Observation from the Middle
Outbreak in China
Over the past several months, I have been an careful observer of what has been going on in our world during the outbreak of COVID-19. In fact, it has been on my radar for a while now because we are living in Taiwan. The outbreak started in China–where we have ministered for 8 years. So we were getting news from within the country. As more information was coming out about the new virus, China started taking unprecedented actions to quarantine people to prevent the spread of the virus. I knew that there was a problem when the President of the communist country called the coronavirus outbreak a “grave situation”.
The pastors there in China were asking what to do about their churches as the fear and panic of the spreading virus reached their cities. One of the pastors asked me if they should keep having services or would it be disobedient to stop. It was a sincere question from a young pastor who was dealing with this situation for the first time (and really, all of us who are in church leadership are dealing with this for the first time). But, understand the context of his question, church services for this pastor were already illegal. So the question has nothing to do with “should or shouldn’t we obey the government in such a time as this”. These pastors and their churches are already illegal and are persecuted for their Christian faith. This was a question of a different nature. One that led me to consult my mentor.
As we talked through the situation and possible scenarios, the answer eventually came by force. China went on lockdown and not only were large groups of people no longer allowed to meet together, but many if not most of the “housing complexes” didn’t allow people to enter who didn’t live there. So if you couldn’t prove you lived there, you weren’t allowed entrance at the front gates. Since these churches were meeting in “houses” since they are considered “house churches” they suddenly had no place to meet. Local churches in China were forced to find some other ways of corporate fellowship, Bible study, prayer, worship, and singing. Of course, in todays world, this means they went online. They started hosting prayer meetings and services online with different apps. Thankfully, one of the churches already had online giving setup so they were able to continue receiving offerings. This change of situation even gave rise to some special ministry opportunities because everyone was “quarantined at home” and thus had nothing but time on their hands.
Of course, China doesn’t approve of this “online church” as many have called it, and one province has come out to stop the online streaming of preaching and called for remaining house churches to be eradicated. The goal seems to be to keep believers from gathering together in any form, physically or digitally, (at least those without government permission; note: those with government permission–it could be argued they aren’t legitimate churches biblically). It seems China is using this pandemic also as a means for a “power play” against the church.
But even though the local churches I work with are able to fellowship, study the Bible, pray, worship, sing and even give offerings online, there is still one major thing they can’t do that is essential to being a church: “assemble”. As their spiritual father, this is extremely concerning to me.
Outbreak in the USA
Fast forward several weeks and now America is experiencing a “similar” lockdown. Any kind of gathering outside of what the government deems as “essential” is practically to be stopped. This of course includes churches. Many American churches scrambled to get their services online to continue to minister to their congregations through the internet. Similar to what many churches in China did, and now they do everything online. And they find themselves in the same situation, they can do most things digitally, but they can’t do the one thing that is essential: “assemble”.
What About Taiwan?
Yes, I said I lived in Taiwan. So what about the outbreak here? Well, we haven’t really had one. Taiwan adopted early prevention measures: they tested early on, traced contacts who had the virus and where they went, quarantined people when necessary and delayed school just for a couple weeks from opening back up after the local holidays were over. Public places were to check for temperatures, give out hand sanitizer and people were encouraged and even required to wear face masks. Thus, they were able to get it under control without putting the whole country on lockdown. Now many of the new cases are being imported from people returning to the country. As of writing this, there have only been 5 deaths and 322 confirmed cased in the country. Community spread is practically non-existent here at this time (yes, I know anything can change at any moment).
Also, we are in the midst of a church plant. The first Sunday of March 2020 was the first service of our church plant. And we haven’t been asked to stop services, nor does there seem to be any legitimate concern in our location to do so because of the virus. I am thankful for this! (Although many are still scared to go to places because of the “possibility” of their being a problem.)
So from my perspective, I feel that I am in the middle. The country of my early ministry and where the young men that I am leading is China; and my home country and where our partnering churches are is the USA. Not to mention all the countries around us that are having outbreaks.
