“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:25-28
Leaving aside the most obvious factor about whether your church cancels its service or not in the wake of the coronavirus, what else might change about your church both during and after the virus peak?
What things that were previously thought necessary to run your church will now be determined not to be necessary?
And what preaching and sermon series might be viewed as non-essential or even totally inappropriate?
Whether you are panicking right now, prepping for doomsday because you’re reading and watching everything about it, or if you’re just being realistic and taking sensible precautions, this is a good test run for church.
In the West we’ve built a church infrastructure, that requires certain favourable conditions, including – though not limited to – economic ones, in order to survive. And the para-church organisations gathered around churches picking up those crumbs have also hitched a ride on this model.
And what we’ve seen this past week shows that it’s precarious. And we don’t even think about it. We’re not on our guard.
Which is strange because as we read the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, the key command is “Be on your guard“. Watch! Jesus commands us to love – often. But he commands us to be on our guard -often too.
Churches in the West, like so much of the secular culture, don’t appear to be on their guard. We are not kitted out for extreme conditions. We are not, in the words of Taleem Naseb, “antifragile“. If the coronavirus were a metaphor for the danger posed to a fragile church, then the church in the West is a heavy-smoking, diabetic 75 year old who keeps hanging out at crowded shopping malls.
Now I know there are all sorts of crazies with maps and charts; theological preppers, always assuming they live in the last of the last days and who are stocking up on beans, spam and shotguns. I don’t mean those guys. Those guys love the “Be on your guard” command. The “love” command? Not so much.
But we couldn’t be accused, if the evidence were the manner in which we run church, of being on our guard for an apocalyptic event in any way, shape or form.
Often it feels like we’ve simply supped at the Kool Aid of the post-Christian myth of progress. Our budgets, our ideas of how we make this network grow, or how we make our denomination stronger by getting a bigger slice of the pie, all looks like a business model that has no sense of a sharp economic downturn, never mind something truly apocalyptic.
When Jesus talks to his disciples about the imminent destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in just a few decades from then (C.f Mark 13 and Matthew 24), he deliberately conflates that apocalyptic trouble with the ongoing apocalyptic trouble that will mark the times before his return.
That’s why Jesus said stuff like this in Mark 13:
“But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
Is this meant to scare us? Perhaps. Is it meant to comfort us? For sure. Is it meant to sober us up. Absolutely. And a sobered up church in the West would not be a bad thing at the moment, would it?
So moments like these challenge us to ask: What about our church might need to change, during, and in the wake of this coronavirus?
Never mind should five thousand people meet together this weekend. What about this time next year when the economic conditions shrink your projected budget?
Would big church that costs hundreds of thousands/millions to run each week be able to survive the economic downturn that is coming in the wake of this? Paid Staff layoffs and shelving of grand plans will be inevitable.
And never mind big church, would smaller churches that mimic the model of those big churches, but which have far less margin, fare any better?
Would interstate and international conferences that pump up the “next generation leaders” or whoever is being pitched to, not simply shut down? Wouldn’t we find that those things were probably of little or no importance?
And would a sermon series “Six Steps To Financial Freedom“, or indeed a book called “Your Best Life Now” really seem anything other than obscene and irrelevant if the virus did take hold and collapse the economy in the long term?
The test of whether what your church is preaching is the actual gospel or an imitation not worthy of the word, is whether or not the vision it pitches to you could survive not only an apocalyptic virus, but the actual apocalypse itself.
Is the level of Christian community your model of church has engendered so thick that if you had to shut your auditorium, the people of God would find robust and healthy ways around this minor inconvenience to continue meeting together in order to praise the living God?
Would the satellites orbiting the gravity-pulling big planet of your gathering simply spin off into space if the short term health factors short term, and the long term economic factors, crush the model you are building?
When the Chinese church was being harassed by the Communists back in the early days of the Cultural Revolution they resolved to delete all that is not necessary.
They discovered the secret to a leaner and meaner way of being God’s people together. They discovered that many of the things they were doing were actually not necessary! But they only discovered that when they were put under pressure to do so. And that took time and it was painful.
Perhaps both the reality of what this virus will do, and the fears of what it may do, is giving us the chance to take stock of what is not necessary, and rather than just delete it abruptly, give us the chance to land the plane gently, and shape a church system, and engender a Christian attitude that looks and sounds like “Be on your guard.”