God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
-Acts 2:32-33 (NIV)
Last week, someone contacted our church wondering if we would be having services at our usual time. This person, who as far as I know has never worshipped with our church, just couldn’t believe that we didn’t trust God enough, or love God enough, or something, to remain open during the pandemic and in spite of Illinois’ stay-at-home order.
We’re far from the only church that’s had those interactions in the past couple of weeks. A pastor in Florida was arrested this week for continuing to keep his church open for Sunday services. “We’re going to have church,” he insists.
Never mind all the evidence that the best thing we can do to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ease the burden on our health care system is to stay at home. Never mind the doctors and nurses fighting this thing, never mind the many, many people who won’t get the medical help they desperately need if we don’t slow this virus down.
We’re going to have church.
Look, no one thinks meeting together matters more than I do. No one dislikes having to suspend gathering for worship any more than I do. But it wouldn’t be right for us to meet right now. It would create an obstacle for the gospel with our neighbors, who are expected to stay away from their offices, schools, gyms, friends, and family. It would endanger people. It does not show love for our neighbor to insist on a course of action that will ultimately cause much more suffering.
The longer this goes on, though, I wonder if it’s all bad.
It’s hard to argue, when we look at the church in America (and elsewhere too) in 2020, that we’re very much focused on our buildings. Last year, our church spent 20% of our budget on our building: maintaining, improving, heating, and air-conditioning it. I think that’s probably a fairly conservative number; our building is relatively small, relatively old, and not exactly state-of-the-art. Still, it was more than we spent on missions and benevolence combined.
Thing is, I’m not sure how to change that number much. To own a building is to incur expenses. I guess what I’m saying is that, with the building such an important part of life for most churches, it’s easy to see how we’d leave the impression that we can’t “have church” if we’re not at the building on Sundays.
As an exercise, I’d like to list below all the Bible verses that mention the church owning a building:
Now I’d like to list all the Bible verses that indicate that church life is all about showing up at a building at a predetermined time on Sundays:
You get the point, right?
There are problems that start to arise whenever we too closely connect “having church” with a building. For one thing, worship becomes an appointment instead of a lifestyle of offering yourself. Taken to its extreme, you can never miss a “Sunday worship" and still never know what it’s like to give yourself sacrificially to honor God.
In addition, the worship service becomes all about receiving something. “Going to church” and “going to Wal-Mart” don’t just sound the same; they’re about the same thing. You go and pick up what you need, and think little about what you give to others.
That’s because of the third big problem: you start to imagine that everything God is doing revolves around being at the building. If we can only “have church” in a particular location on Sunday, then we don’t give much thought to “having church” anywhere else: at our offices, our schools, our neighborhoods, even our homes.
The early church’s experience, though is that the Holy Spirit was poured out on a people, not a location. When people repented and turned to God through faith in Jesus, he enabled them to do wonderful things. They met together when and where they could. They took care of each other. But they weren’t rooted in a place. When they were persecuted in Jerusalem they scattered and preached the gospel wherever they went.
Wherever the Spirit took them, they had church.
That makes all the sense in the world, given the subject of Peter’s sermon on that first Pentecost of the church’s existence. Peter told them about Jesus being raised from the dead. He told them that the Lord wasn't in the tomb, but alive and active in the world. It only makes sense that his church should be too. We aren’t dead and confined to our ornate, comfortable, and fashionable tombs, but alive and bursting with the Spirit’s energy.
The church has never been about the building. If you’ve been thinking of the church in that way, then you’ve been thinking of it wrongly and this is an excellent opportunity to change your perspective. Being together is good. It’s necessary that we gather together for encouragement, to worship with one voice, to pray for each other, and to teach each other and proclaim the gospel. But being together isn’t how we have church.
We have church because of our Father who loves us. We have church because of his Son’s faithfulness. We have church because God raised him from the dead, and we have church because of the Spirit who lives in us.
Maybe, through the disruption of this pandemic, we’ll learn new ways of having church.
Maybe we’ll be more engaged with each other, even though we see each other less.
Maybe we’ll be more thankful for the opportunity to interact with each other, even though those opportunities are fewer and farther between.
Maybe, as work, school, kids’ activities, and friends have left our calendars, the Lord’s work will find more of a place.
Maybe this crisis will create opportunities for us to live out what we say we believe. People are anxious. They’re in need. If the Gospel is real and relevant, and the church is truly bigger than our buildings, now is the time to show it!
When the stay at home order is lifted, when we can leave our homes, let it not be to just rebuild our church life around a building. Let it not be just on Sundays at a building, but sharing each others’ lives.
I miss all of you. I look forward to seeing you on Sundays in a few weeks. But in the meantime, we’re still having church. Let’s be Spirit-filled people in our world. Preach Jesus wherever you are, in whatever way you can.
I can’t wait to hear about it when we get together again.