Church in our New Normal
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
Who do we say Jesus is?
There's a story in the Gospel of Mark where Peter correctly declares that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus and his disciples were traveling from town to town and on the way to another village, Jesus asked: ‘Who do people say I am?’
The disciples answer that the people believe Jesus is a prophet similar to Elijah or another one of the many prophets they are familiar with. The people Jesus ministered to were amazed at his teaching and followed him for his miracles, but it wasn’t anything they hadn’t seen or heard before from other prophets.
Jesus then asks the disciples: ‘Who do you say I am?’
He’s asking those who have walked with him during his public ministry, those who lived with him, if they knew who he truly was. Peter, in his typical zeal, was the first to answer. He tells Jesus: ‘You are the Messiah.’ For Peter, Jesus is not just a prophet, he is the Anointed One sent by God to bring about God’s justice in the world.
The Gospel of Matthew gives us more detail into Jesus’ response to Peter. He says: ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but my Father in heaven.’ He continues to describe Peter’s God given calling and identity. Then Jesus tells all the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Christ. This is important, because we tend to forget that Messiah’s are supposed to be humble instead of experts at self-promotion.
Right after, Mark tells us that Jesus begins to predict his death:
“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
How can Peter, after being called and affirmed in his identity, go from receiving a revelation from God to being called Satan by Jesus? If the revelation came directly from God and not ‘man’ how can Peter ever do the work of Satan? How can Peter be so right and also completely wrong at the same time?
These are the questions that the scriptures force us to wrestle with and try live out in community. We see multiple examples in the gospels showing us that the disciples just don't get it. As they follow Jesus while he ministers from town to town, they are constantly confused by what he teaches, by how he lives, and by the people he chooses to talk to.
What is ‘normal’ anyway?
What is true for the disciples is true for us as we attempt to ‘walk with Jesus.’ Just like Peter, we can receive our identity and call from God and yet end up doing the work of Satan. Peter received the revelation from God, and like we all do, interpreted God’s revelation through his own lens. So that when Jesus began to talk about his suffering and eventual death, Peter begins to rebuke Jesus as if trying to remind him that messiahs aren’t supposed to die. Messiah’s are supposed to lead us into battle and the eventual defeat of our enemies.
This is where we are in danger of doing Satan’s work instead of the will of God.
Anytime we receive a revelation from God and use our own common sense, instead of the Spirit’s wisdom, we will twist the truth of our calling and identity against our neighbors and our enemies. Anytime we assume that God wants us to use ‘common sense’ we are following our own hearts instead of doing God’s will. How can we know that we are not being deceived or lying to ourselves? It takes trust and accountability within our community.
Unfortunately, many times we are unaware of how ‘Americanized’ our desires are, so much that we approach any spiritual practices with this mindset. Because we’ve been discipled in ‘American exceptionalism,’ anytime we are challenged by God, we receive sermons, teachings, and even worship with suspicion instead of curiosity.
We have been shaped by our American culture to be hurried instead of patient, reactive instead of long-suffering, and fearful instead of courageous.
Mercifully, like Peter, we are given chance after chance to repent and patiently wait for the Spirit to gift us with the discernment necessary to do the work of God in the Church for the sake of the world.
During this time of social distancing, I’ve seen many Christians share different ideas on social media about how The Church should be faithful during ‘the new normal.’ It is these kinds of public declarations that cause more division than fruitful conversation amongst Christians. This is because everyone has their own vision, word, or prophecy about what this time means. If anyone disagrees with the pastor, prophet, or preacher making the declaration, then someone must not be in tune with the Spirit, right?
Like Peter, when we receive a revelation from God we are trained to immediately assume that we understand what it means. Instead, we need prayer, patience, and discernment to be able to comprehend what God is doing for us, and for our neighbor.
Disagreement is not the end of things or even a sign that we heard incorrectly from God. If anything, disagreements within the Church are an invitation to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is an invitation to join the Spirit in prayer and contemplation.
This is one of the things that ‘gathering’ as a church means. We come together and glean from our brothers and sisters whatever gifts God has given them to share with us. We take the time to listen patiently to the wonders God has done in their life. Not as a spiritual competition but with the understanding that whatever God does for my neighbor (and my enemy) is for my good. This is also why we cannot assume to know what ‘normal’ is, because that reality could be different for my neighbor.
When we try to declare what the ‘new normal’ will look like without taking the time to listen to our neighbors, we do not ‘have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’
We must understand that God is not going to save us apart from our neighbors, or place us in some sort of Utopia where we never disagree with anyone. Instead, the Spirit calls and empowers us to have difficult conversations with those we call our brothers and sisters. As one of my professors in seminary would say, ‘God doesn’t save The Church from disagreement, but through it.’