The Elephant in the Room: “Assembly”
Observations Not Judgment
All of this is good, in a sense, because it is forcing us to work through issues and realize much of what we have taken for granted. It forces us to ask questions like, “How important is assembling to the local church?” As I mentioned above, one of my main concerns during this outbreak, is the we have more churches than ever, at least that I am aware of, that currently are no longer assembling together indefinitely. As soon I say this, I know there is going to be two quick reactions, but this isn’t a statement of judgement, just a statement of observation and concern. For whatever reason a local church stops assembling for, we should be concerned. But let me quickly address two possible reactions:
- “We aren’t assembling for good reasons.” Yes, many churches have stopped assembling “temporarily” for the physical safety of their congregation, community and country. They have chosen to obey the God-given governance that is placed over them. Some stopped assembling of their own will taking extra safety precautions before it was necessary and others stopped when they were “forced” to by government because of the laws or requirements during this time of an emergency.
- “We are assembling digitally.” Digital communication is a huge blessing and I use it to continue the training of the pastors in China. I have also been encouraged by all the churches that have found creative ways to use media to minister to their congregations during this time. Good job! But “digital assembling” doesn’t nor can it replace the nature of assembly that a local church is. Sometimes “Christian talk” can confuse this point as we just encourage people to “go be the church” but there is so much more to a local church than “being a Christian” (see more on what a church is below) which is what I think that phrase is meant to mean “put your faith into action through your works,” but none-the-less it can downplay the need of a local church. Also, there are many within our congregations that aren’t jumping on board digitally or can’t jump on board digitally. They can easily be left behind if we aren’t careful. (Maybe we need to brainstorm on what should be done in this exact scenario of COVID-19 if meeting digitally wasn’t an option for anyone in the local congregation. I know this is a legitimate concern for many places around the world, like in certain places in Africa.)
What is a local church?
The base definition I use for a local church is: “A local church is a group of believers who consistently gather together in one place for the common purpose of carrying out the will and work of God and to grow in the grace and knowledge of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Furthermore, I believe a local church to exists when, at minimum, the following are taking place: “regularly gather for edification in the Word of God desiring to obey it, are willing to baptize new believers as a testimony of their faith in Jesus alone for salvation, and eat the Lord’s Supper together in remembrance of His death, looking forward to His return.” Of course there are many more things that a local church does that makes it healthy, but I am just looking at what the minimum things are required to be considered as a local church. “Therefore, the local church is not a building, nor is it a group of believers who only meet together to study the Bible. A local church is a group of believers who consistently meet together obeying what the Bible has taught about the purpose and work of a church.”
Thus, a “consistent or regularly gathering together in one place” is essential for a local church to be a local church. To answer the question, “How important is assembling to the local church,” the answer is clear: it is of the most fundamental importance.
What is the Answer?
I didn’t write this blog post as an answer for all the problems the church world is facing concerning this issue, but as a warning to not forgot the importance of “assembly” to the local church. We should all be leaning towards “assembling”. And if “for whatever reason” our regular assembly has been interrupted for a season, we should earnestly be desiring to assemble again. It should be the longing of any local church.
Is there ever a legitimate time to not assemble? Of course. I think many are living through one right now. Not the church I am personally leading, but I know many local churches are. But I also think that local churches can have a different application to the same situation:
- A friend use the term “active love” and I think many churches when faced with the situation at hand, stopped assembling out of “active love” for their congregation, community and country.
- At the same time I think a church who wants to continue to assemble despite the current situation also wants to do it out of “active love” for shepherding and feeding their flock. They see the church as an “essential” place for the hopeless to receive hope in such dire times. They see church and its doors being open just as essential as the grocery store or hospital.
I sympathize with both sides. So how do we make decisions? Wisdom from the Word, wise counsel (other believers, leaders, and the Holy Spirit) and a willingness to be flexible. And once we make a decision, lets not judge everyone for doing things different than we did, coming to a different conclusion, or not making a decision as quick you did.
We also need to use some common sense and realize that we don’t know everything. Media hype everything up. That is normal. And to make rash decisions based on media reporting is unwise.
