans need two things right now: security and sociability. These are the two things we are missing and craving and desperately needing right now. Health security, financial security, a stronger sense that everything’s going to be OK. Being around other people, being in the same room with our friends and family, in our clubs and social circles, back at church.

That’s the main reason, they say, that 74% of Americans between the ages of 18-34 are dealing with mental health problems right now. Three out of four are suffering with at least two of these five issues: stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts. This is our new normal. These are the conditions we have to acknowledge.

And it’s not just the coronavirus. Certainly the pandemic has brought sickness and death to our world and is leaving a tsunami of related sorrows and devastation in its wake. But the political and racial tensions have also done a ton of damage. Our families, our community, our churches, the whole country — we are divided right now. The air we’re breathing today is thick with fear and anger and uncertainty. We must recognize this.

But we also need to recognize this. According to a massive Cleveland Clinic survey, 58% of all Americans say, in the aftermath of 2020, they are reevaluating their lives. Sixty-five percent say they are reevaluating how they spend their time. Seventy-eight percent say they value relationships more now than they did a year ago. And 72% of all Americans say they have hope for the future.

Yes, we are all moving into a scary, uncertain, new normal. But our new normal is filled with people who are re-thinking their priorities. People are seeking what’s truly important. They’re searching for what’s significant and lasting. The new normal is loaded with opportunity!

The people around you are searching for what’s trustworthy and true. The people you are running into every day are disappointed, disillusioned, and divided; and they’re open to something different. They want something or someone that’s real and solid and dependable. They want an answer for everything that’s gone wrong; they’re looking for a solution to everything that’s broken.

The new normal is not to be feared. It should be embraced and engaged as God’s time and place for something beautiful and eternal and new.

Peace,

Allan

Move Back From It

I have never read a Beth Moore book and I’ve never heard her speak. I’m not on Facebook and I don’t have Twitter. So I was caught off guard when Carrie-Anne told me last week that Moore’s December tweet against Trumpism in the Church had created a bit of a national stir before Christmas. I had no idea.

Maybe you already know about this and it’s old news. If not, let me fill you in on what I know. From her Twitter account, Moore straight up called out American followers of Jesus for their fevered Christian Nationalism:

“I do not believe these are days for mincing words. I’m 63 1/2 years old & I have never seen in these United States of America I found more astonishingly seductive & dangerous to the saints of God than Trumpism. This Christian nationalism is not of God. Move back from it.”

There are an endless number of things about the insurrection at the U.S. capitol last week that sicken me. It’s a very discouraging thing to consider. What happened in Washington D.C. is tragic. It’s still happening – the threats, the violence, the anger — and it’s scary. It’s terribly sad. But, by far, what disturbs me the most are the Christian flags and symbols that were carried by the insurrectionist mob and the Christian Scriptures they wore and quoted as they stormed the seat of this country’s government.

Wearing a cross while waving confederate flags. Chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” while toting banners that read “Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President!” A Christian flag was carried into the House chambers as U.S. lawmakers huddled under chairs fearing for their very lives. Hundreds of these violent protesters — some carrying loaded guns, some brandishing clubs and bats, some throwing fire extinguishers,  some breaking glass and stealing government property,  some carrying plastic zip ties, some beating police officers, a couple planting pipe bombs — were carrying out their angry attempt at a violent coup in the name of our Lord Jesus. They erected a cross on the capitol grounds and draped a MAGA flag around it. They also erected a gallows on the same property and called for the execution of government officials who aren’t voting the way they want them to.

More than anything, that is what breaks my heart and causes the tears to run down my face. The American church’s grab for political power over the past forty years, the compromising of our Christian commitments in order to wield influence and pass laws, the idolatrous syncretism of mixing national politics with the Kingdom of our Lord, has turned us into a people whose actions defame the eternal name we claim to wear.

The Kingdom of God is a political Kingdom, but there is no right or left, there is only the straight and narrow; there is no elephant or donkey, there is only the Lamb of God.

When it comes right down to it, the reason Judas betrayed our Lord is that he couldn’t lay down his own agenda to take up the agenda of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. We are called by Christ to be a people of grace and peace, of love and unity. But the banter leading up to last week’s assault on the capitol and the banners that were carried in D.C. betray the agendas of thousands of Christians. Fear and anger, violence and force are not what we are to foment, practice, or endorse. We love and forgive, we embrace diversity and strive toward unity, we consider the needs of others more important than our own, we lay down our rights in order to serve the ones around us. Those are the politics of the Kingdom of God and decidedly not the politics that so many Christians displayed last Wednesday. And Christian leaders need to call it out.

As Beth Moore tweeted last month:

“We will be held responsible for remaining passive in this day of seduction to save our own skin while the saints we’ve been entrusted to serve are being seduced, manipulated, USED and stirred up into a lather of zeal devoid of the Holy Spirit for political gain.”

“And, God help us, we don’t turn from Trumpism to Bidenism. We do not worship flesh and blood. We do not place our faith in mortals. We are the church of the living God. We can’t sanctify idolatry by labeling a leader our Cyrus. We need no Cyrus. We have a king. His name is Jesus.”

An article in Relevant magazine about Moore’s tweet and the reaction from both secular and Christian leaders asks why she’s “the only one brave enough to say this stuff.” She’s not. There are preachers and pastors all over the country who are saying these things in smaller churches in less significant settings. They/We have been preaching and teaching and writing on these things for many years. The question is why more big-name leaders with big-mega-membership churches and big-national-reach platforms aren’t saying this stuff.

The evidence is widespread and overwhelming that, when it comes to people 34-years-old and younger, the American church’s marriage with the politics of this country is the number one biggest turnoff to Jesus. Our lust for power, our endorsement of and participation in the ways and means of the political machine, are driving people away from our Lord. Rightly so. I get it. We have only ourselves to blame.

The anger and violence in the United States is still simmering. What we saw in Washington D.C. last week is not the end of it. There will be more threats made and names called and armed groups gathered and lives lost for the kingdoms of this world. If you wear the name of Jesus and are a member of the Kingdom of God, move back from it.

Peace,

Allan

Peace, Be Still

Surely we needed no more proof. But if we did, the disturbing events that unfolded at this country’s capitol yesterday illustrate beyond any doubt that we are a deeply divided people. We are divided. And desperate. And afraid. Angry. Hurt. Confused. Violent. Bitter. Outraged. Torn apart.

We need a peace that surpasses all understanding and can come only from our Lord. We need healing that only God through the righteous life, atoning death, and glorious resurrection of Jesus can provide. We need forgiveness. We need comfort. Reconciliation. Acceptance. Unity. Compassion. Empathy. Grace. Love.

We certainly needed no more evidence. But if we did, what happened yesterday affirms for all of us that our hope does not rest in politicians or parties, platforms or partisan posturing. Our prayers are not answered in Austin or Washington D.C. Our salvation does not come from elections or laws, flags or speeches.

We have a King and his name is Jesus. He has become for us our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Despite what’s happening all around us, he alone is making everything new. And he calls his followers to practice peace. And healing. And forgiveness. Comfort. Reconciliation. Acceptance. Unity. Compassion. Empathy. Grace. Love.

May our God bless us quickly and richly with his peace. And may his people behave in the name and manner of our risen and coming King.

Peace,

Allan

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