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Why The Christian Community’s Desire To Physically Assemble Falls on Deaf Ears

As we move into the back stretch of this pandemic, there’s been a massive debate about church congregations being able to fully re-assemble in a physical building – particularly in the most restricted states. And even within the Christian community there are a wide range of legitimate opinions and strategies from Andy Stanley’s reasons he’s keeping Northpoint Community Church closed until 2021 to John MacArthur’s recent statement about his decision to defy California’s ban on church gatherings. There are reasonable arguments on both sides, and I’m not taking sides here. However, as we enter the sixth month of the lockdown in California, a growing number of pastors believe that it’s time to allow churches to make their own decisions – not the state.

Outside the church community, that desire has fallen on deaf ears as evidenced by the Supreme Court ruling that turned down a request by a Nevada church for permission to hold services on the same terms that other facilities in the state, including casinos, that are allowed to hold gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although different states have different rules, it’s pretty clear that when churches are either closed or severely restricted while airlines are packed, casinos can operate, and massive protests are praised in the media, something has dramatically changed in the culture.

The most common arguments for keeping churches closed during the pandemic is the question “What positive impact do churches make on society?” I’ve seen that question asked over and over on social media, with politicians, and in media interviews, which means:

In today’s culture, a church’s impact isn’t measured by it’s theological position, doctrinal statement, or it’s style of worship, but by what can be seen by the outside world.

When it comes to visible impact, I have to say that the vast majority of churches are invisible. And if the world doesn’t see any clear, visible evidence of the impact a local church makes, then they see little reason to keep it open during a pandemic, or during any other crisis.

And not to be dramatic, but if that invisibility goes on too long, there will come a time when they won’t have difficulty deciding a church has no value at all, should lose it’s tax exempt status, and eventually be closed altogether.

Theology is important. Doctrine is important. Evangelism is important. But in a secular age, the world will measure our value based on what we do, not what we believe. And before you get upset and think I’m trying to water down our message, remember that was exactly the strategy of the Early Church. As Jonathan Bock and I wrote in our book “The Way Back: How Christians Blew Our Credibility and How We Get It Back,” the Early Church had no power, influence, funding, or support. They were illegal throughout most of the Roman Empire, hunted down, and persecuted. They had no authority or ability to criticize the government, defy the Romans, or plead their cause.

So they decided to be the people Jesus called us to be.

As a result, when the plague hit the empire, while rich Romans ran for the hills, Christians ran to the hardest hit areas and ministered to people they didn’t know at the risk of their own lives.

Early Christians despised the common Roman practice of infanticide but had no power to stop it. So they made the decision to find abandoned newborns, bring them into their families, and raise them as their own children.

They honored and elevated the role of women in their communities and made the commitment to abstain from sex outside of marriage.

I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

The unexpected actions of those early believers baffled the Romans, and the impact was remarkable. Historians today report that it was the behavior of these earliest believers that began changing the attitudes of the non-believing public, and was a major reason the Roman Empire eventually became Christian in a remarkably short time.

What’s the lesson for today? The single greatest reason the secular culture couldn’t care less about the Church re-opening is that they don’t see the value. But what if our invisible Church suddenly became visible again? What if helping those in need, feeding the hungry, assisting the vulnerable, restoring families, and getting people back to work became our battle cry? Whether they believe the gospel or not, what if the world saw such a powerful positive impact on local communities they couldn’t imagine what life would be like without the Christian community?

Who knows? It might be the unbelievers who start working hardest to open church doors again.

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  1. Good point, Phil. Churches also wouldn’t be having problems gathering if most weren’t locked into the modern model of a handful of professional leaders putting on a service for hundreds or thousands of parishioners. The early church met in small groups in homes, markets, and open spaces.

  2. Well stated my Friend. The old saying “Preach, and if absolutely necessary Speak!” comes to mind. Everyone can talk all they want, but its going to be through action as a Global Church that those who do not hear our voices will recognize the positive impact being made on our society. We are living it every single day here and the needs in our community are growing, not shrinking. Keep beating this drum!

  3. Most of the churches in my area do the very things you mentioned..and it does seem many churches have some type of weekly food program. .so I’m wondering if it’s something like–lack of marketing on the church’s part? A need to get the word out beyond the ‘regulars’ they provide outreach services to? Interesting history on the early church.. some of these things I was not aware of.

    1. Great point Joan, and that’s a big part of why our team at Cooke Media Group is hired – to help churches and ministry organizations tell their story in the media. In a media-driven culture, getting that story out there really does matter. Thanks for bringing that up!

  4. Great points. We all need to be active and be a visible force in our communities. We’re fortunate to be at a church that has never closed, even if we’ve been compelled to do parking lot services. Thanks, Phil!

  5. Phil, This is such a good and timely message! Our local church (of whom I’m the media director) has moved to meeting only on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of the month permanently and doing Revival Communities (our version of small groups) the other Sundays, solely for the purpose of getting out and making an impact in our communities! I love what you said on your podcast a few weeks ago about church attendance not decreasing but maybe just decentralizing… We have to reform and shift our way of doing ministry. It’s time to be relevant again.

    1. That’s a great report Roger. Yes – I’m convinced that a significant number of churches will be changing the way they operate – even as we come out of the COVID-19 shutdown. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  6. Thank you again Phil, great insights on this moment in history. We have operated under an inherited social contract that is passing away – accelerated by Covid but in reality it’s been percolating for decades. A new form of church is having its birth pains and we don’t know what the rules or possibilities will be, but I love your call to action and authenticity as a place to begin.

  7. Great points all, Phil!

    It reminded me of the outpouring of hate when a ‘Samaritan’s Purse’ logo was seen on a hospital field tent in New York City as it provided doctors, nurses and aid during the worst of their Covid outbreak. People actually wanted them removed from helping — even though they helped EVERYONE (as they always do.) CBN has another great worldwide helping medical outreach. I know you do great work getting all of this into the media, but sadly main-stream-media clearly does not want your message. The actions you speak of Christians taking, however, are exactly what will lead to a much-needed Awakening in our country… and in the world.

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