An “Essential” Paradox

Christianity is no stranger to paradoxes.  For example:  Jesus is fully God and fully human!  How can both of those propositions be true? It’s a miracle but they are. We are currently faced with a new paradox that I want to address.

I was taken to church from the time I was born.  The importance of Sunday School, Worship, Prayer Meetings, Bible Studies, and other church gatherings was drilled into me.  I was taught that it was essential for the spiritual growth and health of believers.   I was also taught it was essential for evangelizing non-believers.  (Disclaimer: I was taught that church should never be the only means of spiritual growth and evangelism.)  In short, the belief that church is essential became part of me.  It’s in my DNA.  Eventually, I became a Pastor.  I am now one of the ones teaching others that church is essential!

Then came COVID-19.   Based on suggested guidelines from public health officials, on March 15th, my own church board unanimously voted to suspend our gatherings until April 3rd, which we later changed to, “until further notice.”  

Given what I said earlier, it is an understatement to say that making that decision was a hard one. Talk about going against the grain!   Following our self-imposed rule has required discipline and has remained hard.   I have repeatedly wrestled with the questions: “Did we do the right thing? Are we doing the right thing?”    Through study, research, and reflective thinking (all done prayerfully, of course), I am convinced that we did, and are doing, the right thing by suspending our physical gatherings.

Since the beginning of Christianity, wherever Christians are found, they form themselves into local communities (or as I prefer, “families!”) commonly called, churches.  Churches live by a set of blended, complementary, benefits and responsibilities.  Christians who join into fellowship with other Christians give and receive support to and from one another.  They pray for one another and are prayed for by others.  They collectively affirm, send, and support missionaries.  They jointly carry out compassionate ministries.  They give offerings to support ongoing ministries and, when needed, they benefit from these helpful gifts.  They hold one another accountable in both behavior (ethics) and understanding (doctrinal beliefs).   In the New Testament there is absolutely positively no concept of isolated, loner Christians.  Christians ALWAYS join into fellowship with other Christians.  As one unknown Christian writer put it, “There’s no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christian.”  The writer added, “Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto!”  So, yes, churches are essential.

However, in our current context, it must be said that scheduled worship services (and other physical gatherings) can, and should, be temporarily suspended for a few weeks, or even months, in the interest of public health and safety.  We can even say that is essential that we do so.  While such gatherings are important, and ordinarily even prioritized, the church is much more than those gatherings.

Churches around the world with suspended services can still support one another, encourage one another, pray for one another, etc.   We Christian communities still love one another, we’ve just had to adapt the ways we express that love.  Writing about the mandate in Scripture that Christians not give up meeting together, Dr. Roger Hahn wrote, “In the first century when telephones did not exist and letters were difficult and expensive to write, face to face contact was the only way encouragement could be given. It is still the most effective way.”  While we can concede that physical gathering is still the most effective way, we have to admit it is not the only way, especially in a temporary situation. It would be hard to overstate the blessing of digital communication technology during this time.   Churches can still “gather” through videoconferencing, webcasts, various forms of social media, text messaging, and even the old-fashioned phone call.  In short, given communication technology, given the temporary nature of the situation, I believe the church can continue to be the church even with a temporary hiatus on physical gatherings. 

This is especially true given the motivation behind the current suspension of gathering:  namely, public health and safety.  The church is supposed to serve its community.  During a pandemic, one of the ways the church serves its community is by following public health protocols and not gathering.  It is akin to, “going the extra mile.”  That is, it is a sacrifice for us to forego our physical gatherings but we make that sacrifice for the good of both ourselves and everyone else with whom we might have contact.

Yes, it truly is an “essential” paradox! That is, a paradox concerning essentials:

  1. Church is essential.
  2. It is essential that church gatherings be temporarily suspended.

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