Having everyone's worship services broadcast across the web and through social media is certainly a double edged sword. It's awesome because we get to participate in other churches' experiences. For us it's been good because we can hear from friends of ours and especially my in-laws. The multiplicity of services, messages, and songs are truly a glimpse of glory. But with that comes the inevitable: someone is going to do or say something that doesn't jive with us.
It's an unfortunate but apparent reality that Christian Twitter hasn't lost its outrage edge. Whether it's churches hosting drive in services, at-home Communion, drive-by baptisms, or deciding to not even have anything broadcast until the local church re-gathers, there's no shortage of opinions and hot fire takes.
I'm not saying the way we do church doesn't matter. It does. Our doctrine of the church informs our worship, our fellowship, our practices, our values, our expectations, and our gathered hope. Our doctrine of the church gives us distinct denominational identities shaped and formed by our biblical convictions over secondary matters. Those aren't unimportant. They're part of who we are. But they're not primary issues.
Take your neighborhood, or more particularly your neighbor's house and compare it to your house. Tertiary matters are the interior design. We decorate our homes how we want and how we like it, and it's for those within. Secondary issues are the exterior and landscaping. Sure it's obnoxious to have an eyesore next door, but it's not your house. Primary issues are those that pose a risk to you, your house, or the neighborhood.
What does this have to do with churches doing drive by offerings? A lot. When we criticize, poke at, or otherwise lambast churches whose practices on secondary issues are different than ours, we're like the neighbor who comes over and tells us he doesn't like the color we chose for our shutters or how we've trimmed the hedges.
I think we have to ask ourselves four questions that probe less at the action and more at the heart. The heart of the person/church doing, but more so our own hearts.
1) What are they attempting to do with this? - A lot of these actions are done out of a genuine and sincere desire to maintain some sense of normalcy during an unprecedented trial. They're not trying to act crazy (for the most part), and they're not trying to unseat the meaning of Hebrews 10:24-25. They're trying to live faithfully and obediently according to their conscience and conviction. It may not be what you would do, but it's what they have determined they can do.
2) Is it worth interjecting myself? - Normally my answer to this is a solid no. It's not. In most cases, interjecting yourself into someone else's business means you're meddling. With that said, relational proximity does have a certain margin in this. If you put a lawn decoration in your yard that would make Clark Griswold jealous, and your neighbor who you barely know says something to you, you'll respond differently than if it's the neighbor you have over every Sunday to watch Red Zone. Relational proximity matters. If it's a big enough deal (and there may be times it is), and you've got enough relational proximity, you might be able to ask questions. If not, don't tweet.
3) Am I being humble and gracious? - This was the point Jesus was getting at in Matthew 7. It wasn't that we should never make judgments, but that we do so with balanced scales and a mirror. The balanced scales to be fair, and the mirror so we can look into ourselves. Humility is a virtue missing from most of our social media interaction, even among Christians. Graciousness is its partner. Where you have one, you typically have the other. When we're hot taking churches who do things different than us, are we being humble and gracious?
4) What's the harm? - All of these questions are interconnected. If we give benefit of the doubt to those who practice differently than us, we also have to think about the harm the practice is doing (or more than likely not doing). For example, one prominent church (Capitol Hill Baptist in DC) has decided not to do broadcasted worship services but to show previously recorded sermons. Not how we're doing it, but no harm. They've been extremely kind in how they've taken their position. We saw a drive-by baptism done the other day pop up on our Facebook thread. Again, not how I'd do it, but there's no harm in publicly recognizing the work of Christ in someone's life. Or the at-home Communion services, whether a recipe is provided or people partake using whatever they have at home. Again, not how I'd do it. But there's no harm being done, and the fabric of the Church isn't unraveled (unless you're a transubstantiationist, but that's another story).
No two churches are going to do things the same way. That's true in normal circumstances, but it's magnified in a global crisis like this. We're welcome to disagree with what we see. That's ok. Your way and my way don't have to be the same. But I'd hope at the very least we'd begin to ask these four questions before we start firing off hot takes.
In a text exchange with a friend and former colleague in ministry, we talked about the encouragement we've found in our churches and how they've responded to the COVID-19 crisis. We also agreed that it's "exhausting to completely overhaul and rewrite everything you're doing." It's true. Nothing we're doing now is normal, or fun. I enjoy watching services on TV in my pajamas, but it's not the gathered church. I've enjoyed sitting on the couch with Carrie and the kids while we sing, but it's not the same as hearing our church praise. I've enjoyed finishing the message by Wednesday, but its' nothing like the moment of expectation while our children's minister finishes the prayer while I'm walking up to the podium.
All of us in ministry could write a list like this. We've learned a lot about who we are, what we're capable of, and what kind of stock our churches are made of. EBC, here's what I've learned about you!
1) You're a resilient bunch - Seriously guys, you're tougher than you think. You've embraced the challenge of trying to figure out how we're going to get through this, and you're digging in your heels to make sure we're doing this as best we can. You've survived countless struggles, economic recessions, trials, even for some a World War. But we've never seen a global pandemic. And your mettle is showing!
