As we move into the back stretch of this pandemic, there’s been a massive debate about church congregations being able to fully re-assemble in a physical building – particularly in the most restricted states. And even within the Christian community there are a wide range of legitimate opinions and strategies from Andy Stanley’s reasons he’s keeping Northpoint Community Church closed until 2021 to John MacArthur’s recent statement about his decision to defy California’s ban on church gatherings. There are reasonable arguments on both sides, and I’m not taking sides here.
However, as we enter the sixth month of the lockdown in California, a growing number of pastors believe that it’s time to allow churches to make their own decisions – not the state.
Outside the church community, that desire has fallen on deaf ears as evidenced by the Supreme Court ruling that turned down a request by a Nevada church for permission to hold services on the same terms that other facilities in the state, including casinos, that are allowed to hold gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although different states have different rules, it’s pretty clear that when churches are either closed or severely restricted while airlines are packed, casinos can operate, and massive protests are praised in the media, something has dramatically changed in the culture.
The most common arguments for keeping churches closed during the pandemic is the question “What positive impact do churches make on society?” I’ve seen that question asked over and over on social media, with politicians, and in media interviews, which means:
In today’s culture, a church’s impact isn’t measured by it’s theological position, doctrinal statement, or it’s style of worship, but by what can be seen by the outside world.
When it comes to visible impact, I have to say that the vast majority of churches are invisible. And if the world doesn’t see any clear, visible evidence of the impact a local church makes, then they see little reason to keep it open during a pandemic, or during any other crisis.
And not to be dramatic, but if that invisibility goes on too long, there will come a time when they won’t have difficulty deciding a church has no value at all, should lose it’s tax exempt status, and eventually be closed altogether.
Theology is important. Doctrine is important. Evangelism is important. But in a secular age, the world will measure our value based on what we do, not what we believe. And before you get upset and think I’m trying to water down our message, remember that was exactly the strategy of the Early Church. As Jonathan Bock and I wrote in our book “The Way Back: How Christians Blew Our Credibility and How We Get It Back,” the Early Church had no power, influence, funding, or support. They were illegal throughout most of the Roman Empire, hunted down, and persecuted. They had no authority or ability to criticize the government, defy the Romans, or plead their cause.
So they decided to be the people Jesus called us to be.
As a result, when the plague hit the empire, while rich Romans ran for the hills, Christians ran to the hardest hit areas and ministered to people they didn’t know at the risk of their own lives.
Early Christians despised the common Roman practice of infanticide but had no power to stop it. So they made the decision to find abandoned newborns, bring them into their families, and raise them as their own children.
They honored and elevated the role of women in their communities and made the commitment to abstain from sex outside of marriage.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
The unexpected actions of those early believers baffled the Romans, and the impact was remarkable. Historians today report that it was the behavior of these earliest believers that began changing the attitudes of the non-believing public, and was a major reason the Roman Empire eventually became Christian in a remarkably short time.
What’s the lesson for today? The single greatest reason the secular culture couldn’t care less about the Church re-opening is that they don’t see the value. But what if our invisible Church suddenly became visible again? What if helping those in need, feeding the hungry, assisting the vulnerable, restoring families, and getting people back to work became our battle cry? Whether they believe the gospel or not, what if the world saw such a powerful positive impact on local communities they couldn’t imagine what life would be like without the Christian community?
Who knows? It might be the unbelievers who start working hardest to open church doors again.
Phil Cooke, Ph.D. is a producer and media consultant to churches and ministries across the country. His latest book is “The Way Back: How Christians Blew Their Credibility and How We Get It Back.” Find out more at www.philcooke.com.