Last week, my good friend and colleague, Rev. Paul Koch, wrote an article on this site entitled, “The Church’s Failure in the Crisis”. I’ve known Paul for almost 18 years, and I’m certain that his passionate desire to faithfully serve God’s people led him to write this post. But as much as I respect Paul as a man and fellow pastor, and although I’m confident of the sincere intentions behind his words, I couldn’t more passionately disagree with him.
On the political side of things, I look forward to sitting down with my friend over a cigar and a few cocktails sometime soon so that we can debate why I disagree with his suggestions that the government has curtailed our freedoms, that COVID19 is no worse than the flu, that the financial debts our nation has incurred are ill advised, and that the entire world’s response to this pandemic was and remains a mistake. We may not change one another’s mind on these issues, but the dialogue will be, as it always is, engaging and insightful.
What concerns me more however, and I think deserving of immediate discussion, is Paul’s suggestion that the church has failed in this crisis. On this issue, he couldn’t be more wrong. By every measure, the church has succeeded in “being” and “doing” church these past couple of months. That is, unless you believe that the church getting “in line” with the law of the land is a bad thing. I’m not sure which law Paul thinks the government has implemented that the church should ignore or rebel against, which is why I find his suggestion that the church has “failed before the specter of fear and death” mindboggling.
Let’s be clear, the churches have not shut their doors. No church has been legally required to shut down. In no instance has the government said churches can’t minister to their members. Is our ministry different? Of course it is. But why wouldn’t it be? We’re in the middle of a global pandemic the world has never seen (that is, unless you believe the entire world has been fooled…in that case, my argument will never resonate with you). So, the church does what it always done – it figures out how to minister to its people given the situation at hand. While I long for the ability to worship alongside other people, I can’t figure out why Paul thinks Facebook Live is a response to fear. Of course worship is, in normal circumstances, meant to be done in the company of others. I suspect that many of our churches will be doing that in the next month or so. In the meantime though, is the virtual proclamation of the Word of God just a “pat on our back”? If so, I guess all the blogs, podcasts, and on-line articles that clergy participate in should cease to exist. Like most of you, every time I log-on to Facebook or Twitter these days, or open my Inbox, I’m inundated with links to bible studies, worship opportunities, etc. So how is it that the church has failed in this crisis? I’m certain more people have heard the Word of God in the last 2 months than otherwise would have if COVID19 had never existed. As Lutherans, this pandemic has deprived us of celebrating the Eucharist together (unless you are part of a congregation following CDC guidelines by having small gatherings for such a thing). This is a sad reality to our current life together as the Body of Christ. (And trust me, I think we should celebrate the Eucharist every day! But again, who in the government or church as said we won’t return to this? I’ve not heard one person suggest, at least in our theological circles, that in person, corporate worship, will not be the norm when the severity of this pandemic has passed. In every single previous pandemic throughout history, people around the world have returned to interaction with others, and I don’t see any reason this won’t be the case again.
Why then does Paul think the church should repent? Have we not faithfully proclaimed the Word of God? Have we not reached out (perhaps even more so) to our members and neighbors? Has the church not found ways to get the gifts of God to its people, all the while doing its part to ensure the safety of those most vulnerable? Should the church repent for following the law? If so, which immoral or unjust law requires such repentance? Moreover, who in the church has “turned tail and hid”? Almost every single church leader and congregation around the world has done nothing but find ways to “be” and “do” church is these perilous times. Failure? Not at all. In virtually every circumstance, the church as succeeded in doing what it is called to do.
Paul is exactly right that the church is “not ours”, but “our Lord’s”. “The ministry is His as well.” Where I think my friend is wrong is in his suggestions we, the church, has failed. We most assuredly have not. But together with my friend, I rejoice in the “abundance of hope” we have in the “forgiveness in Christ for us all.” May this forgiveness continue to guide us all as we seek to faithfully serve Him.