In thirty three years of ministry, the last four months have certainly been the most challenging I have faced as a pastor. We not only face an unprecedented event in our country, but also in ministry. In many ways what we are facing today parallels what the early church was confronting in the first few chapters in the book of Acts.
Challenges in the Early Church
Just like the situation we find ourselves in today, the early church faced a massive change in everything they knew about the worship of God and what it meant to be a community of God’s people. Until the events of Acts 2, everything they knew about being a community was structured and centered around the synagogue, the temple and the Old Testament ceremonies and rituals.
All that changed as the church gathered together on Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit descended upon them everything shifted. All the rituals were abandoned and rendered obsolete. The Temple and Synagogue, which was the focal point of worship, was replaced with a new community they simply called “The Assembly.” The priestly structures and leadership were dismantled as everyone was now called to be priests. The ethno-centric focus upon Jewish heritage was replace with ethnic walls being dismantled as people were no longer classified by ethnicity, social standing, or sexual identities of men and women (Gal 3:28).
As the early church struggled to navigate these unchartered waters, they encountered a number of issues that threatened to unhinge and divide them. They struggled with ethnic and cultural divisions (Acts 6:1). They faced the problem of people being driven by their own personal agenda rather than the wellbeing of the whole community (Acts 5:1-2). They wrestled with theological questions as they tried to understand the relevance of the Mosaic Covenant and its laws to life under the New Covenant (Acts 15).
Navigating the Challenges of Our Present Moment
In many ways it parallels the events in the church today. We are facing a massive change in the structure and function of the church that likewise places us in uncharted waters. In all my training, the focus has been on how to function as a gathering of the church with dynamic worship, versatile and strategic programs, and the development of structures, visions and church organizations.
In recent months we have been thrown into a world where the gathering of the church is no longer the focus of the church. Church has become virtual, and the computer screen rather than the pulpit is the platform of communication. Even potlucks, the mainstay of small and rural churches, have been replaced with “Virtual Dinner Parties.” (As I was writing this, I received an email entitled, “Plan a Fun Virtual Dinner Party.” This is indeed a strange new world!)
To compound the problem, people are divided within the congregation on whether or not this is a real threat to the physical health of people or the work of some mastermind to overthrow the government and destroy the church. In an age of information (and misinformation) we have few answers to give us clarity. In all the books I have in my library, or even those marketed on Amazon, there is no book on “How to have Personal Transparency in the Age of Mandated Masks” or “How to Greet One Another with a Holy Kiss via Zoom.”
In an age where the church is defined and measured by its size, programs, appeal, and dynamic worship, we face a situation where much of it has become irrelevant. With the advent of the COVID-19 crisis, everything has been thrown into upheaval as the established methods of conducting the church are no longer useful or effective. How do we worship without music? How do we run programs when physical gathering is no longer possible? How do we oversee the spiritual health of the church when we lack physical contact and presence? And of course, the most perplexing question of all for the rural church, “How do we have fellowship without a potluck dinner?”
Learning from the Early Church
Yet as we share in the confusion of Acts 2, we also find in the early church a realignment of our focus that brings clarity in these equally confusing times. As the church struggled to form a new identity and ministry, we find in Acts 2:42 that they built their whole ministry on four essential pillars: the teaching of scripture, fellowship and community, worship centered around the communion table, and prayer.
In many ways the COVID-19 crisis is not a crisis of the church, but a realignment for the church that was already in crisis, forcing us to rethink the very nature of ministry.
This brings us back to our understanding of the church. In our quest for growth, numbers, and success we have lost sight of the true nature of the church. The church, at its core, is not an organization, business, or building; it is a community of believers who encourage one another to live out their faith in authenticity and obedience. In many ways the COVID-19 crisis is not a crisis of the church, but a realignment for the church that was already in crisis, forcing us to rethink the very nature of ministry. It is in doing so that we find the focus of the early church helpful in rethinking our priorities.
Rediscovering the Church’s Original Priorities
First, a biblical community is grounded in the preaching of the scriptures. When Paul prepared Timothy to take the baton of ministry, he did not challenge him to develop great visions, identify critical strategies or recruit a dynamic worship team. Instead he challenged him to preach the Word in season and out of season. Effective ministry is centered on and driven by the Scriptures. How we communicate is not nearly as important as what we communicate. Our move away from the traditional Sunday service, has resulted in new ways to declare the scriptures. The COVID-19 epidemic has not hindered the proclamation of Scripture but expanded it as we have embraced new opportunities to share the hope we find in the Bible.
Second, we are to be devoted to fellowship. Fellowship is not just the two-minute conversations that occur on Sunday Morning; fellowship occurs throughout the whole week as we interact with one another, minister to one another, and assist those who are going through difficulties in life. Tragically, church has become a Sunday morning event where people come and sit in the same sanctuary, but never really interact with one another. As COVID-19 has pushed us away from the Sunday morning gathering, it has provided us an opportunity to expand fellowship by challenging us to rethink how we can connect with one another
Third, we are reminded that worship is not centered around the music, but around the communion table. Worship is not just a worship band leading people who are passively engaged. Worship is about our response to God in word and action by celebrating who he is and what he has done for us.
As Daniel Block points out in his book, For the Glory of God, “True worship is essentially a vertical exercise, the human response to the divine Creator and Redeemer. For this reason, the goal of authentic worship is the glory of God rather than the pleasure of human beings.” He goes on to define worship to involve as, “reverential human acts of submission and homage before the divine Sovereign in response to his gracious revelation of himself and in accord with his will.” Worship is not about the quality of the music or even the presence of music, but about our response to God.
Fourth, authentic community involves prayer with and for one another as we recognize our reliance upon God’s activity in our lives. As we navigate through these uncharted waters, it reminds us that we are ultimately dependent upon God’s wisdom and guidance. When we minister without the answers it confronts us with our own inabilities and reminds us of God’s supernatural empowerment. Prayer does not begin when we sit in the pews and share our a few requests, prayer begins when we get down on our knees and pray for one another.
Perhaps the greatest challenge we face today is not that we lack all the right answers, it is the fact that we are asking the wrong questions. Instead of looking for answers for how to run the church programs and ministries in these unusual times, we need to be asking “What is the church?” and “What does it mean to be a community of believers?” We still may not have all the answers, but at least we can start by asking the right questions.
Glenn Daman has served as a pastor of rural churches in Montana, Oregon and Washington. Since 1991 he has served as the pastor of River Christian Church. He also serves on the Board of Directors of Village Missions and is one of the founding directors of the Rural Drug and Opioid Initiative, a ministry designed to equip pastors to deal with the opioid crisis in Rural Communities. He is a conference and seminar speaker and written numerous articles on rural and small church ministries. He has also written five books related to rural and small church ministry, Leading the Small Church, Shepherding the Small Church (ECPA Gold Medallion Finalist), Developing Leaders for the Small Church, When Shepherds Weep, and his latest book, The Forgotten Church (A Christianity Today Book of Merit award winner). Glenn enjoys photography, woodworking, camping with his family and spending time working on the family farm. Glenn is married to Becky, and they have two adult children.