A friend and I were sitting far apart, outside, one warm summer morning in 2020. She was upset that many people in our church didn’t seem to care about the loss of fellowship. They weren’t taking part in the Zoom prayer meetings set up by our pastors.
They didn’t attend Zoom teaching sessions with Q&A opportunities or download podcasts lovingly created for them. “What if there are hardly any Christians left when we start meeting again?”
But she was only venting; church attendance was never a solid indicator of how many people love the Lord. My dad attended Bible camp and went to church, but he didn’t believe in God.
When he sat in the pew, he napped with his eyes open. And not watching a sermon on Facebook or attending prayer on Zoom doesn’t mean someone doesn’t love Jesus either. So, what is the church now?
Jesus Loves the Big and Small Churches
I used to see a packed sanctuary and think Jesus is definitely here! But the power of Jesus’ presence was never commensurate with the size of our congregation. Christ attracted huge crowds, but those crowds would leave when the teaching got tough.
He asked the disciples, “Do you want to go away as well?” (John 6:67). Or his teaching was directed to the 12 only. “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him” (Matthew 5:1). His following fluctuated: Jesus’ message was consistent.
Visible and Invisible
Another outward sign of Jesus’ presence at a church (for me) was how busy they were and the number of programs they ran. Was all this activity for the glory of God?
Jesus warned against “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1, emphasis mine).
In other words, there is a temptation to offer work in exchange for salvation from the Lord or kudos from others.
I am grateful for this opportunity to rethink what worship and service look like. I’ve been watching a show called “Hilda” on Netflix, where one group of characters (elves) are obsessed with paperwork.
They can’t do anything until the proper committees have been formed and the appropriate paperwork filled out. They need a committee to think about starting a committee to plan a committee.
Plans and organization and proper documentation are good things, but not if they become a purpose in and of themselves, distracting us from the point of our faith: worshiping and loving the Lord in relationship through Jesus.
“If you can trust God alone, then are you really trusting him; and if, when creature streams run dry, you can stoop down to the Creator’s overflowing well and drink there, then you are a believer, and there is no mistake about it.”
That is to say — the church is a public ministry, but it is also a ministry, which girds individuals to take that solitary walk, carry their respective crosses alone to the place where we die to self and rise with Christ. Again, numbers and size don’t come into it.
Lead or Follow or Both?
Some servants are seen, and some are invisible according to the nature of God’s calling on their lives. Only God knows which ones are motivated by love for his Son.
It’s tempting to let someone else handle all those unglamorous, anonymous planning jobs and to just jump in when everything is ready, like a child expecting mom to put dinner in front of her.
David Paulson wrote, “God is expecting all of us to grow up (spiritually), God expects us to stop being spoon-fed, and God expects us to go out and replicate (bring more people to faith in Christ by preaching the gospel) and God expects us to spoon-feed those who are born again.” He quotes Ephesians 4:15: “We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Ideally, we Christians are maturing and as we do that, it’s important not to expect others to spoon-feed us all the time. Sure, some people are better leaders than others.
But if we are following Christ, this means we are copying Christ, and he led the way for us to follow. We start eating bread while spoon-feeding new Christians, helping them to learn how to find their own bread when (as Charles Spurgeon illustrated) there is no one else but God.
As we grow in faith and understanding, we all lead in one way or another, whether by example or by doing nerve-rattling things like inviting people to prayer meetings or offering mentorship to new Christians.
What if they reject you? Well, lots of people rejected Christ. We’re all in good company. And, by the way, even before we couldn’t meet in person, these aspects of the Christian life were supposed to be offshoots of the church; activities for all the other days that aren’t Sunday.
All this time away from the church and I still can’t seem to remember Bible verses as well as I’d like, and there is a lot of theology that goes over my head (for now).
But in the matter of small-scale outreach, doing life with fellow believers at various stages in their walk with Christ, and even learning to love being alone with God and simply worshiping him for who he is, this new way of doing “church” has led me into a time of growth that I wouldn’t trade.
Choosing to Worship
Maturing in Christ is a work done (so slowly in my case) by the Spirit (I wonder how he can be so patient with me), but it’s also a choice. Worshiping at home is often isolating.
My family rejects invitations to view sermons with me. When I run a Zoom prayer meeting there might be six participants or just one. Those times are hard, for sure, but it’s in the ordinariness of life that we really decide to trust the Lord or not.
That isn’t new. It’s so easy to get swept up in the atmosphere of the church, especially when hands are waving, and tears are flowing. But when we’re alone? That’s the gritty place, the dirty low ravine of Charles Spurgeon’s sermon.
Oswald Chambers asserts it is “the coming down and the living down that is the power of the saint,” even in a state of humiliation, which can look like embarrassment, rejection, even insult.
“Watch the things [Jesus] said He could do — they were all humiliating things. We have the idea that we are meant to work for God along the heroic line; we are meant to do unheroic work for God in the martyr spirit” (Chambers, The Love of God).
When I recently asked myself “why do I love Jesus?”, the answer was not connected to a large organism called Church (big-C). The answer was all about him, and he was easier to find when the crowds had dispersed.
Back to Church?
I have seriously mixed feelings about returning to church. Most weekends, by his Spirit in me, God has successfully glued my focus to the weekly sermon. The Lord has highlighted his glory, dependability, sovereignty over circumstances.
Certain godly friendships have grown stronger. He prompts me to seek support and to help those who are weaker in faith, and to mutually uplift or be humble about my own struggles.
I also sometimes fall short in this area, tempted by the allure of a Jim Gaffigan comedy special or a board game with one of my daughters. Still, I am content to worship alone on Sunday and in pairs or small online groups throughout the week.
We are the church, so much more aware of how big Jesus is against our smallness. After all, he promises “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20).
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.