The American church has been shaken by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As followers of Christ, we need to ask God to show us what we must learn from the past year to help us better fulfill Jesus’ mission for His people moving forward. The understanding of the on-site Sunday morning service as the primary delivery system for ministry has been upended by first the complete closing of Sunday services, then digital delivery alternatives, then pandemic-limited re-openings, often with fewer on-site attenders. Instead of longing for a return to the “old normal,” perhaps we should take a moment to evaluate freshly (from a pandemic-informed perspective) what the essential functions of the church should be and how they might best be accomplished as we transition to 2021 and beyond.
Almost all Christians would agree that the church is not a building. The word Jesus uses for “church” is literally “a called-out group of people.” However, over the years, it has become common to associate “church” with a specific series of programs offered on a specific schedule within a specific building. As we discovered in 2020, that expression of church can be seriously hampered by shutting down the programs, closing the facility, and limiting the scheduled events. Certainly the church as Jesus intended ought to be more resilient and resistant to such upheaval.
We can gain some insights into the essential elements of the church by revisiting the birth narrative from Acts Chapter 2, where the church is born as the Holy Spirit comes upon the gathered followers of Jesus. Then, in Acts 2:42-47, we get a concise snapshot of what the church, the called-out people of God guided by His Spirit, set as their priorities. Acts 2.42 begins with “They devoted themselves to…”, and what follows are six expressions that define the functions of the church.
1. Apostle’s Teaching (2:42) – They spent time unpacking Jesus’ teaching, which by association we might equate with the study and implementation of God’s Word as a whole.
2. Fellowship (2:42,44,46) – They spent time in relational connection and sharing. They met together in their homes, they met daily in the temple courts, and shared life together in a “more than once every seven days” fashion.
3. Worship (2:42-43, 46-47) – Both in homes and in the temple courts, they gathered for communion (breaking of bread) and praise, experiencing God’s presence and power.
4. Prayer (2:42) – Both personal and corporate.
5. Service (2:44-45) – They served each other and those in need, not through some sort of program (though one eventually arrives in Acts 6), but rather from the outflow of their relational connections.
6. Evangelism (2:47) – The overflow of their lives resulted in more persons coming into relationship with Jesus.
A summary note is that the overflow of the church’s shared life transformed individual lives, evidence of the power and presence of God, His love impacting others, and Kingdom growth.
It is important to note what is not mentioned: dedicated church buildings, age level programming, a specially educated professional ministry team, structured outreach and service programs, and specific gathering schedules. That doesn’t mean that such developments are wrong of themselves, but it does mean that the church by definition and experience as it was birthed in Acts 2 did not require such elements to “be the church.” It is also important to note that while two of the six Acts 2:42-47 elements might best be accomplished in a larger group gathering (teaching/preaching the Word and worship), the other four (fellowship, prayer, service, and evangelism) seem more ideally suited to a small relationally connected group context. In short, a Sunday morning worship service large gathering of itself might best address only a portion of the Acts 2:42-47 church functions.
As we consider how we should minister forward in this pandemic-influenced environment, we must not accept an unexamined return to the pre-COVID situation. This is a critical time for us as leaders and as church families to wrestle with what needs to change for us to better be the church as God intends. May God answer our prayers for wisdom, guidance, and willingness to change whatever He might reveal is in need of change.