All of us will remember 2020. As I write this article, we are only halfway through the calendar year and yet it feels the past six months have contained enough events to fill up six years. At the top of the list of major events are the COVID-19 Pandemic and the social unrest that fills our nation. Questions involving racial justice, monuments, and civic responsibility swirl constantly demanding answers. How is the church to respond in this moment? One concern that fills my heart is that many no longer believe that the church really matters.
The Wrong Preoccupation
The lack of attention given to a healthy ecclesiology over time manifested itself in how many churches responded to the recommendations and guidelines from the civil authorities on not meeting corporately. Now, I respect the autonomy of local churches and am a firm believer in liberty of conscience. Space should be given for some differences and charity should dominate our heart. However, pandemics or wars give us no license to redefine what a church is, how a church worships, or how the sacraments are celebrated. For example, some of the ideas promoted for conducting “virtual communion” reveal a mindset that says pragmatism reigns when it comes to “how we do church.” In April, I listened to a prominent Baptist pastor encourage his flock to use sweet tea and crackers as a substitute for the fruit of the vine and the bread with a big smile on his face. This is just one example of some of the strange ideas that popped up during the pandemic. Ian Malcolm’s quotation on the scientists cloning dinosaurs in Jurassic Park aptly fits with some of the ecclesiological actions taken this year: “[You] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
The mindset of pragmatism stands in direct opposition to the pattern exhibited by men like William Carey. Carey pastored two different churches in England before setting sail for India. Carey though would not celebrate the Lord’s Supper for two years before a church was organized in India. Based on the spirit of the day, some would have told Carey that he could do it with his family or that he could have done it “virtually” by celebrating in India when he knew the church back in England was celebrating. For Carey and others, such a mindset would violate the Word of God. The Scriptures are clear on the elements for the Supper and that the Supper is supposed to be celebrated by a local church. Perhaps, we would not have found ourselves in such a place of suggesting sweet tea in your home as a worthy substitute if we had rejected requests for couples to partake of communion during their marriage ceremonies. As long as churches are preoccupied with pragmatic ecclesiology, the ordinary means prescribed in the Bible will continue to fall by the wayside.
Will Someone Bring the Book?
The battle is always over the Bible. Is the Bible inspired, infallible, inerrant, and sufficient? I grew up in a context where a mere biblicism reigned that said, “No creed but Christ.” There is such a need for believers to know historical theology expressed through creeds, confessions, and catechisms. Two books that show this very well are The Creedal Imperative by Carl Trueman and Baptists and the Christian Tradition edited by Matthew Emerson, Christopher Emersion, and Lucas Stamps. Yet, we must never get away from the foundational truth that Christians believe: God reveals Himself redemptively through His Word. Who will bring the book? As our nation undergoes a lot of turmoil as a result of the pandemic and questions surround social injustice, where will the church stand? Do we still matter? If the church seeks to adopt strategies, programs, and actions that mimic the world, we dilute our witness. Christ calls us to be salt and light in this world (Matt. 5:13-16). Those two descriptions mean that the church stands out as unique in this world. If the church is not guarded, the pragmatism that says sweet tea for the Lord’s Supper is fine and that we must win the lost at any cost will springboard to a new legalism that calls for perpetual penance with no grace and no forgiveness.
Lord, Revive Your Work
These are confusing and challenging times. I would never want to minimize the seriousness of the pandemic or the social strife in our nation that is a result of real injustices. However, “preach the gospel” does not need to be mocked or belittled. True, there is a lot more involved in that than just a 40 minute sermon on a Sunday. Yet, I fear that we can easily forget that revival comes through the Spirit’s extraordinary usage of the ordinary means of grace (to paraphrase Iain Murray). Do we believe that the Lord still uses His church entrusted with the gospel to change lives? Will revival come in our land if we tear down enough statues or will it come if the people of God get serious about God again? The church is not in need of a political program but a spiritual reinvigoration from on high.
True revival and transformation will come by way of the church reading, praying, singing, preaching, and seeing the Word. The ordinary means of grace are enough for our lives and they are the channels by which life is brought where death reigned. The church needs to rediscover faithful preaching of the law and the gospel as well as understanding how we function as spiritual exiles who seek to be good citizens. Much of this sounds simple and that is where the problem often lies with us. We wonder how God can use the ordinary in an extraordinary way. Let us search the Scriptures anew and trace the stories of church history out: they testify to the amazing grace of God at work in an army of ordinary people!
The church still matters! Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His bride! As we continue to sojourn through this trying year, may our hearts remember that nations come and go but the church of Jesus Christ remains. Let us give ourselves to being faithful members in a local church feasting upon the ordinary means of grace. May pastors equip the flock to go out into their communities and serve as faithful ambassadors of the King. Our families, friends, and neighbors do not need more political commentary and COVID analysis: they need gospel truth. This is why the church still matters! May the Spirit give us spiritual clarity not to forget that!