Commitment is an Action

On May 26, 2017, a group of Egyptian Christians were making there way to the Monastery of Saint Samuel. Along the way, they were attacked by a group of gunmen. The Washington Post reported that 28 of the pilgrims were killed. The report continues that a demand was given for the victims to recite the Islamic shahada. When they refused, they were killed. Some of the victims were children. They gave their lives in commitment to their faith in Christ.

I believe this true story is instructive for the church in America in 2020? Why? That’s a great question and I’m glad you asked!

Somehow, we decided that having some guidelines for attending church as a group is “persecution.” I suppose we might call that “persecution” in a world where we can get a chicken sandwich in 3 minutes. In a world where we have more convenience than ever, it might be called “persecution.” Stephen, all of the apostles, Paul, Silas, Barnabas, Mark, Luke, and countless others would disagree with our definition of persecution.

Real Persecution

The massacre of these Egyptian Christians is a story of real persecution. They were not asked to wear a mask or maintain 6 feet of empty space between them and the next family. They were told to renounce their faith or be killed. They were killed.

The persecution of the church in China is well-documented.  Government actions toward the Early Rain Covenant Church included the church being shut down and leaders charged with “inciting subversion” – which can result in 5 years in prison.

According to Voice of the Martyrs, In Somalia, a Christian is more likely to be killed by a militant family member than to be imprisoned.

I wonder how these Christians would have responded to the request, “Can you wear a mask to church?” My guess is, they would have said, “Oh, okay. No problem!”

To be clear, I am not suggesting that any of us in the U.S. act like we are living in those places. We aren’t and we have no need to act like we are. But that’s the point. Agree or disagree with the requests, we aren’t being asked to give our lives in exchange for gathering for worship. Whether you agree or disagree, don’t let a request like a mask or hand sanitizer keep you from engaging in the life of the church.

Let’s call it what it is – an inconvenience that some don’t like. For me, to call it persecution would be to cheapen the lives of those who have given theirs while holding on to their faith.

The Matter of Commitment

After talking with many pastors, I have concluded that many of us have the same concern. That is, we have a lack of discipleship and commitment in the American church. (I will leave those pastors nameless as this is all public. Send hate mail and objections to me. 😊)

We have talked about how some church members will not attend services if they are asked to wear a mask. Others will not attend if anyone declines to wear a mask. We have those who tell us they will not attend if they have to maintain “social distancing” of 6 feet or more.

Some tell us that if we apply the restrictions we are caving to media hype and unconstitutional restrictions on worship. Others tell us we are not doing enough to protect attenders from potential infection.

Some tell us it is all a conspiracy to usher in a one-world-government. So, you’re telling me the whole world has suddenly, out of nowhere, united?

All of a sudden, social media is full of epidemiologists, constitutional lawyers, and government intelligence experts. Pastors figured out quickly there really is no way to satisfy everyone in this.

So here’s my take, though I have not said much to this point. In all of these things, the Bible instructs us to gather and worship together. Yes, I also believe we should do this safely. “Safely” can mean a lot of different things. For example, we have a security team that makes sure that nothing dangerous happens, even though it is very unlikely. We have certain guidelines we follow to keep children safe. We do a lot of things with the goal of safety.

For what it’s worth, I do not believe the Bible would endorse us knowingly putting people at risk for the sake of an inside-the-building gathering.

Wearing a mask is one (among many) of those things people in positions of knowledge and authority have asked us to do. Personally, I have largely been publicly silent on these matters.

Is it an overreaction? Maybe, but research suggests it isn’t.

Is it helpful? Maybe, but research suggests it might be.

Is it harmful? No. It really isn’t and no research suggests that it is.

Is it persecution of the church? You’re kidding right? (If it is persecution of the church, then it is also persecution of businesses and every other public space.)

Those who lost family members, were arrested, or had their churches demolished would laugh at us for our reactions to such requests. Please don’t misunderstand, I get the arguments on both sides of the issue. I really do!

However, if I cannot deal with the current restrictions/requests being made for church attendance, how would I respond if I was on the Egyptian bus, or in the Early Rain Church, or a Christian in Somalia? What would happen to my commitment if I was faced with those kinds of restrictions?

Some predict huge declines in church attendance after the crisis period of COVID-19 is over. Others suggest there will be a moderate decline and still others believe there will be no significant change. If you asked me, I would say a decline in church attendance and engagement in the mission and ministry of the church is not a COVID-19 problem. It is a discipleship problem.

Yes, there will be a small number who do not return out of fear for their health – and for good reason! Others will disengage from the church due to a lack of commitment that existed before COVID-19. The gathering of the church is not the only thing the church is supposed to do. However, it continues to be an important part of the life of the church.

The Importance of Gathering

There are lots of reasons for the church to gather together. I am amazed every time I visit someone who cannot attend for health reasons. They always talk about how much they miss attending church. And yet, so many of us look for reasons (and sometimes make them up) to not attend. I still believe the gathering of the church is important. Here are a few reasons to attend corporate gatherings of the church:

1.     To obey the Bible (Hebrews 10:23 – 25)

2.     To be equipped to do ministry (Ephesians 4:11 – 14)

3.     To use my spiritual gifts to minister to others (1 Corinthians 12)

4.     To learn from others (Titus 2:1 – 8, Acts18:24 – 26)

5.     To experience being the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12 – 31, Colossians 3:14 – 16)

6.     To experience the presence of Christ (Matthew 18:20)

7.     There is no loner version of Christianity in the Bible (read any of the New Testament epistles)

The End Result 

What will the COVID-19 pandemic reveal about the church? As of today (7/21/20), it’s too early to tell. I pray that it reveals that the church in the United States is a group of committed believers who are faithful to the church in terms of engagement. I pray that it reveals a church that is refocused on the mission that Jesus gave (Matthew 28:19 – 20).  

I pray that church members/attenders truly miss the gathering of the Body of Christ. I pray that future gatherings will not be just another meeting in a building. Rather, I pray they become encounters with God that lead to acts of ministry. I pray they become transformational moments where believers become more and more committed to following Christ. I pray church “services” become the places we go to experience the Holy Spirit in ways that lead us to do the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21).

As we deal with a global pandemic, let us reevaluate “going to church.” May we not see it as an obligation. May we see it as a privilege. May we be have enough commitment to the Body of Christ and its mission that a mask, hand sanitizer, or 6 feet of space is not enough to squash our enthusiasm.