Intro: Considering the Problem
In March of 2020, COVID-19 hit American society with the force of freight train. Both the economy and the education system were shut down, and left with the ensuing loneliness, mental health plummeted and at-risk behaviors soared. The church suffered the same whiplashed effects as the rest of society. In general, Christians tried to respond with wisdom and grace amidst their disorientation. There must be grace.
At the same time, COVID revealed profound weaknesses and fissures in the church. Frankly, many Christians used COVID to excuse bad behavior and at times were indistinguishable from the rest of panic-stricken society. Contrary to the trite adage that suffering is good for the church, we were reminded that suffering produces villainy as often as heroism. God’s sanctifying grace is what the church in all ages needs—not suffering per se.
In order to assess our own age, it is true that we often rely largely on anecdotes and don’t have the advantage of historical distance and analysis. Yet such anecdotes and related generalizations give us an opportunity to assess, reorient, and seek better results in the future. The last thing we want to do is wait for renewed manifestations of our fallen world and be surprised…again.
Our Civic Religion
COVID created seemingly impossible dilemmas for pastors and sessions across our country. Before they could even start planning for the “new normal,” state and local governments started issuing edicts regarding public gatherings. Immediately, the issue became weaponized. Either you opened your church and became an enemy of public safety, or you closed your church and rolled over in the face of government tyranny. By God’s grace, we live in an age where pastors could continue to preach online in the short term while planning for the long terms, but no matter what they did, these shepherds of the flock were often assailed from all sides.
As if this weren’t enough, prompted by the George Floyd debacle, long-simmering tensions regarding race relations exploded into the open. Cut off from work and education, Americans—including Christians—obsessively consumed the rage porn peddled by media outlets and took to social media to pontificate on the issues of the day. Again, pastors and sessions were caught in the middle—forced to choose between being woke or reactionary. As a result, there was much heat and little light, with much talk of recrimination or rebuttals rather than regular repentance.
In essence, many Christians identified with their cultural and political tribes rather than the church of Jesus Christ. Many Christians deserted churches because they their pastors were on the wrong side of (their) history. Fellowship halls became hubs of tribalized gossip rather than safe venues for reflection on the preached Word of God and spurring along of the saints of God. To put it bluntly: civic religion often supplanted the Gospel in the hearts of God’s people.
Our Compromised Message
Yet pastors weren’t immune from the compromising tendencies of our cultural crucible. When I was younger, I considered leaving the pastoral ministry for politics—before a dear friend reminded me that such a transition would be a demotion rather than a promotion. Accumulating public followings is both easier and far shallower than the privileged position of preaching Christ crucified. Yet many pastors fashioned themselves into modern day Patrick Henrys (“Give me liberty or give me death!”) or Bill Nyes (“I’m just following the science!”). Churches with large followings used their bully pulpits to influence public discourse while smaller churches labored to faithfully preach Christ with their widow’s mite.
When pastors got swept along with the tide rather than swimming against it, there were dramatic effects downstream. God’s people became increasingly tribalized and fellowship was further fractured, A unity that could speak powerfully into polarized cultures was largely absent from the public eye.
Our Cultural Divide
When I was a seminarian, I learned how to attack and defang threats to the purity of the Gospel. During those years, there were pronounced struggles against doctrinal heterodoxy that posed grave risks to the church. What do we do with those who fracture the unity that accompanies the pure proclamation of the Gospel? COVID revealed many of us to be more than orthodox—“orthodoxers,” if you will. For example, many are tempted to think that they can tell whether a person is a Christian simply by their position vis-à-vis masks. As if reading horoscopes, many boldly proclaimed: if you are “compromising” on this issue, I can tell you what you’ll compromise on later.
Bob and I both believe that Jesus is the only savior of sinners—our savior. We even share subscription to a historic Christian confession. We have grown in our faith together and shared meals together. Sadly, Bob is a little “iffy” on the race issue and mask issue, so I’ll have to start putting distance in our relationship. Bad company corrupts good character, you know. Even as COVID recedes and new issues come to the fore in our country, the wounds caused by needlessly severed fellowship continue to fester.
Our Corrupted Witness
This aspect is particularly tragic for me as one who is called as an Evangelist by my denomination. While we know the world will hate us for being Christians, we want their offense to be rooted in the Gospel, not in our misbehavior. The world has seen how we speak on social media the past two years. It sees us divide into the masked and maskless. It sees us mock the cultural left or cultural right and then devour each other for dessert.
We reinforced the prominent and persistent stereotype that the church is merely a bunch of spiritually ghettoized partisans who wield truth as a weapon. How many of us cried out for the elderly who were refused contact in their dying days because of the fear of COVID? How many of us cried out for those whose loneliness turned into despair when the economy shut down and they became shut-ins? How many of us were willing to cross the cultural divide because we are bought by Christ? We traded the prophetic role of the church for the porridge of political expediency.
Conclusion: Conviction and Comfort
Jesus came for the sick, not the healthy; sinners, not the righteous. We search our hearts before the Lord because we know we are safe to do so with the shepherd-hand. Where did you fail over the past two years? Did you choose fear over the love that casts out our fear? Did you choose political liberty over the liberty that can only be purchased by Christ’s blood? Friends, lay down your sin and your shame at the feet of Jesus—who loves you—and endeavor after new obedience. That will be the subject of our next “little talk” (as Machen would say). We will talk about how Christ’s church can heal—and how we can do so together.