This is the second of a few thoughts I hope to share as to why churches need to be open. If you missed the first installment, I encourage you to go back and read it (at least the preliminary statements) to give some context to my thoughts.
When this pandemic began to affect public gathering places, a slogan was pounded out by Christians on Facebook posts, blogs, and various other media – “be the church.” It usually went something like this – “now is the time to show that the church is not a building. We are the church. Be the church.”
In once sense I understand what the adherers to that slogan were saying. A church, in the Biblical and New Testament sense, is certainly not a building. Anybody with a smidgen of Biblical or historical knowledge knows that to be true. However, in another sense, I don’t believe that this slogan makes any sense.
A church, at its core, is an assembly of Christians. The Greek word that the New Testament uses to describe a church literally means “assembly” or “gathering.” There were political assemblies (churches!), social assemblies (churches!), and even non-christian religious assemblies (churches!) in the world of the New Testament writers. The word “church” was used to describe them all.
A New Testament Christian church is an assembly of born again and baptized believers who covenant together for the worship of God and the celebration of the ordinances. There were many Christian churches long before they had buildings in which to assemble.
In fact, historically, Christians have assembled in diverse places. There are those who assembled in homes, courtyards, fields, barns, catacombs, and cemeteries! This is an important qualification to the question of “why churches need to be open.” Nothing, save some tough weather, would prevent a “church” from being a church if for a while they had to meet at a park or in a field. The key for a church to be a church is that they must physically assemble.
When people speak these days of “being the church” without an assembly, it’s nearly the quintessential definition of an oxymoron. How can an assembly be called an assembly if they don’t assemble?
Over a month ago I called up a hotline established by my State Governor for questions regarding the stay-at-home order in my State. A man named Bob answered the call. Bob was extremely kind and courteous on the phone. I wanted to know if it was possible for our church to hold an outdoor service on Easter Sunday. I told him that we would practice social distancing and not have our building open among a myriad of other safety measures. Bob said that it did not meet the governor’s guidelines for churches at that time.
Bob then began to talk to me about how we could shift our church online. He went on to instruct me on all the benefits that online platforms could offer. He then used this phrase – “you can do church online.” Well, again, in one sense I understood what he meant in the same way I understood what the “be the church” slogan meant. But at the same rate, online events are not the church.
I did not want to debate Bob. He was graciously doing his job in service to the Governor and to my State. So, after he finished talking about all the benefits to online “church,” I thanked him for the information. There was a long pause. Then he added, “I know it’s not the same.” And it’s not.
I want my fellow Christians to be the church. That means they need to be able to assemble.
Churches need to be open.