On March 15, 2020 our church closed its doors temporarily because of Covid-19. We are slated to open again on June 7, and frankly, it has been a long two months. For me, uncertainty has been the hardest part. As a small group leader, I have people that look to me for direction, and uncertainty means that I am not able to deliver it.
But God has met me in incredible ways. For much of the quarantine, we have met in our living room with 8-10 people. We sing, pray, and listen to a pre-recorded sermon together. The smaller group allows us to pause the recording and talk about how the sermon shaped and challenged us, and we usually end our time by eating lunch together. I’ve grown to love our little gatherings.
This is Not Church
For all the sweetness of these gatherings, it is good to remind myself that this is not church. We do many of the same things, but there are many things that separate us from “real” church. For one, our little gathering is made up of people who are too much like me, with similar backgrounds and in similar stages of life. And since it is both hand-selected and tightly controlled, it is made only of people who I really like. Basically, I am just meeting with my friends. As I look forward to the opening of our church doors on June 7, I realize that regular church will by both more beautiful and much more difficult than my little group.
Both Beautiful and Hard
I think a lot of people would like a church that is structured like my little group. We meet, pray, laugh, and generally have a good time. We have very little conflict. When we meet as a large congregation, however, there will be people I don’t know very well, people who rub me wrong, and people who may not like me. But that’s okay, because I am commanded to love them anyway. Any group can meet together with similar people and love them and get along, but it is a mark of being transformed by Jesus to love those who are both different and difficult. Biblical love is costly, and calls us to go places we are not comfortable. If we think that things should be easy, we will destroy our churches from the inside out.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”
If we think church will be as effortless and fun as a group of friends meeting to watch a sermon, then we will not be willing to put in the hard work of being a church member. With our expectations, we will destroy what little community that we had. We will be disillusioned with the church because we thought Jesus promised something he never did, which is easy community. Instead Jesus promises to help us, strengthen us, and be with us as we walk with difficult people and, little by little, see them transform into friends. Because it is only against the dark backdrop of hard relationships can the light of the gospel burn brightly. Being a real church is hard, but it is beautiful.