May 19, 2020

When Should We Regather the Church?

Written By Cary Schmidt

So, pastor friend, you’ve heard of churches reopening. You’ve seen social media posts from churches in other regions who are celebrating regatherings. You’ve been called on to sign petitions, resist, and “take a stand.” Maybe you feel pressured by the strong opinions of others to regather soon (or not.) Maybe you feel like a loser for not jumping on the bandwagon.

What to do? Opinions, opinions, opinions.

From those fearful of regathering to those itching for a government confrontation—everybody has a different opinion. Some cry, “Don’t put people in danger”; while others cry, “Give me my constitutional rights.” Strange times! Not even so-called experts agree. But wow, the opinions are strong, aren’t they?

It seems to me the strong opinions fall into two broad groups…

Group 1 contains those who don’t feel vulnerable, haven’t lost anyone they love, don’t know anyone who has suffered from Covid-19, and don’t live in a region strongly impacted. Group 1 feels oppressed by government overreach.

Group 2 contains those who are vulnerable, who have lost a close relationship, who know someone who has suffered from Covid-19, and who live near regions that have been seriously impacted. Group 2 tends to feel cautious and desire more to follow the protecting admonitions of governing leaders.

Here are some things I’m certain of…

This is not persecution.

To call this persecution would be an insult to millions of believers over the centuries who suffered legitimate persecution.

No one has told me I can’t preach Jesus. No one has prevented our church from being on message and mission. No governing leader is permitting gatherings “except for churches.” We may be suffering from a virus, but our governing leaders (at least in my state) are not persecuting us. To accuse them of such would actually hurt the testimony of Jesus and cost our church great credibility in our community, not to mention the personal cost of leadership credibility.

Spiritual leaders follow Jesus.

Is it unthinkable that Jesus would prevent His church from gathering for a season?

Isn’t this the same God who shut down Israel for 70 years? Isn’t this the same God that dispersed the New Testament Church throughout the known world through persecution? History reveals that American Christianity is somewhat of an anomaly in terms of liberty, prosperity, and the resulting presumptuousness.

Paul was pretty respectful to Felix, Festus, and Agrippa. He was fairly loving to the Philippian jailer. Why? Because He knew He was where God wanted Him to be for that moment. And He leveraged those moments for the gospel.

What’s my point? Simply that we follow Jesus, not others. What other pastors or churches choose to do may or may not be best for my church family. And that’s ok, because this is not my church. It belongs to Jesus.

We are free from opinions or pressure.

When to regather is a uniquely “local church” question. You cannot answer this for my church, nor I for yours. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and the opinions or pressure of other pastors or leaders from other churches and locales should mean nothing to you and your local congregation. Maybe you live in a hard-hit region. Maybe you have an older congregation. For a thousand other reasons, it may not be time for your church to regather.

Until God gives you a solid green light, don’t worry over or envy what others do. Focus on God’s direction for the church family He’s called you to love and lead. Ask Him to make your path plain. (Psalm 27:11)

To those who choose to or are permitted to regather—we cheer you on and wish you all of the best in safety and fruitfulness! To those who, like Connecticut, are still in a waiting mode—we are ok waiting on the Lord and accepting the direction of well-meaning leaders who also love American liberty.

I asked our church to share three priorities…

Priority 1—Our Mission and Message.

When it comes to gospel ministry, Emmanuel never closed. We can’t gather, but our church has continued to fully function. Our church family is connected and caring. The gospel has been preached to more people than ever before. Our missions engagement has increased. In every visible way, God is not only sustaining His church, but He is deepening and strengthening it.

Priority 2—Our Unity of Heart.

How ironic it would be to let “when to gather” become yet another point of division or contention in an American church culture that is highly divisive. I would rather be dispersed in unity than gathered in disunity. Study it for yourself. Every instruction to the New Testament Church includes serious emphasis on unity—one heart, one mind, striving together for the sake of the gospel. (Philippians 1:27)

Priority 3—Our Safety and Responsibility.

As a spiritual leader, I desperately desire to regather, but I also desire for my church family to be safe. Since I have close (young) friends who have nearly lost their lives, and others who have lost loved ones,I have a strong sense of the seriousness of Covid-19. As much as I want to regather, I don’t have the license to lead my church family by my opinion or by my personal desires.

Yesterday I read two separate articles of churches who gathered, experienced an outbreak, and then went back to online-only services. Unfortunately, the media is looking for these situations and will continue to exploit them in the news. They will have greater significance in light of “civil disobedience.”

I’m not saying what other churches should do. I’m certainly not criticizing what other leaders are choosing to do. I’m simply saying, there isn’t a national standard for reopening churches, and there can’t be. My view is unavoidably shaped by my local experience in Connecticut, close to New York City, where the Covid-19 impact has been significant and where every godly leader connected to my church is cautioning us to be patient, wise, and cooperative with civil authorities.

We are choosing the cooperative, slow, patient path for a several reasons. First, because of the significance of the outbreak not far from us. Second, because of the spirit of our elected leaders which seems to be the safety and protection of our population. Third, because of the testimony of our church and message in our city and community. Fourth, because of the guidance of medical and legal professionals in our congregation. Fifth, because there’s no imminent reason to rush forward. God has held our church strong and moving forward during this time.

I have been tempted to be discouraged by the fact that others can regather, or that Connecticut will probably be one of the slowest states to reopen, for a variety of reasons. But there’s a positive side to patience. We have the privilege to watch and learn from the strategies of others. We get to study the models that worked well.

Those of us who don’t have Covid-19 tend to feel invulnerable. In Connecticut, the weather has improved, stores are opening up (which is not the same as churches congregating), and it’s easy to feel like this isn’t a big deal. One leader in my church said to me yesterday “Pastor, these rules sound silly and fun until someone gets sick…”

My friend, be free to let Jesus lead your church. Be patient if you happen to experience God’s caution slowing you down. You don’t have to keep up with others. You don’t have to join the bandwagon of protests. You don’t have to sign a petition or follow your peer group.

Follow Jesus and do what’s best for His people in your care.

You will never answer to your friends for your leadership of Jesus’ church. Cheer them on. Pray for and celebrate the course they choose to take. But don’t cave into human pressure if you sense God’s Spirit compelling you to take a different path forward.

If you can regather—AWESOME! If you can’t, rest and wait.

You will never regret letting Jesus lead His church.

“Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart. Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass. And he shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday. Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for him: fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass. Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil.”—Psalm 37:4–8