“Let us not neglect…”

What COVID-19 and a new culture taught me about what matters most in the church

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Photo: Getty Images

I’ve spent many years serving in church leadership and have always said that consistent involvement in a local congregation is a necessary part of anyone’s faith walk. But then 2020 and COVID-19 happened. Lockdowns, distancing, masks and fear happened. And online church happened.

We did what we had to do. Churches big and small jumped on the streaming bandwagon for Sunday broadcasts, along with video prayer meetings and wide social media engagement. As a pastor leading through that time, I can say it was a minefield of expectations and demands, trying to be good citizens without disobeying Scripture.

As a worship leader, church planter and pastor, I was always confident that what God’s people needed most was to gather for worship and the Word. Fellowship was important too, of course, but my greatest concern was content—meaningful praise and effective Bible teaching.

So, when COVID-19 landed, I, as almost every other pastor I know, believed that if we could just deliver worship and the Word to the people, it would be enough in that season.

But it wasn’t. The isolation had a cooling effect on the faith of many, and many, especially the elderly, endured profound loneliness.

Living in a culture that hugs

When that season finally resolved, my wife and I accepted an invitation to leave the United States and come alongside a church in a distant, restricted access country, one of the world’s most unreached nations for the gospel. We have plunged into a culture that hugs and kisses and loves to spend hours together over tea and conversation. And as we work at learning language and culture, this experience has led us to reconsider what matters most in the life of the church.

For a year and a half, we have been participating faithfully in Sunday services. But, we have understood very little of what is said and sung, because we don’t yet speak this new language fluently. We have literally been praising God in an unknown tongue!

And yet, nearly every Sunday has been a faith-enriching experience. How can that be? Don’t we need a great sermon and a handful of powerful songs to feed the soul?

A new believer in our little congregation shared that Hebrews 10:24-26 was the Scripture passage that convinced her to put her faith in Jesus for salvation. It says: “Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.”

She had so many challenging questions about faith but when she encountered the testimony of the gathering of God’s community, it all made sense to her. In a nation where believers are few and far between and when choosing Christ often means losing family, real fellowship is profoundly meaningful.

The most important thing we do

It turns out that meeting together might be the most important thing we do. Of course, when we gather it must have a God-honoring function and purpose, but I’m learning that just being with God’s people is far more valuable than I ever calculated.

It may be too soon to judge our actions in the pandemic years. But this I know: God’s people need to meet together. Not virtually, but face to face. It is better to physically sit with God’s people and understand nothing than to participate in the best online church service and not be present with others.

If you visit our congregation, you will be hugged—a bunch. You may even receive a sacred kiss on your cheeks, as in the New Testament letters. And every Sunday reinforces for me the profound command from Hebrews, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (Heb. 10:25).

After serving in North American Mennonite Brethren congregations for many years, Brian and Becky W. are active in a supportive role among first generation believers in a restricted access nation. Their sending congregation is Bethany Church in Fresno, California.

2 COMMENTS

  1. For those of us living in the United States of America, where we have a Constitution and Bill of Rights, the First Amendment gives us the right to worship freely, or not worship at all. Nowhere in the Constitution does it state that those rights are suspended in an “emergency”, real or perceived.
    Many churches/pastors defied the state government’s closing of churches, while pot stores, abortion mills, big box stores, etc., remained open. They kept their houses of worship open and allowed parishioners to decide for themselves whether or not they would attend. Many of those churches experienced unprecedented growth, as Christians who believed they had a right to worship as they chose, left closed churches and joined those which were open. Some of those pastors faced severe penalties, but they persisted. The Supreme Court decision validated their actions.
    It is my belief that pastors who blindly followed evil government mandates, which are not laws, will have to answer to God. Shame on them.

  2. There is no need to wait to judge our actions. Congregations that ignored lockdown recommendations were vectors for mass outbreaks of disease. The most vulnerable people died. Churches that put effort into alternative gatherings literally saved lives. We acted out the mandate to consider others before ourselves. We know this right now, and we knew it then.

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