As we see Covid19 restrictions beginning to be eased we also see the first trickles of what I am sure will turn into a flood of churches seeking to get back to ‘normal’, or business as usual’, as soon as possible. As this starts to occur, we see some churches going through a whole range of quite extreme contortions in order to meet the current ‘rules’ in regard to groups of people meeting together. Such rules include how many people can meet in a given space, quite strict and onerous instructions of cleaning and sanitizing almost anything in sight worthy of an hospital operating theatre, both before and after activities.
The tragedy is that this almost ‘indecent haste’ gives an insight into the mindset of those responsible for the trickle, no doubt soon to be flood, of ‘get back to church’ activities. While not stated, this urgency is an indicator of a mindset that ‘real church’ is only what we used to do on Sundays, and what we have been doing in Cyber Space for the last few months is not ‘real church’.
Worse, what we see is an opportunity lost, an opportunity to revisit what church actually is. There is little evidence that the opportunity of the forced suspension of ‘business as usual’ church has been used to seek other ways of expressing the principles for Christian Community given to us by the New Testament. Such ways just might be more fruitful in terms of mission for the Kingdom of God compared with the dismal, now decades old, record of failure of the standard church model.
One slightly encouraging note is that in at least one church I have been made aware of, the leadership is ‘praying about what changes might be beneficial, and (has) invited the whole church to pray and offer any insights’.
As an interesting side note to the moves to ‘business as usual’, one survey I recently saw indicates that less than 50% of church members are all that keen!
The Divine Freedom
The opportunity lost is a failure on the part of, not all but most churches to use the time to reflect on the ‘Divine Freedom’ God gives us in the New Testament to ‘do church’ in a variety of ways
A significant obstacle to the exercise of the Divine Freedom is that centuries of our current model have left many church leaders and members with frozen imaginations in regard to how we ‘do church’, imaginations that, despite the Covid19 created opportunity for reflection, still largely appear to be in the deep freeze!
However, there is no biblical/theological reason that New Testament voiced principles for Christian Community cannot be birthed as varieties of Networks of Missional Communities embedded in the mosaic of ‘Live Work and Play’ micro-cultures now comprising 21st century Australian (Western) society. Despite this, and while there are variations, the missiological strategies of most mainline churches are primarily based on and operate with a fundamentally Sunday-Centric, In-Drag (into church services), Christendom-form (SIC) mindset. This despite there being a ‘Divine Freedom’ to do things very differently.
There are a number of arguments that can be made for such a freedom, for example-
i) The New Testament gives that freedom by implication because it does not specify any particular model for ‘doing church and mission’. Rather it gives us principles for the forming and shaping of Christian community.
ii) A study by the Sydney (Anglican) Diocesan Doctrine Commission in its 2008 report “A Theology of Christian Assembly” concluded that-
“Christian assemblies can take place anywhere, do not require the presence of any particular person, can occur at any time on any day and do not involve any essential ritual. Christians do not have a place on earth to which they must come to worship . . . and there is no need to observe particular days or rites” (Clause 24)
iii) That things can be different is also reinforced by Griffith-Thomas who wrote-
“It is a matter of simple fact that Traditions and Ceremonies have never been alike, and it is not going too far to say that they never will be. The history of the church. . . has been again and again, marked by change, according to differences of place, occasions and circumstances.”
iv) A person is a member of the ‘Church’ because they are a member of the body of Christ. We do not become ‘not a member of the Church’ because we don’t meet physically or in a particular form of gathering on Sundays. As Chase Kuhn recently wrote in Essentials magazine, our ‘union (with Christ) is not dissolved because of inability to (physically) gather’. Whatever form of gathering we meet in, if it is in the name of Jesus we meet, if the Word of God is learned, if there is prayer, if there is mutual support, if there is missional intentionality (to make disciples), even in Cyber Space, even when there are only two or three who gather (Matthew 18:20) then we are ‘Church’.
Therefore, in the exercise of the Divine Freedom, in the search for greater missional fruitfulness we should obey Paul’s exhortation to “imitate him” (Philippians 3:17) by following his example when he says-
“I have become ALL things to ALL people
so that by ALL possible means I might save some.”
It is important to note he does not say ‘Some’ but ‘ALL’ things, people, means. Yet it is largely the case that centuries of our current model have left many church leaders and members with a very limited view in regard to how we ‘do church’. There will often be an assumption that how church has been done is how it must continue to be done, despite the fact that church history as well as the New Testament shows otherwise.
Further, the hard to comprehend objection of many allegedly biblically well taught church members to the exercise of the ‘Divine Freedom’ will be that this just isn’t Baptist or Presbyterian or Anglican etc. By which is meant not the Traditional/Christendom form of church that they are used to and are comfortable with.
Will We Grasp It?
The reality is that in effect we continue to limit our missional efforts and methods to what we have been doing and largely failing in for decades, and of course what fits with our particular church tradition.
In the light of now decades of the decline of the ‘Church’ in Australian (Western) society, there is no doubt that for greater missional fruitfulness we must recapture and fully exercise the Divine Freedom. The Covid-forced suspension has given us an opportunity to do this, but it is an opportunity, that as the trickle of return to ‘business as usual’ activity turns to flood, is slipping away.
This, perhaps once in a century opportunity, requires us to urgently reimagine a new paradigm, one that will unbind the Church from its currently limiting and missionally failing forms, and be specifically designed for the task of mission into the mosaic of Neo-Pagan micro-cultures that is western society today. The question is – ‘Will we grasp it?’
This is all for the sake of the mission of the gospel- our core business. Such a reimagining will be shocking to many, but we are at a time when shock is needed or we will keep on ‘sleepwalking into the Iceberg’. Failure to exercise the Divine Freedom will mean an opportunity lost, one that is unlikely to return.
To finish with a couple of suggestions-
i) We must pray that those with the ability to influence and shape Christian Community as we transition out of this Covid season, will be led by and listen to the Spirit, to discern and action God’s design for the ‘Church of the future’, one that will bear more Kingdom fruit for His Glory.
ii) A possibility for the post-Covid future might be that churches, rather than putting all their resources into returning to ‘businaess as usual’, might start to develop a parallel Missional Community Network (MCN) spread across their area. The starting point for this could be the network of Cyber-Groups they have been forced to create because of the Covid Crisis.
One thing to note about such a possibility, in what are likely to be more financially straightened times for the Church, is that MCNs are low cost.
 The Principles of Theology. An Introduction to the Thirty Nine Articles, W. H Griffith Thomas, p.440
 Author’s emphasis