What do we think ‘The Church’ is?
To be clear, I am not talking about ‘The Church’ universal, but only about the church that I can see with my own eyes, and even then, mostly within my own tradition. No one can talk about ‘The Church’ completely because we are not God, but we can faithfully try to talk about the few people we know who call themselves Christian, and the communities we belong to. We have no full way of knowing what God is doing in South America, China, South Korea, India, or any other place in the world where the Gospel has reached. Social Media has helped connect us all, but we must not forget that more often than not it causes division within the church. All we have to do is spend a few minutes on Facebook to see just how many ways Christians can disagree.
It seems that the world is waiting to return to ‘the new normal’ of buying and selling, eating and drinking, playing and working. In turn, Christians are waiting for church doors to reopen so that people can worship God in spirit and in truth.
Some Mega-Church Pastors are building coalitions in order to convince the government to allow churches to re-open. Others are planning to reopen without permission as an attempt to show that they ‘obey God and not man.’
Recently, I’ve seen Pastors on social media complain about the fact that certain businesses are considered essential but Churches are not given the same ‘freedoms.’ The belief is that Churches are ‘essential’ because God is ‘essential’ in the lives of humans. This is true in some ways but the troubling thing is that it shows that Pastors (at least some of those within my tradition) believe that the church is just another place in the world. Something that competes with a liquor store, a movie theater, or concert venue, and because of this our gatherings are treated as such.
Pastors are pressured to have the best coffee, the best worship team, the most charismatic speakers. This is because deep down, our American habits have shaped how we see ‘The Church.’ We feel that we are competing against all the other services the world provides.
This is why many churches rushed to become full fledged online production companies to continue competing with the world. Churches feel the pressure to transfer the ‘rock concert’ experience to Instagram. After only a few weeks though, It seems that those who used to joyfully proclaim that ‘the church is not a building’ want to suddenly rush back to their buildings.
We lack the imagination to see the work needed to keep vulnerable people safe, and are in a hurry to take the church into ‘the new normal.’
If we continue to believe that we are in competition with the world, then we will continue to lose the imagination and attention of the world. Thankfully, the church is not another place in the world, solely because it owes its existence to God’s action in the world.
In his article titled ‘Mother Church: toward a Pentecostal Ecclesiology’ theologian Simon Chan mentions that for Pentecostals (and other Protestants): “...the church tends to be seen as essentially a service provider catering to the needs of individual Christians. Rarely are individuals thought of as existing for the church. When the church is seen as existing for the individual, then the focus of ministry is on individuals: how individual needs can be met by the church.”
If Chan is correct, then we can see why Pastors confuse the need for church buildings being open during a pandemic, with our Christian responsibility to the most vulnerable and the call to preach the Gospel.
We don’t need a church building(at this time), or a carefully curated Instagram page for the church to fulfill its mission. This is not about taking a stand for God, or even about not being afraid of getting sick. God doesn’t need us to defend God, or for us to test God with the certainty that the virus won’t come near us. It’s about loving our neighbors more than loving our ministries, our church buildings, and even our very lives.
Because the church is not another place in the world, we should not be afraid of the things that happen in the world. We must allow our minds to be renewed with the fact that there is no such thing as ‘going to church.’ Instead, we must see with new eyes that gathering as a church is stepping into a new reality. A reality held together by the life of God made possible by the Spirit. This is what happens when the Church gathers for communion. It is a meal that transcends time and space. Jesus is present in the bread and wine (or grape juice) through the Spirit and remembers his body: past, present, and future. The church is becoming One in Jesus, because God has acted, and the Spirit equips it for its work in the world.
If we’re being honest, there is much to be afraid of. Wars, rumors of wars, pestilence, storms, sickness, and the possibility of our own sin bringing about our own destruction. Still, if the gospel is true then we must take heart and not be afraid. Why? Because even if we die God raises the dead, and what happened to Jesus will one day happen to us. This is the promise of the Gospel.
The first few chapters of Revelation show us a message from God for the ‘seven churches that are in asia.’ Each church was faithful in some ways and completely unfaithful in others. Still, they all received the same message of wrath, hope, and eventual redemption of all creation.
In the end, we don’t see God’s people escaping a dying world, instead we are shown a picture of heaven descending into a world that is on fire. Heaven is a beautifully diverse city whose gates never close and whose rivers always flow for the healing of the nations.
Perhaps we end up copying so many of the world's methods because we are afraid that people will be bored. We listen to all the talk about the church losing its relevance and we find ourselves tempted to entertain people. Yet, if we can learn anything from these times, and from the book of Revelation, it is that the world needs healing and community.