By Edwin Crayton/Opinion
Sometime just after the Coronavirus shutdown ended, a friend angrily barked, “They shut down the churches and left the liquor stores open!” Later, it occurred to me that this was not entirely true. “They” had not shut down the churches at all. “They” had only shut down church buildings.
In the 1st Century, the very first Christians did not make this mistake. When they used the word “church”, they did not mean a building. They meant a “body of believers”. They focused their energies on the world outside the walls of buildings. They knew that this is what their benevolent God wanted. Indeed, Jesus himself had told them so. The Bible records that in Matthew 28:19-20, he said to his followers then and now, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
In other words, Jesus wanted (and still wants) his followers to share the good news of how people can make it to heaven. That was and still is, the main mission of the church. You might call it the world’s longest and greatest rescue mission: Jesus wanted all who would believe in him to have an opportunity to do so. But in order to do that they would first have to hear the gospel message. This command from our Lord to all of his followers, became known as the Great Commission. The first Christians took it quite seriously. They were inspired by three reasons. First, they knew executing and obeying this command was urgent because Jesus himself had said also that no one would be able to get into heaven unless they believed in him (John 14: 6). Quite a controversial statement then and now. Secondly, he also gave his followers a powerful insight that drove them. In Matthew Chapter 22 he shared that the entire Bible is based on two great commandments: The first commandment is that believers should love God. The second commandment is that Christians must love their neighbors as they love themselves. The third reason is that he further said, that he would not even return again until the gospel had been spread to all the world (Matthew 24:14). So when you combine these three reasons it should be clear that if Christians love God and love people they will be compelled to tell them that they must believe in Jesus to get to heaven. And that this must all occur before Jesus will return. In short, these early believers were driven by love for God and people and the realization that this was all tied to Jesus’ triumphant return which will end all evil. They believed true Christians would live in heaven. Those who reject Christ—including Satan— would be eternally separated from God and be damned to hell. The early believers, like all true Christians wanted people to be saved and that was their main priority. That zeal drove them. The faith spread. The powerful felt threatened by this success and jailed and persecuted Christians. In Roman cities, Christians were fed to lions or burned alive. The flock scattered, fleeing persecution and then an amazing thing happened: Christianity grew even faster. Eventually, it became a major religion. But through the centuries, it changed in ways that lured it away from Christ’s commission. Evangelizing the world became less important. Christ’s vision was that the church would make the world more like the faith. Instead, for the most part the opposite happened. The church became more like the world. Evangelism took a back seat to other goals. An article by Ed Setzer in the Washington Post pointed out that a 2012 LifeWay poll claimed 80% of Christians said they believed they should share their faith, yet only 39% actually do. More interestingly, the same article also pointed out that a poll also showed 78% of non-believers would be interested in hearing about the Christian faith. Ironically, church members themselves are learning less and less about the Bible and the faith. According to a new research study from the respected Barna Research Group, “36% fewer Americans attended church in 2020 than in 1993, and only 35% of Christians read the Bible weekly. That matters when one pauses to realize the Bible is the instruction manual for the faith. The Scriptures themselves say in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Study to show yourself approved”. Although there are faithful, strong churches, for too many, the church has become just a place “you go to” on Sundays. The concept of church being a body of believers is mostly lost. So when the Coronavirus led to church shut downs many churches did not know what to do. What would the 1st Century believers do? Would they tell us that this is both a crisis and an opportunity to reach out to those suffering all around us? Would they urge us to go out and spread the gospel? Perhaps the first Christians would tell us this is the time for fresh ideas. I got an example of what this might look like a couple of Sunday evenings ago. I stumbled upon “social distancing” street revival with lots of masks and lots of Holy Spirit. (Even the CDC would have shouted “Amen.”)
It’s also good that many churches are adapting their ministries by reaching more people online. But what else is in God’s playbook? Only God knows. But he will reveal what to do and how to reach out to communities if we will ask him to lead us. James 1:5 says, “If anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask God.”
It is reassuring to realize that Christianity has always thrived in times of trial. Is there a greater trial than a stubbornly persistent, treacherous pandemic that can kill anyone and everyone on the planet? Yet, there is something worse that physical death. Losing one’s soul is worse than losing one’s life. The Christian faith is strongest when believers remember what is at stake and react in love to share Jesus and perform deeds of love. We are called to love all people and share with unbelievers how faith in Jesus provides hope in this life and eternal life in the next. To accomplish this noble mission, the church needs to embrace new, creative methods. The virus is strong. It destroys lives and cripples nations. But even the Coronavirus cannot prevail against the church of God. Nothing can stop God’s church, as long as it does not stop itself by continuing to mostly ignore and disobey Christ’s command to spread the word and share the hope it brings.
“The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church” – Matthew 16:17
“How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?”—Romans 10:14
By Edwin Crayton/Opinion