Listening in on a Discussion of the Coronavirus and the Church

What some might see as a threat to the vitality of Christian community, others see as opportunity to advance the kingdom of God.

I am reading through the Bible chronologically this year and paying attention to themes that sweep from beginning to end. One great theme is the promise to Abraham and his descendants, that God would bless him and make of him descendants that would be too numerous to count, and by them God would bless all the nations of the world.

I just got done contemplating why, when God entered the world as a human being and came to “His own” His own people didn’t recognize or receive Him. They had developed their own expectations that were very focused, understandably, on the nation of Israel and the promised land, and Jesus didn’t meet the expectations they had. (See What We Can Learn from Expectations about What God Is Doing.)

Expectations are good. It’s good to be expectant about what God is doing, but the danger is that we anchor those expectations in our own perspectives, which are unavoidably limited. Our expectations should be shaped by Scripture and relationship to God alone, but (being human) we tend to superimpose our own personal, community, societal, cultural and philosophical models on top of that foundation. Sometimes we even import biblical principles on top of a foundation that is not biblical.

American Christianity is no different than any other cultural expression of Christianity in that regard. Perhaps, American Christianity is even super-sized in that tendency, however, because of our historical sense of manifest destiny and extreme confidence in the rightness of the great American experiment in Democracy, capitalism and constitutional framework that has allowed the United States to thrive and become the dominant country in the world.

Because of the human tendency to filter everything through our unique perspectives and miss what other people with different perspectives can see, I spend time listening to and reading Christians and people with other perspectives from other parts of the world. For that reason, I listen to many of the episodes of the Unbelievable? podcast with Justin Brierly, a British Christian, who interviews people from various parts of the world from various viewpoints, including Christian and non-Christian worldviews.

The coronavirus pandemic has created a confluence of varying viewpoints in the Church global, the American Church, and communities in and out of the Church and societies all around the world. That global pandemic has, perhaps, heightened the degree of angst that comes to bear on other issues in the world and locally, such as the current racial tensions in the US and particularly acute response that we have experienced as events have unfolded that have opened and exasperated old racial wounds that have not yet healed.

How we respond to these things as Christians is critical. It affects the effectiveness of our mission to carry out the Great Commission – the marching orders Jesus gave to His followers to spread the Gospel throughout the world. The pandemic means that we can no longer carry on “business as usual”. Indeed, God often used catastrophic and extreme measures to accomplish His purposes throughout Scripture and (certainly I believe) continues to do so today. There is opportunity in these times to adjust with what is happening, listen for what God is saying to the Church and advance His kingdom.

I think of these things as I listen to the recent interview by Justin Brierley of three Christians talk about the coronavirus: Mark Sayers from Australia, AJ Roberts from Los Angeles, Ruth Jackson from Great Britain. Among the most poignant aspects of the interview, was the description by Mark Sayers about he and his Australian church have responded to the coronavirus, finding unique opportunity in changing the model of local church worship and community. Following is a brief description:

What some churches might see as a threat to the vitality of Christian community, Mark Sayers saw as opportunity. His church community has changed its model of worship and community with immediate results in revitalized church community and impact on the greater community with people coming to faith in Christ.

I recently touched unwittingly on the same subject in writing Loneliness, Singleness and the Church Family, inspired by something Rebecca McLaughlin wrote in her excellent, thought-provoking book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest ReligionHer observations prompted me to think about the ways in which the progress of western civilization, society and culture have buried certain values evident in the early Church community that were part of its vitality.

As we fight to hold onto aspects of the American Church culture that we have come to view as sacred, we may be unwittingly missing opportunities God is presenting to us for change that He wants us to embrace. As with Martin Luther’s renewed emphasis on grace received by faith and other movements in the history of the Church, these are not new things. They are old things that we have gotten away from, things we have buried, perhaps, that God wants us to dig up and restore.

These times of difficulty and challenge are often viewed as threatening, and we become fearful of them, but God works all things together for the good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. Perfect love casts out all fear, and so we should not be fearful of the change as long as we remain open, humble and willing to adapt as God moves among us.

