The words came out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying: “This is the only conversation that matters right now in the church.”
I was teaching my adult Bible class Sunday morning, continuing a slow verse-by-verse exposition and discussion of 1 Thessalonians. The first few verses of chapter 3 seemingly jumped off my iPad with relevance to the current state of the church in America. There, Paul is commending the Thessalonians for their model faith amid persecution, their enthusiastic embrace of the gospel despite too-little tutelage from Paul and the other apostles. He marvels that they’ve held on, that they’ve kept the faith.
And it struck me that here, in one of the earliest written descriptions of life inside one of the first Christian churches, we are challenged to consider what is the essence of being church. If we want to figure out what is “essential” about church, this is a good place to look.
God knows, COVID has stripped us down to a new openness to this conversation — a conversation I, for one, was not willing to have before. That unwillingness was in part because of how I was raised (at church, every time the doors were opened, involved in everything possible) and in part because of the work I did for most of the past two decades (being a chief cheerleader for and organizer of the multifaceted programs of a large church) and in part because I’m a natural extrovert who loves getting people together (blame my mother).
But these days, I often feel like I need to apologize or even repent for my failure to comprehend real life and real faith. That’s not just because I sit in the congregation today and no longer on the chancel, although that’s a factor. It’s also because of COVID.
The pandemic has served as an accelerant of trends that already were under way. The pandemic radically increased our use of online banking and online shopping and home delivery of groceries and restaurant food — trends that already were happening but suddenly had gasoline thrown on their slow-burning fire. That’s true of church life as well. The institutional church has been in numeric decline for some time, with fewer people becoming church members or feeling guilty when singing the old hymn “Come All Christians, Be Committed.”
I used to marvel at how parents could keep their kids away from all our great programing and classes on Sundays and Wednesday nights. Surely if they could get their kids to school and to volleyball and soccer and dance and Scouts, they could give God some time too. This used to be a conversation about priorities. Now, amid the pandemic, it’s a conversation about sanity and survival.
“We’re four years overdue for a reformation.”
Our unofficially adopted grandchildren next door recently discovered how fun it is for me to hold them by the arms and swing them around until either I get too dizzy or they fly to the ground. That progressed to multiple rounds of the game I grew up calling “Ring Around the Rosie” but that they now call “We’re Walking in a Circle.” (I guess the plague story behind the original name is a bit much these days.) We hold hands and walk around and around until one person falls to the ground, pulling everyone else down like dominoes.
A year and a half into COVID, that’s how most of us are feeling — like we’ve been spun around until we’re dizzy or we’re falling to the ground. We are disoriented and grasping for something to hold onto.
I wish Phyllis Tickle were still alive to see how prophetic her words turned out to be. She’s quoted ad infinitum for a marvelous section of her 2008 book, The Great Emergence, where she said the church about every 500 years goes through a kind of rummage sale, where the unnecessary things are cast off and the church is re-formed. The last time this happened was the Reformation, which by most accounts began in 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church’s door.
We’re four years overdue for a reformation. Before COVID, we thought we already were going through it, what with the worship wars and culture wars and all. It turns out those were just the outer bands of the hurricane to come. Surely we are in the midst of that storm, that reformation, right now. We are so close to the eye of the storm, as a matter of fact, that we cannot see where we’re going or imagine what’s on the other side.
This is the biggest challenge to the institutional church in our lifetimes, probably in generations of lifetimes. We are being shaken down to the core, to the very essence of what it means to be the church. And it turns out that attendance at Wednesday night dinner is not a key metric that matters.
I asked my smarter-than-average class to consider what the Apostle Paul and the Thessalonian Christians might have deemed essential to their understanding of church, since obviously they didn’t have large buildings to maintain, staffs to pay, choirs to rehearse or youth retreats to plan.
“It turns out that attendance at Wednesday night dinner is not a key metric that matters.”
I offered the first essential as a starter: The gospel itself. Hearing, receiving, believing, acting upon the good news of Jesus Christ was the first essential of the church. And the class quickly chimed in with the others, having apparently listened to the earlier lessons in this series: assembly and fellowship.
In our study, we’ve already spent a good bit of time discussing these three key Greek terms that form the lexicon of the early church: euangelion, ecclesia, koinonia.
Euangelion means “good news” and is the word often translated into English as “gospel.” It is the core message of the faith, that Jesus Christ was born, lived among us an exemplary life, was crucified, buried, raised on the third day and is coming again.
Ecclesia means a community gathering or assembly. It’s a word well-known in Greek culture before the Christian church, a term for calling people together for important conversations and events.
Koinonia means fellowship, sharing in common, communion. This word conveys more than a potluck dinner, although a potluck could be an expression of koinonia. It speaks to the shared life, the sense of community found among a group of people who share a common passion.
Maybe you’ve noticed that we’re publishing a lot of news and opinion pieces lately about the challenges of leading churches today. This is the conversation on every church leader and pastor’s mind these days: How do we navigate our way through accelerated change brought on by the pandemic? Some days, it feels like all doom and gloom — and understandably so.
“It’s time to take a lesson from the early church and focus on what makes the church essential.”
When facing a crisis, we have to strip down to the essentials. If you’re wading through flooded streets, there’s no need to hang on to the things that weigh you down. If you’re running from a fire, there’s no need to gather up more stuff than you can carry.
This is where the church finds itself today, and it’s the only conversation that matters: What is essential to the faith and to the church, and what must we cling to amid the rummage sale? This doesn’t have to be doom and gloom, unless we are wed to the traditions of church programming more than to the message of the faith itself.
It’s time to take a lesson from the early church and focus on what makes the church essential: euangelion,ecclesia, koinonia. Those are the three words of hope for the church today.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global. Previously, he served 17 years as associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.
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