IS THE CHURCH STILL THE CHURCH WHEN THE LIGHTS ARE OFF?

by Remco Brommet

For as long as I can remember church always meant going to a building, participating in group activities like worship services, classes and meetings, and socializing. Apart from small groups that met in homes – if that congregation had them – everything centered around the building.

I grew up in Europe where the concept of a physical building dates as far back as the 3rd century AD. Over time, as Christianity’s influence spread, church buildings grew in size and location. In most Dutch towns, the church with its prominent steeple stood smack dab in the middle of the city, and from its bell tower and chimes the townsfolk could tell time. Larger cities boasted ginormous cathedrals that sometimes took over a hundred years to build. Little by little, “church” became synonymous with a building. The congregations that met in them were often named after the church itself for easy recognition.

As Europe moved away from Christianity’s pre-eminence, as society grew more and more secular and began to open its doors to other religions moving in, those prominently positions churches began to empty out. Today, many of them harbor but a small congregation if any at all. Some have become museums, others concert venues, and even mosques. They serve as confirmation to modern society that Christianity has lost its relevance for today and is a thing of the past.

Here in the US we haven’t reached that point yet. But we’re heading that way. Churches are still dotting the landscape and the “megachurch campus” abuzz with activity, technology, multi-campus connectivity, and large crowd still serves as the ideal to strive for – the epitome of fruitful ministry and success. The rags to riches story of the Christian pastor.

But the warning signs that things might change have been multiplying for a while….

Here are some statistics compiled from several research websites:

  • Church attendance has dropped by 33% over the last 15 years
  • In a recent survey of some 2,500 churches over half the people believed their church had no spiritual vitality
  • An estimated 3,700 churches close their doors every year, more than half of which are unsuccessful church plants
  • An estimated 250 pastors leave the ministry every month
  • 57% of churchgoers have never had a life-changing spiritual experience
  • 74% of churchgoers have seldom or never had a spiritual conversation with anyone outside the church

In short – church life as we new it is in decline. Interest in church is in decline. Interest in God is in decline.

That decline has partly resulted in people leaving the conventional church structure to meet independently – in coffee shops, restaurants, homes. That has been going on for a decade or so now. When interviewed, some said they were driven by a desire for intimate fellowship and deep connection, something they just couldn’t find in today’s church culture.

That would confirm the observations of several church growth and trend watchers. Perhaps church has become too cumbersome, too complicated, they surmise. Having been a pastor myself, I can relate. A lot of time, money and energy goes into keeping the people coming and the lights on. And then there are programs, committees, clubs, ministries, missions, websites, social media and other technical stuff to keep up with.

So much of what we do is to “keep ‘em coming” and the ones that keep coming would just as soon pay professional staff to run the church than to get involved themselves. I realize I am exaggerating somewhat to make a point, but I believe I am not far from the truth. I hear it too often.

I fear that our church culture has become too comfortable with the superficial, with programs, and with congregational passivity. Some have dared say we are resembling the church in Laodicea now – lukewarm. Lots of hoopla, but little or no passion, depth or spiritual vitality. Hence the last two statistics above.

A number of us have been watching this for a while, primarily so we can pray for the American church. Most of us were involved in the nationwide prayer movements of the late eighties and early nineties and have hungered for a new spiritual awakening for a while. We’ve sense that this would look very different from the revivals of old. We’ve been prompted to pray intensely for a movement away from consumerism and entertainment in our churches and the awakening of a desire to go back to basics – to connect deeply and daily with God in prayer, worship and listening, with each other in loving, interdependent fellowship, and with the world in Spirit-empowered evangelism.

Little did we know…

The COVID-19 outbreak has slammed the brakes on church as we knew it. The lights are out in our buildings for the foreseeable future, the pews empty, the amps silent, the screens dark. Zoom has become our digital church building.

What could that mean? Does God want the church to go dark? I believe the prophet Haggai has some words for us that are as relevant for us today as they were in the days of Ezra:

“Is it a time for you to dwell in your paneled houses while this house (the temple) lies in ruins? Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, but harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he earns wages does so to put them in a bag of holes.” (Haggai 1:4-6).

And a few verses down: “…because of my house that lies in ruins while each of you busies himself with his own house.” (Haggai 1:9).

Ouch! This passage speaks of the elevation of our creature comforts, our spending habits, and the lack of spiritual vitality in our lives. As a result, God’s dwelling place, His temple – which is His church, you and me, congregated locally, lies in ruins. And the Lord is not happy.

That brings me back to this question: Is the church still the church when the lights are off? The answer of course is a resounding “yes”!

Could it be that we have forgotten that just a bit? Or a lot?  And that therefore the unleashing of this virus, which is impacting the world on multiple levels to serve His purposes, is our wakeup call to consider our ways and examine the way we do church? That despite all the pretty campuses we have, the temple – as God sees it – lies in ruins?

We would all agree that since the resurrection of Christ and the birth of the church – the community of believers, not the building, God no longer dwells in a house of brick and mortar. To add weight to that, the place where he was thought to dwell – the temple in Jerusalem – was destroyed and never rebuilt again.

Now He indwells us (1 Corinthians 3:16, 2 Corinthians 6:16). We are His building, His temple. Not the churches we built. In fact, in quite a few countries, God’s people don’t have buildings to meet in, but they are still the church.

Having been forced out of our buildings for the time being, it is time for us to find new ways to connect as the community of believers and rediscover the essentials of what it means to be the church, the ecclesia – the “ones called out of the world.“

What are those essentials? I believe there are three:

First, communion with God – reverent worship, fervent prayer, and listening to His truth imparted to us in various ways as an overflow of our own daily walk with Him.

Second, community with one another. Depending on each other for encouragement, faith-building through the discovery and use of our spiritual gifts, emotional and spiritual support, and the sharing of resources.

Third, mission. Making Christ visible to the world, from our own backyard to the ends of the world. God’s main priority with mankind is still to gather for Himself a people of His own possession (1 Peter 1:9) and we are the ones to bring them in (Matthew 28:19). Statistic six up above has to go from 74% to 0% if we are to make the impact on our world that God desires.

Do you want to see what that looks like? Look at the early church – before all the divisions, the infighting, the false doctrines, the immorality, the splits and the apostasies.

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:42-45)

Let that sink in for a while. Some key descriptors I see are “devotion”, “fellowship”, “teaching”, “prayer”, “awe”, “signs and wonders”, “together”, “all things in common.”

Worship. Prayer. Listening. Community. And if you read on: mission, empowered by signs and wonders.

In other words: Creating a framework for the Holy Spirit to fill us, unite us, and work powerfully through us.

That doesn’t depend on church buildings or campuses, screens, amps, or stage lights. Nor on committees and boards, on programs and activities.

It depends on us putting God first in our hearts and homes and connecting deeply with Him, then sharing that connection with others.

What the corona virus is doing is to help us devaluate all the complex stuff that we associate with being the church that really isn’t the church and revaluate connection with God and with each other.

And so we turn to God to reveal to us how He would want us to do that – for the moment online, via phone, through the mail. But beyond that: how? So we don’t fall back into the patterns He hates. Pray with me for a deep and lasting awakening to the essentials of being the ecclesia while the lights are off, and for that awakening to change us forever.