As with the wine that sits too long in the bottle with the leas settling to the bottom, God shakes us up to emphasize those things we have allowed to settle out. Each major movement in Church history might be viewed as God disturbing the status quo to reintroduce and refocus His Church on values that have settled to the bottom.

The American Church is uniquely affected by our history with an emphasis on rugged individualism, freedoms and individual rights. I am coming to see that we, perhaps, have lost something in our unique national development that God may be seeking to undo and restore.

The days of the mega-church may be coming to an end. An emphasis on more intimate communities of believers who are salt and light in their own personal spheres of influence may be part of what God is encouraging us to embrace now, as many of our mega-church leaders are being exposed for their sins and the necessities of a pandemic are inhibiting our large gatherings. These and other things we should be considering, at least, as we ask, “What is God saying to us in these times?”

The American tendency to think bigger is better and follow cult personalities, I think, is unhealthy at best, especially in the church. How many people have been shaken in their faith as the sins of their idols are exposed? How many people have been turned off by the hypocrisy in the church with an emphasis on large, showy gatherings and lack of integrity that is worked out in intimate community and personal relationships?

I fear that we have overemphasized our constitutional rights as believers in the United States to the exclusion of the greater purposes and plan of God. I dare say with some confidence that God cares less about our individual rights in the United States than His purpose to seek and save and the lost in the world. I think of these things in the context of AJ Roberts describing a discussion she had with a local, charismatic church pastor on how we should respond to the threat of the coronavirus in the clip below:

Americans Christians seem uniquely apt to latch onto conspiracy theories as our skepticism grows toward government, science and governmental mandates. We parse Romans 13:1 to protect our unspoken assumptions and protect our American ideals. We champion Trump as God’s chosen authority while dismissing the authority of Obama who, by the same logic of Romans 13:1, was “instituted by God”.

Not that we should not be wise and discerning. My remarks are not an endorsement of Obama or a judgment on Trump, necessarily. In fact, I am suggesting that we should be wiser and even more discerning than we have been.

We need to consider in every way how our public posturing down to our individual tweets and other social posts are advancing (or inhibiting) the kingdom of God and spreading the Gospel to the world as Jesus directed us, consistent with the promise of God to Abraham and his descendants to bless all nations through the.

Our integrity and credibility is paramount. Jesus is at the same time the way, the truth and the life. Our attempts to spread the Gospel will not be effective in the field that is ripe for the harvest if we emphasize only the way and the life to the exclusion of truth. I think AJ Roberts is right in her assessment in the clip below that our ability to spread the Gospel effectively is affected by our posture toward truth wherever it may be found:

The thing is that God is always working good out of the bad. Plagues hit Rome in the 2nd Century at a time when Christians had no political influence. Christians were a minority group with no cultural power, but they were living out the Gospel in intimate community. While the pagans were abandoning family with the plague to the elements, Christians, who were not fearful or protective of their own lives in this world, took them in. The Christians not only took care of their own; they selflessly took care of their pagan neighbors at risk to themselves.

The Christians’ example of fearless, selfless love embarrassed the pagan leaders to the point of publicly challenging the pagan community to act like Christians.

The vocal response of a segment of the Christian community today involves asserting personal rights at the potential expense of others. A person might say that Christians who refuse to wear masks and insist on meeting en masse to worship are simply exercising the same fearless faith as the 2nd Century Christians. The difference is that Christians today are asserting their own rights at the potential risk to others; while the 2nd Century Christians were exposing themselves to risk at their own potential expense out of love for others.

Instead of being challenged by the courageous, selfless actions of Christians, unbelievers today are challenging Christians for their foolhardy and selfish actions – and with just cause.

For what purpose are we willing to accept risk? Do we take on the risk for a particular agenda to protect our freedoms and rights, even if it means exposing vulnerable people to risk? Are our actions consistent with love for our neighbors, spreading the Gospel and advancing the kingdom of God? Should we be asserting our rights, or laying down our rights for others? To wrap this up, I will leave you with another short segment of the interview, but I encourage you to go back and listen to the whole episode.

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