I haven’t set foot into my church since early March of last year, just before Indiana locked down for the pandemic. That level of lockdown ended after several weeks, and West Park Christian Church decided to reopen last July.
It was challenging to arrive at that decision. Some of our elders wanted to open sooner, saying that we shouldn’t live in fear, and that us staying closed was starving our members of Christian community.
I took offense to the first point — it’s prudent, not fearful, to avoid a disease that can kill you, or leave you with chronic health difficulties, or at least lay you up for a solid two weeks while it has its way with you. God won’t protect us from it simply because we gather to worship him. Anyone who thinks so has a gross misunderstanding of faith and the nature of God.
I conceded the second point. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Other elders, including me, took the position that our first duty is to keep our congregation healthy, especially given how many of them are elderly or have health conditions that put them at serious COVID risk. I wasn’t eager to stand before God one day explaining the people who suffered or died because I voted to open too soon.
We reached a compromise: we would ask at-risk people to stay away, require masks for all who enter, and alter the service to limit physical proximity. I’m naturally drawn to compromise so I said yes, but soon after I felt a regret I’ve never shaken.
Margaret and I have not been willing to expose ourselves to COVID risk, so we’ve stayed away. Most Sunday mornings we take in the services of North Point Community Church on our TV via our Roku. We both value the teaching of North Point pastor Andy Stanley; even before this, we often listened to his sermons on long car trips.
But a sermon is not the complete church experience, and it is not the main reason to attend church. We go to church to be a part of a community where we can encourage each other in the faith. Hebrews 10:24-25 lay it out very well:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.
Sure, a sermon is part of the worship experience. So is singing, and praying, and giving — other Scripture provides for all of these practices. But the point of these verses in Hebrews is that we’re meant to be Christians in community. This is a faith we do with others, if for no other reason than we can help each other stay with it and keep growing in it. Classically, we find Christian community in church.
That’s what’s been missing for Margaret and me as we’ve watched Andy Stanley preach every week. I can’t write with certainty about Margaret’s experience, but I can about mine: I feel increasingly isolated in my faith. I’ve lost feeling connected to fellow Christians. In parallel, the habits of my faith have fallen off, or feel increasingly stale. I don’t pray as often. I’m not in the Bible as much, and when I do study it, the words often fail to connect with me. And I’m not doing very much that expresses my faith. My faith is action-oriented: what mission am I on and what am I doing to move that in service to him is critically important. I’m not doing anything related to God’s mission right now. Margaret and I have our hands full holding things together with some family challenges during a time when everything is more difficult anyway.
For a long time, I believed that God wanted me to be a part of my church’s urban mission. We did our best to meet our neighbors, most of whom know the problems of poverty, lift them up as best we could, and introduce them to Jesus. My ability to organize and run things helped my church execute on its mission more effectively.
Since the pandemic, I’ve become disconnected from that mission. What is right in front of me is my family, whose spiritual needs have been underserved and often unmet for months now. I feel compelled to give all of my attention to us.
It’s become clear to me over the last couple years that my church’s leaders need to live in its neighborhood. People like me who don’t live there just can’t be fully involved, and full involvement is needed. We live a good 30 minutes away. And we don’t feel at all led to move there.
Moreover, as an elder it’s my duty to minister to our people. But I and my family need ministering. We’re out of spiritual gas.
I think that my time at West Park is coming to an end. Margaret and I agree that when we think it’s safe for us to return to in-person worship, that we will choose a church together. (I was at West Park long before we met, and she is technically still a member at the megachurch she attended with her children for nearly 20 years.) We want to find a community of Christians where we can make friends and find mutual encouragement in life and in the faith.
As we contemplate and (soon) search for a new church home, we feel church homeless.