I want to continue some thoughts from my last post and email sent to CrossHope Chapel titled “Pastor Appreciation & Keeping Community.” It had occurred to me that some good may come out of the COVID-19 pandemic for the western church.
My thought has been that a remnant within today’s western church may be nudged back to a more biblical practice of gathering for fellowship through smaller, simpler community approaches.
So here, I want to share some thoughts on simpler church community and how we got so far from this to be who we are as the western church.
It has long been my thinking that since its inception the church has adjusted to the culture and society that it is part of. I use the word “culture” in a neutral way, meaning that gathering Christians have incorporated their culture into their worship practices baring any prohibition of Scripture.
Some examples would be that the church in parts of Africa have incorporated the expression of congregational dancing into their worship practices. The church in parts of Europe have incorporated various practices that our western minds may object to like greeting others with a kiss on the lips, freely serving wine or beer at their church functions, or things like the Norwegian practice of submerging of baptismal candidates for a minimum of 5 slow seconds.
The western church, and I am mainly referring to the church in America, has its own culturally influenced practices among local congregations, like worship time that is structured like secular rock concerts to leadership that mimics a business model used in commerce and corporations.
Thankfully, I have been free to state my criticisms of western church practices with my fellowship at CrossHope Chapel but I also think I have been careful not to join in the chorus of those who have written off the modern church and I have argued against the assessment held by Francis Chan that its practices are evil.
It has been my opinion that God has used the institutional church for His glory and to build His Kingdom even if I or any other has criticism of its practices or advocates for less hierarchy in its organization.
How We Got Here
If we were to have a history lesson, I would point out that the church prior to the time of Emperor Constantine in the early 300’s AD held to a primitive Christianity that gathered in small groups around simple community with the study of Scripture.
Early Christians held community with other Christians by taking advantage of times of fellowship together that were more informal, likely more sporadic than at set times, meeting in homes or open spaces, and including some type of Bible study, time in prayer, and sharing in meals.
The model we see referenced in Acts 2:42 that “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” communicates the essentials of community held among Christians prior to Constantine.
Constantine was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity and in doing so he also remolded the primitive simple church community into an organized professional church of clergy, hierarchy, and centralized buildings.
The general direction of the church was moved from smaller, simpler, communities into an institutionalized structure fashioned after Roman society and likened to it in disproportion of membership, establishment of a priesthood, sacramental distribution authority, and competition with edifices of other religions.
We have now had 1500 years of Constantine’s influence upon the worldwide development of the church and it has brought us to today’s denominational division and an organized religious society that we call Christianity.
We have come a long ways since the days of simple church community and primitive Christianity that identifies closer to the Bible principles than does today’s institutionalized western church. We have been transformed from a personal heartfelt relationship with faith to an institutional corporate exchange of non-personal religious assents.
Back to the Future
In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has broken down some of these post-Constantine characteristics of today’s western church and causing some followers of Christianity to fall back to a simpler church community experience.
Across America, church congregations are struggling to adjust to an attendance and membership involvement that remains roughly half of its pre-pandemic levels. Here in Mobile, I am aware of four congregations that have made the decision to close their doors. Just today I heard a mega-church pastor disclose on his national radio program that seven churches in his area have recently closed their doors.
Churches closing their doors is not a good thing. There is always something sad about seeing a For Sale sign outside a former church, but the truth is that even churches have natural life-cycles and ministries do run their course. The pandemic has just expedited that for many congregations who can longer make budget or whose pastors have thrown in the towel out of stress.
I am of the opinion that a good thing can come out of the pandemic’s disruption of this institutional church life. Many Christians have discovered that they can have spiritual growth in smaller, simpler community apart from filling a gap on a pew in a crowd of people. There can be spiritual growth in having personal Bible study, giving more attention to prayer, and having encouraging conversations in fellowship “where two or three gather” (Matthew 18:20).
I suspect that western church, in general, will continue to strive to maintain its traditional religious services, including its Sunday programs and liturgy. However, I also suspect — I hope — that out of this pandemic era there may emerge a remnant of Christians who will coalesce with other believers and derive their spiritual gathering in simpler community.
It may also be that fellowship for these simpler community gatherings may shift to times other than the usual organized Sunday morning hour. I recently read a survey that claimed that 84% of Americans are not in church attendance on a given Sunday morning.
Of course, survey’s and statistics can’t always tell the full story so I hope that some of that group are keeping in community with followers of Christ at other times on some type of regular basis.
Like the early Christians who took advantage of times of fellowship together that were more informal, likely more sporadic than at set times, meeting in homes or open spaces, and including some type of Bible study, time in prayer, and sharing in meals, I am hoping that a remnant will get back to a simple community and grow in their faith.