The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” — 1 Corinthians 12:21
We may be on the verge of another series of church shut-downs, as states scramble to compensate for resurgent Covid19 infections. Many churches have figured out mitigating practices in the aftermath of the summer shut-downs — social distancing, masks, etc. Along with these adjustments has come great congregational migrations. I’ve spoken to numerous pastors over the last several months, and noticed quite a few more remarking on social media, who have seen people leave their church during this weird season, some for other churches, some for apparently no church at all.
The reasons given vary. Some people leave because they do not perceive the church to be doing enough to mitigate risk of virus spread, while many more have left because churches are doing “too much.” As your church leaders make difficult decisions, oftentimes landing on solutions you don’t necessarily agree with, how should a mature Christian process the disappointment?
People have left churches for a lot less, as Christians have always had to deal with the let-down of leadership decisions they don’t agree with. But I want to encourage you during this weird pandemic season not to give up on your church if you deem their response to Covid unsatisfactory. Maybe they’re not doing enough and you feel like you need to continue to stay home and watch the live-stream. Maybe they’re doing too much and you feel like they aren’t demonstrating enough faith or courage (or civil disobedience).
If you’re struggling with your church’s decision regarding Covid19 and sorting through whether it’s enough for you to join another church, I would not mean here to bind your conscience — as, indeed, these sorts of decisions could be significant enough matters of ministry philosophy that your participation may compromise your convictions — but let me at least offer a few thoughts for consideration. Here are some biblical matters that ought to impact our conscience as it pertains to our church membership.
1. When you join a church, you commit to a people, not simply to an experience.
Many people think of church membership as simply a commitment to a set of preferences — music styles, a particular preacher, a particular place or even “vibe.” Covid has disrupted all of that. If you can’t gather for a while, the vibe is not attainable. Watching online or even attending in a limited capacity changes the experience. But church is not meant to be merely a program — it’s a people, a family. If you’ve committed to a people, you should seriously rethink the impulse to leave over a program change.
2. When you join a church, you commit to obey your leaders.
I know that no age is exactly amenable to submission, but “free range Christianity” has especially been exacerbated during this season. We don’t like the word “obey.” Right now, someone reading this is wincing — maybe even already gotten angry — about the idea of obeying pastors/elders. But this is a direct command from Scripture:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” — Hebrews 13:17
Are there exceptions to this? Yes, absolutely. We aren’t to submit to abuse or other kinds of sin. For instance, if your pastor is preaching heresy, that’s a good reason to leave. May I caution you that making a decision in relation to the coronavirus — to gather, not to gather, to obey the authorities, to not obey the authorities, etc. — may not rise to the same level of violation? Your pastor isn’t necessarily in sin simply because they made a decision you wouldn’t have made or one that you don’t like. Even the call to submit presupposes disagreement. If you agree, it’s not submission — it’s agreement. Weigh your disappointments carefully. Not all rise to the level of requiring your breaking a covenant commitment.
It’s possible your pastors are jerks or idiots. It’s more possible they are just human beings, imperfect but growing, who are simply trying to make the best decisions they know how to make with the information available to them. They are frequently caught in the dilemma of not being able to make everybody happy at the same time, which really isn’t their job anyway. As sheep in their flocks, we have the opportunity to work toward our shepherds’ joy . . . or toward their groaning. These days, let’s redouble our efforts to serve the former.
3. When you join a church, you commit to focus on serving others rather than on their serving you.
Our preferences are important, but they are not sacred. They are not laws. Disappointing us is not a sin. Too many Christians join a church with a kind of relational legalism in play — I’ll attend, I’ll give, I’ll participate so long as you never challenge me, correct me, or disappoint me. In such cases, the object of worship is not the God who calls us through self-denial to sacrificial love of each other, but is actually ourselves. Don’t deify your preferences. Don’t idolize your comfort.
Maybe you can’t experience church exactly the way you want to right now. But what if the experience of church isn’t supposed to be all about you? What if it’s more about glorifying God through loving others, even denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus into service of others for His sake?
When the mature Christian can’t exactly be with the church he loves, he commits to loving that church anyway. He loves her such as she is. That’s how God has loved us, after all.