The Coronavirus Corrective
How a Pandemic is Helping Us Reclaim the Word “Church”
Crises have a funny way of either bringing needed correction or inspiring needless confrontation.
For example, people who have never been good about washing their hands may have discovered new motivation to do so under the shadow of a global pandemic. But at the same time, others, regardless of their previous hand washing practices, might become vocally 'anti-hygienic', simply because they don't like public health officials telling them what to do.
With that dichotomy in mind, think about the term church. With pandemic-provoked disruptions to our well-rooted routines, how should followers of Jesus now think about that familiar word, “church”? For some, such changes have highlighted the loss of 'going to church' or 'talking after church', or have inspired phrases like 'shutting down the church' and 'resuming (opening the) church'.
What do such conversations and phrases tell us about our definition of that word church? Sadly, they seem to point to definitions that are far more cultural than biblical. Used in this way, church seems to be referring to a building, a campus, a location, a program, a Sunday service, or even the attendees of a weekly service. Now granted, the English language can use that word in all these ways. But semantics aside, as we experience this pandemic 'push comes to shove', disturbingly, many Christians are becoming vocally passionate about these cultural or ancillary definitions.
But what if we allowed the current crisis to correct us instead; to correct us by driving us back to the only standard that is truly authoritative when it comes to the word “church”: the Scriptures. When we go back to the New Testament, and allow it to define the term, we realize that phrases like 'going to church', 'talking after church', 'shutting down the church', or 'opening the church' are simply nonsensical. Why? Because the church is a group of people (cf. I Corinthians 10:32). It's a community of redeemed sinners (Ephesians 5:25-27). It's a faith family (I Timothy 3:15). “Church” isn't a building or a location or even a Sunday time slot.
Some might say, “Yes, but this pandemic is restricting those people; God's people.” As we know, all of our neighbors, locally and globally, have experienced restrictions in one way or another. Whether we agree or disagree with the specifics, such restrictions, in general, are understandable measures to slow the spread of the virus. As those called to “to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1), it's crucial we do our best to bless our faith family and our community through the “good work” of following guidelines for social distancing.
When we hold on firmly to the biblical definition of church, public health measures may force us to revise our plans, but they simply cannot restrict the church from being the church. Throughout history, and throughout the world, even today, the Church has always been flexible enough to adjust the form of its life together, without veering from the function of its life together. Today especially, with the help of our digital devices, and for those able to do so, smaller group or 'house church' meetings, the church can continue to fulfill the holiness-provoking, encouragement-centered call of Hebrews 10:24, 25...
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,  not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Is this an argument that facilities are superfluous? Not at all. Meeting space has always played an important role in sheltering Christ's church, whether it be the temple courts (Acts 2:46), houses (Acts 5:42), and school halls (Acts 19:9) of the early church, or the cathedrals, worship centers, and storefront churches of our modern world. But facilities and formal 'services' must never confuse us about our identity as the church or God's calling for our life together.
If we, in these strange days, must take a stand for the church, may we stand for deeper personal connections and faith-filled flexibility to walk together through this season, rather than fighting for a 'business as usual' approach that's built more on cultural definitions, rather than a biblical definition of church.
Praise God for his mercy in challenging us to humbly revisit these central ideas of fellowship and worship and mission, even through the unexpected means of a global pandemic. May we as the body of Christ welcome this 'coronavirus corrective' and, God willing, may the fruit of it be felt for many, many years to come.