1. This Pandemic is Real
I've been wary of the fear-mongering that seems so rampant in our culture at this time and have wanted to lead the church with courage, even as we've taken necessary precautions around gathering. But courage need not be reckless. Courage certainly should not be denial. All of us now have close friends or family who have suffered from this virus. Some of us have tragically lost loved ones. It is no longer 'the disease out there.' It has come near, and if hospital ICU rates are below 15% it means that many people are not getting over it just like a flu bug. Of course, we may suspect the numbers are exaggerated and that the government has overreached in the way it is trying to control infection rates. But let's not allow our suspicions to deny that we have a problem on our hands. That would be neither wise nor loving. This pandemic is no joke.
The fact that my symptoms have been mild has not made me cavalier. I know enough people who have experienced severe symptoms to realize the virus is random in the way that it affects folk, even young, healthy people. What has made me more respectful of it is realizing how contagious it seems to be. Even though I worked hard to isolate from my family, my wife and daughter caught it in the couple of days before I had tested. It's highly contagious. If you have watched a loved one suffer or lose their life, or if you have suffered yourself, you will attest to the fact that it can be brutal. So, let's mask up, maintain social distance, wash our hands, stay home if we have symptoms and pray that the vaccines work effectively.
2. Social Isolation is also a Pandemic.
Held in tension with my conviction that the pandemic is real, is the conviction that social isolation is also a pandemic. I've taken time during isolation to read up on statistics around depression, addiction, anxiety, unemployment and suicide rates. The statistics are dizzying, but suffice to say, they have all sky-rocketed during this pandemic. Someone said that we are essentially battling two pandemics; the disease and the dis-ease brought on by social isolation. Sadly, I've had a front-row seat to the effects of isolation on those I lead, even upon my own children. It's evil. While some have enjoyed quality family time and working remotely, I'm concerned about the long term effects on social distancing and stay-at-home orders. necessary though they may be. I already see an alarming trend of people cocooning amidst growing social anxiety, even as restrictions ease. We are becoming reclusive and anti-social and it is ravaging our souls and our social fabric.
About three months ago I was praying for wisdom on how to fight social isolation in the midst of the danger of a pandemic. I sensed the Lord speak to me about cancer in a body. If someone has cancer in their body they will willingly subject it to the danger of chemotherapy or radiotherapy in order to heal it from the greater danger of cancer. Gathering in-person has some degree of danger associated with it. But it is less dangerous than the cancer of social isolation to us, and also to Christ's Body.
As J.D. Greear, president of the SBC recentlywrote, "COVID is real. So are the devastating effects of isolation, loneliness and the inability to make life work. Both should be taken seriously. We have to keep these things in tension. Pray for our government leaders that they would be able to do this wisely."
We are communal creatures, created in the image of a communal Creator. It is not good for humans to be alone. I am adamant that we are to continue to fight for community, even in this second wave of stay at home orders. This means that we will keep taking precautions, but will keep emphasizing the healing power of in-person worship and small group gatherings, even as we continue to serve and care for our online community.
3. The Future of the Church is not Digital.
We've loved investing in ways to serve our online community, many of whom have very good reasons to be staying home. We've loved experimenting with ways to foster digital community and have been so encouraged by people's response and commitment. We've also been pleased by the growing digital footprint we've experienced through the various social media platforms. I and my family have been personally blessed these past two weeks being able to worship online and join the post-sermon chat. Our online crew is doing a phenomenal job! I refuse to make our online community feel like second class citizens when many are serving on front lines, are immuno-compromised or elderly. If the risen Christ moved through walls to meet his disciples, he can certainly move through media platforms to meet his people today. We will continue to use online forums for the foreseeable future.
However, I do not believe the future of the church is digital, as some have said. There are still real limitations to building community and making disciples digitally. Congregational worship, communion, prayer, nuance, atmosphere and relational depth are severely limited in an online forum. So many of the New Testament's one anothers require embodied presence. Thus, while we will remain agile in ways of meeting, we will continue to emphasize the call people to embodied gatherings.
4. God can use unjust laws and leaders to refine His compromised Church.
Some of us may feel that all these restrictions are an unjust infringement on our freedom of worship. I empathize with these feelings. As you know, we have exercised civil disobedience on occasion and may do so again if we feel we must. I do desire consistency from government, and am concerned when churches are treated as less essential than casinos, for instance. It is not about meeting in a specific building. It is about churches being able to gather in-person in some way to worship, and I am heartened that there is current provision made for this. This is why we are investing a significant amount of money in a tent. We sense that there is still a significant season of out-door worship and we want to help keep people sheltered from the elements.
Is having to meet outdoors when we have a perfectly good building, unjust? Perhaps. But we have seen some amazing gospel dynamics at work as we've gathered in this way. Our visitor engagement and the curiosity factor from outsiders has increased. We've grown in boldness and flexibility as a church because of it. We also see in Scripture that God often used unjust leaders and laws to refine His people when they had become compromised. I am persuaded that God is at work in these difficult days to produce more rugged, agile and sacrificial disciples of Jesus who bear greater resemblance to the first disciples of Jesus. If this is what He is doing, then I'm all in! Can we be all in, together?
The Class of 2020 is going to produce formidable disciples, I'm sure of it.
So, let's not shrink back, be strong in His grace and receive His reward for faithfulness.