My suburban church is running about 50 percent of what it ran 13 months ago; my Sunday School class is also about half as big as it was. That’s been the story for months, even before any of us had received a vaccination. I understand that some are particularly at risk, and there are some other pretty good reasons to come back slowly, but I have come to believe that some of us are just out of the habit. I get that, but we mustn’t just accept that tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest.
There are some important things in peril if we corporately, or I individually, stay away from our church body longer than necessary. If you’ll consider the metaphors the Bible uses to describe a church, you see what I mean.
A church is like a family with God as our father, Jesus as the firstborn heir, and we as children, sisters and brothers. Did you grieve missing birthdays or holidays with family members over the past 12 months? I did. In fact, I’ve determined that I will not willingly have again a Christmas as strange as Christmas 2020. Big talk maybe, but you probably know what I mean. I missed grandkid birthdays, funerals of friends and a host of other things that will never be repeated. My point is not to whine but to say that family matters deeply to most of us. Do we grieve what we’ve missed with our church family in the same way? Are we eager to once again rejoin the comfort and joy of seeing our church kin? It should be important to us for our own sake and for the sake of our brothers and sisters.
A church is also like a body, connected and interdependent. The head of the church made up of all the redeemed of all the ages is Jesus Christ, and he is also the head of your local church. But we are the members, the limbs and organs and digits and eyes. The thing the Bible emphasizes is how important we are to the well being of other church members, even as our specific gifts and roles are distinct. While I would grant that we live out our gifting in places beyond our regular gathering, that face-to-face time with the brethren and sisteren enables our ministry to each other when we are not together. There is also the fact that we regularly think of those with whom we are closest; regular gathering reminds us of those who are not as much like us in age, culture or interests—the rest of the body.
I think the longest Tammi and I have been apart has been about three weeks when she was caring for an ailing relative. I thought about her constantly; everything reminded me she was not here in the house. We were still married and we still talked, but we were apart. That length of time made me miss her more as the days rolled on. Do you ever feel that way about your church? Yes, the relationship continues while we are away for a long time, but it’s missing something that you sense more urgently the longer you don’t see one another. We all continue to be family, and we even keep track of each other in an incomplete way, but the intimacy of the relationship begins to wane over time.
Maybe you lose that desire to be together after a while. I’ve seen people just “get out of the habit.” Often there is a reason for staying away for a while, good or bad. To me it is dreadful to be away from your church family so long that you no longer mind it—an ominous threat to your spiritual vitality. Fact is, no church uses the giftedness of a person who doesn’t come. I don’t believe that you benefit from the gifts and encouragement of other church members when you are never around them. You will inevitably cool spiritually when this happens. When you can’t go for health reasons or extended travel, you think of being away as unfortunate, temporary. When you can go but choose to not do so until you feel like it again, I’m concerned that you won’t. I’ve seen it happen and you likely have as well.
So here’s my sermonette. When you can, go back to church. Maybe for you it needs to be after you’ve been vaccinated—fine. For others it may extend to a family member you care for and that loved one’s vaccination. Okay, we’re on the same page. But fear getting out of the habit or growing cold in your love for your church family.
And for church staff. I’ve been one of you and found delegating to others one of my weakest points. Last year was a lousy year for delegating the ministries of the church to church members. Last year is over. When the church begins to ramp back up its regular ministries you may need to go after your formerly regular volunteers, twist arms and empower those who have been faithful in the past. As strange as church ministry has become for church staff members, it’s likely just as strange to lay leaders.
Watch your church online as long as you absolutely positively must, and no longer. Take advantage of that Facebook Live thing when you’re home due to the plain-old flu some Sunday. But through it all, eagerly anticipate a face-to-face reunion with those God has made your family.