Just shy of six months after life ground to a halt because of a global pandemic, I think we’ve finally reached a point where we can start to look back and see some of the lasting effects this will have on the church. We have seen everything from churches closing their doors completely, to modifying their worship practices to comply with government mandates, to a few defiantly refusing to change anything at all. We have seen flaws and short-comings clearly displayed, and if we are honest with ourselves, we are seeing real challenges with the way we talk about and present our faith, even amongst ourselves.
American Christianity has embraced the abstract and the philosophical, with an emphasis on intellectualizing faith and our spiritual feelings. At some point, we took the real and tangible, and morphed it into the theoretical and general. Rev. Donovan Riley observes, “What we preach isn’t concrete and real, it’s abstract and generalized. The fear is that if we’re too specific we might hurt people’s feelings and offend people and get people angry with us, versus, how does sin use the law to actually bust loose in people’s lives? And then, how does the gospel actually in reality bust loose in people’s lives?” While this has been the case for a long time, the recent social upheavals we are experiencing in the wake of COVID-19 have highlighted the issue.
The veil has been pulled back, and we can clearly see the darkness all around us. Jesus himself told us that Satan is the ruler of this world, and we should therefore not be surprised to see him at work. Nor should we forget that Satan is a real personality, exercising real demonic power. “What we’ve discovered throughout COVID is that most people believe in Satan abstractly, or they believe that Satan is an adjective that describes a certain level of malevolence or evil, but there is no actual Satan. There’s no actual demonic powers because that violates that boundaries of what we all agree is reality. But a consequence of that I’ve discovered is that by treating Satan as an imaginary fairy tale creature or a myth, it then exposes people for the fact that they don’t really believe in Jesus outside of something that exists in the book.”
We are actively under attack. But rather than being paralyzed by fear, remember that Jesus is real and tangible as well! Donovan often reminds his congregation, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it. Which means if you turn away from the darkness because you fear the darkness, you’re turning your back to Christ who locates himself in the darkness.” Within the darkness of this world, Jesus continues to use real and tangible things to interact with and assure us. “The answer is Word and Sacrament. It’s not intellectualizing the faith only, or simply the so-called spiritual feeling church. It’s Jesus as a person, speaking through scripture as a real entity. It’s a person talking to you and feeding you the body and blood, which is beyond intellectual Christianity,” Rev. Joel Hess agrees.
As we continue to navigate the fallout of this pandemic, I worry for my brothers and sisters in Christ. I pray for those who have spent months removed from the tangible assurances God has given us. I mourn for those who have become consumed by darkness and despair because the church wasn’t there to bring them the gospel of Jesus, the only light in this world. Perhaps this is one of the reasons God has given us this pandemic. Perhaps it is time for the church to reflect on how we answer the challenges of the world. Perhaps we take this opportunity to find a way to bring the gospel out of the abstract and into the real, messy middle of people’s lives.
This article is a brief examination of one of several topics discussed on this week’s episode of Ringside with the Preacher Men. Listen to Rev. Joel Hess, Rev. Paul Koch, and special guest Rev. Donovan Riley, as they duke it out over why we should get rid of text books in favor of primary texts, the intellectualization of faith, what church bodies and malls have in common, and the horrors of human trafficking, on the latest full Ringside with the Preacher Men episode, “The End of Existentialism with Guest Donovan Riley.”
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