- Don’t be dogmatic. Information and projections about the virus are constantly changing. The stats that we are given about the virus are inadequate because of the nature of testing and the unwillingness of government transparency or government failings around the world. Only time will tell. (Note: Most of the time we usually don’t have all the facts about any certain situation that we aren’t directly involved in, just the information that we have read on the internet and the bent of the author who wrote it.)
- Listen to the medical experts. Yes, we should as they are on the front line of this pandemic, but they don’t have all the answers or even a common consensus about everything concerning what we should be doing. They only thing they agree on is “wash your hands”. Listen but also think for yourself. If in doubt, follow their sensible advice. (Note: they are medical experts, not experts on everything else in life.)
- COVID-19 is real but its affects on each person are different. Everyone can point to a case or story to prove their point. Someone had it and it wasn’t bad at all. Thus they declare this is overblown. Another person has it and almost dies or they do die. Thus, people go all in about the virus and the need to be extremely serious about it. What we learn from this is that there isn’t a lot that we know yet. We don’t know why it affects people differently. We don’t know what measures are the best. Everything is still under evaluation.
Sadly, there is a lot of judgement going on. And it is going in both directions.
- Fear of judgement from other believers: Many seem to be afraid of others judging them for the decisions they make concerning their local churches, which is why they make such brash statements when they make their decisions.
- Judging others: There is this feeling of believers judging and even turning on each other. “Believers” turning against “believers”. Churches who stopped having meetings early on are patting themselves on the back and smugly looking down on others who waited until they were forced to do so. Some may be judging others for giving in and stopping services. Brothers and sisters, no matter how you feel about the situation this shouldn’t be so. How do you reach out to your neighbor with a loving hand while smacking your brother with the other?
- Fear of judgement from the world: Sometimes a desire to be relevant in the world’s eyes causes churches to quickly pander to the lost because they are scared of being labeled with the cultural stereotype of “Christian” and what the world thinks about them. But the world doesn’t need a pandering church it needs a Christ-like church that is full of compassion and truth, declaring peace and hope in chaos and hopelessness. May we not take a backseat for “reputation” sake, but lead for “redemption” sake.
Concerns For the Long-term
In the short-term many have already made up their mind out of an “active love”, But what about the long-term. Its time to think through some things. The following are concerns that are being offered as reasons not to meet that could be extended to a much long time than you are expecting (especially if there is not immediate vaccine or cure):
- Fear of infecting others.
- “Endangering” your congregation.
- “Health And Safety” is paramount.
- “Protection of the elderly”.
- “We know better than you” mindset.
How far or how long does this go? How far does this go and who defines it? Anything that justifies unprecedented actions on the basis of the necessity for our safety will most likely be leading down a wrong path. It could be true and innocent, but it should also cause us to proceed with much caution. Fear is a manipulating tool to control people.
Hard Questions for the Future
If you are reading this, then your local church is most likely not assembling…indefinitely. That word “indefinitely” is hard to swallow, but it is true. When will you start to regularly assemble again?
- How long are we willing to not “assemble”?
- Where is that line between “obeying government” and “obeying God” in this situation?
- When is that line crossed by the government?
- When should we be willing to pay the price to cross it?
- What would the long-term effects been on your flock for not assembling?
As I mentioned before, I think we go forward with wisdom from the Word, wise counsel and a willingness to be flexible. We love our fellow believers and our neighbors as we walk through this unprecedented time in our world. But also we need leaders with:
- Solid convictions towards the local church and the necessity of assembly.
- A willingness to lovingly lead even if it goes against the grain.
- A shepherding spirit that looks after the flocks physical and spiritual health.
- Wisdom to discern the “line of obedience” in relation to their local church.
There is probably much more that could have or should have been said. But that is why this is simply a “mind dump” about different things that I have been thinking about as the world faces this pandemic. But we don’t have to worry about tomorrow. We have enough for today. We aren’t called to fear, but we are called to watch and pray! Pray with one eye open.
Thank you to the many churches who have done all they can to keep ministering to their people during such a hard time, whether physically or digitally. Keep up being creative and using the resources at hand to make an impact during “today”. And when “tomorrow” comes, we will decided what to do then!
Cautiously adapt for a season, yet longing to assemble and take action when ready.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us all.