2) You're more adaptable than you think - Churches have been forced to do something many haven't in a long time, change. Change is hard. It breaks up the routine and rhythm that we've become accustomed to. And it pushes us, as Queen Elsa says, into the unknown. But you've handled this one well, and you've shown you're more adept at change and more flexible than you thought! Sunday School classes are using Zoom, our prayer meetings have gone virtual and you did the work to set up a Zoom so we can virtually gather together, you've used online giving, you've gotten prayer emails, and you've adjusted to a normal where our lives are interrupted.
3) You're more loving - Absence really does make the heart grow fonder. It's not just romantic, it's koinonia! Because we've been apart for so long (today is our 5th Sunday meeting virtual), we've realized how much we genuinely love one another and long for the fellowship that's been missing since we're not in the same physical place. You're checking in on people. You're praying. You're helping your neighbors. You're sending encouragement. And you're itching to get back to 8305 US Highway 301 North.
4) You're being made more like Christ - We haven't had our physical gatherings. We haven't had fellowship meals or activities or events. We aren't doing programming like we did before. What's been stripped away has shown us what matters most of all: Jesus. And when our eyes are fixed on Him, we're made more like Him. Whatever is chiseled or stripped away from us is the stuff that doesn't matter. We are made for community, and we are made to fellowship embodied. That's why we look forward to getting back together. But this season has shown us that it is by the Word we are made more like Jesus.
5) You've kept your joy - Whether it's picking on me for a wardrobe change during a service (I forgot to wear the same shirt for the two days of filming that week), stopping by to drop off stuff at the office and doing the six foot distance hug, getting annoyed when Zoom puts the picture right up your nose, or you talk about the sweetness of Christian fellowship, COVID-19 hasn't robbed you of your joy. Sure it's annoying. Sure it's frustrating. We're all there. Yes the service feed drops every now and then. But you've kept your joy in the midst of crisis.
Hang in there guys. We'll get through this together. #TeamEBC
I don't want things to go back to normal when the COVID-19 crisis passes us. Don't get me wrong, I need a haircut, I'm dying to get back to our regular routine, I've missed our church family, and Louisville is preseason Top 25 in football. There's a lot that we want to see again. And a lot of people we want to see again. But I don't want things back to normal.
Here's why. We've seen sparks of wonder during this crisis, and I fear that normalcy means the end of the wonder.
Stop and think about it. Companies are putting aside profits to take care of their employees. Factories are giving away product for a medical crisis. Opposite sides of the political debate are working on solutions. We're seeing a flourish of creativity in how people are meeting basic needs. The internet has become a happier place with a strong meme game. Our families are spending more time together, we're unplugging from the rat race, and we're recapturing what's most important. In my SBC tribe, we're not talking about CRT-I, we're talking about prayer and Gospel.
Do I want to see shops open and businesses thriving and churches filled again? Absolutely. Goodness yes. That's why I'm willing to endure the agony of distancing for a time. So we can hurry that back.
But as for normal, I'll pass.
I'll pass on a church culture that values preferences over mission. In this crisis, none of us are thrilled with what's happening. But we're pushing through. We're going through with a measure of joy as we videotape services in segments, as we sit in our living rooms and watch, and on the other side of the camera pastors are forcing smiles and eye direction to a camera instead of real faces. But we're on the same mission. We're all on the same page. I don't want to go back to the church culture of complaining over music style or pew color or Bible translation or whatever petty foolishness that doesn't matter we find ourselves arguing over.
I'll pass on lazy pastors and ministry leaders who skate by. Crisis has a way of separating cream from milk. Cream rises to the top. This crisis has pushed ministry leaders and pastors. It's made us uncomfortable. And it's exposed a problem I think far too common in churches: laziness. You can't be lazy and lead people through a crisis. You have to be willing to work hard, grind, and put in time.
I'll pass on joylessness. I was almost brought to tears a couple weeks ago by a Zoom meeting where I watched people join in, enter the "room," and light up when they saw familiar faces. They saw people they hadn't in weeks. And there was raw joy in that. I don't want to go back to normal where our church gatherings feel like funerals and dirges. I want to remember the joy that comes from authentic fellowship. I don't want to go back to the normal of joyless meetings, joyless classes, joyless services, and joyless activities.
I'll pass on fear of change. In this crisis, we've had nothing but change. Even before the CDC's recommendations shuttered the majority of churches nationwide, we were seeing the trajectory change on a 24/48 hour basis. What we knew as "accepted" was subject to changing as the situation evolved. Churches, for good or bad, have long been a bastion of steadfastness, an anchor to change. Seriously, step in some. It's like a time machine, except it's no DeLorean. You'll be taken back to the 1980s, 70s, or earlier. I don't want to go back to normal where change is something to be afraid of, or the answer to innovation is "we've never done it that way before." I want to keep this going, where innovation and ideas are churning out new ways to accomplish an ancient mission. Let's not lose this.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.