It’s no secret that as the COVID pandemic dragged on for more than a year, it proved rough for many churches. Many saw members leave and shop around. This was lamented by local pastors and decried in articles nationally. One article I found helpful echoed that the pandemic and “the politicization of everything,” coupled with a seeming “unending torrent of bad news” and frayed nerves, people are changing churches. The reasons given range from “the serious to the trivial”—lack of childcare, COVID restrictions, ‘not feeling connected’. But, given the emotionally charged, yet, temporary state of affairs, the article wisely counseled to “think twice about changing churches.” For the decision to disavow one’s membership covenant was unlikely to be a choice made from a locus of wisdom right now.
Consequently, instead of vacating one’s church in the midst of this or future trying times, what should Christians do? To pose a Marine Corps analogy: a requisite of all Marines is to keep their gear cleaned, oiled and polished, as the case requires. This way the equipment is serviceable to aid the Marine in carrying out his or her mission. Similarly, soldiers of Christ are to keep Christian virtues polished, so to speak. This way, we too may be fitted with the serviceable tools necessary in carrying out our gospel mission, with our church, during this trying time and beyond. The Ephesians 6 armor is certainly worth attention in this regard, but for this article here are, predominantly, a few other items not to neglect.
First, consider that Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). In other words, as one writer remarks, “The key to discipleship is self-denial, with Jesus the archetype, who will surrender himself up to death… (Osborne, Matthew, 637).” Correspondingly, Calvin dedicates two chapters of his Institutes to explicating this theme. In these chapters, Calvin stresses that Christians are to glorify God and serve others, and self-denial is the right course to this end. For, Calvin argues, “Unless you give up all thoughts of self and, so to speak, get out of yourself, you will accomplish nothing here (Inst., III.vii).”
Therefore, in the midst of a secular society that frequently ranks one’s personal interests over the good of the group, Christians would do well not to follow suit. This is heightened by Paul’s insistence upon a Christian solidarity that is centered on the gospel. For Paul declares to the Philippian church, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel”(Phil. 1:27). In light of this, and in regard to trying times, an implication may be that if our church preaches the gospel and is true to God’s Word, one would do well to stay put. And polishing the Christian virtue of self-denial does much to help. For self-denial shifts the focus away from making life and church to be mainly about oneself, and how one feels they are being pleased or served. For the ethos of self-denial is centered on serving Christ and others in a spirit of self-forgetfulness. This same concept is expressed by Calvin when he posits that, “The first step toward serving Christ is to lose sight of ourselves….” Christians would always do well to polish this up.
Trust the Lord
A second item to polish is trust. This is epitomized by the proverb, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6). Paul Koptak contends that this text summons us, “…to give up self-centered fantasy and replace it with God-centered reality (Proverbs, 118).” The “fantasy” being rebutted here is that we “self-determine” life (Ibid, 119). Tremper Longman III agrees, saying, “To trust Yahweh implies that one will not trust one’s own resources (Proverbs, 133).” Further, “In acknowledging one’s own innate lack of resources, one becomes open to God’s power and wisdom, which is a better guide to life (Ibid).”
Moreover, trusting God in this way applies, not only to life’s easy times, but also when the waves of hard circumstances break upon our lives and churches. The upshot of trusting God through such times is that it thwarts our becoming bitter or hopeless. It also thwarts us from reacting in the flesh—with rage, slander, rebellion, or with a demanding or manipulative spirit—in order to attain our way. Consequently, it’s no wonder that Puritan pastor, William Bridge, urged Christians to trust God, remarking, “So I say, when discouragements arise, it is the duty of all Christ’s disciples then, and then especially, to trust in God by Christ. What is faith made for, but for such a time as this (A Lifting Up for the Downcast, 268)?” Accordingly, rather than deserting one’s church or defaulting to carnal behavior during trying times, Christians would do well to polish God-centered trust.
Share in Suffering
Third, a companion of trusting God is enduring hardship while you wait on Him. Many passages echo this theme. One potent example is Paul’s charge to Timothy to, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:3). Apparently, Timothy’s ministry had proven difficult but Paul’s charge was not to bail-out but to endure. This certainly shortchanges many of the “grass is greener” arguments that too frequently underlie believers’ decisions. For too often, when times of adversity and testing come: marriages, ministries, and churches are quickly cast aside. Yet, Paul’s charge is to “share in suffering.” And, correspondingly, the proverb goads, “If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small” (Prov. 24:10). Christian soldiers must prayerfully polish up the truth that the church militant is not called to perpetual ease, but to faithfully endure.
Love One Another
Finally, may we constantly shine up love for one another. For love’s importance is attested throughout Scripture. Indeed, Jesus told His disciples, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). Scripture indicates that love is self-effacing and self-sacrificing (Rom. 12:10; 1 Jn. 3:16). It bears with each other, forgives, and obeys (Eph. 4:2; 2 Cor. 2:7-8; Jn. 14:15). “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:4-6). And those in Christ would do well to prayerfully polish up love (and the rest of these virtues), for the good of Christ’s church and to the glory of God.
Dean Landry is Sr. Pastor of Indian Valley Faith Fellowship in Harleysville, PA.