A member of Macedonian Ministry’s Atlanta 4 Cohort, Matt serves as Executive Pastor at The Living Room Community Church in the Tri-Cities of Washington where he architects structures and processes that support the vision and mission of the church. He leads change, builds culture, develops metrics to measure organizational health, and is a coach to the staff team. He believes that healthy ministry flows from mutuality, and he encourages those on the margins to find their voice and use it to strengthen God’s kingdom.
Matt is a DMin candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary where he studies Adaptive Change Leadership, serves as a national trainer for The Chalmers Center, and serves as a leadership coach with The Lupton Center.
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26).
A Theology of Weakness
For most of Christian history, the church has found itself on the margins of society, where she has not only survived, but in countless difficult contexts she has thrived.
Jimmy W. knows all about a theology of weakness. He is a church planter on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. In that context, churches can be shut down if even one Muslim neighbor complains to the authorities. They are limited in both the size of their buildings and the number of people who are allowed to congregate at any one time. This has caused the church to exist for the good of God and their neighbor and gather in small “cells” never crossing the legal boundary of more than 50 people in any given meeting at any given time. From one man with a vision, to a scattered church that now numbers in the hundreds, Pastor Jimmy embraces a theology of weakness as he negotiates countless obstacles that attempt to block ministry.
Jimmy’s story is not unique. Many of our brothers and sisters in the global church face ongoing inconvenience and difficulty on a daily basis. Pastors in China lead small house churches and daily face the possibility of state-sanctioned imprisonment and violence because they dare to proclaim the redeeming truth that Jesus is Lord! In the slums of Kibera, an informal settlement of Nairobi, Kenya with an unofficial population of upwards of one million people, regular attendance at church is difficult. People are hungry, people get sick, people die of what we in the west label as “preventable causes”.
As churchgoers in the USA, we have been largely shielded from having to think about a theology of weakness. We are much more conversant with topics like growth, success, and, dare I say it, convenience.
Living in the age of Covid-19 has brought new challenges and opportunities to the American church. Will we learn from the global church how to survive and thrive in the midst of adversity? Will we learn how to lament the unpredictable and difficult path ahead; how to lead in powerlessness and weakness as we love God and neighbor? Or will the American church attempt to use theology to justify an insular escape from the reality of this public health crisis.
A Theology of Convenience
Many churches have begun to hold public gatherings in defiance of state orders that limit the size and location of church services during this public health crisis. Many churches making this decision share a common thread of theology.
In Hebrews 10:25, the author admonishes the church to not forsake gathering together so as to encourage one another and spur each other on to love and good deeds. Many are interpreting this to mean that it is wrong for churches to not gather together during this season, and that suspension of gathering may even be breaking God’s command.
Jesus taught His disciples to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Some voices today come dangerously close to claiming that current restrictions of church gatherings amount to persecution and requires resistance.
Here I differ significantly from their perspective. We are not being persecuted. In the community where I live, in the Tri-Cities of Washington State, we can meet outside, on the church grounds, in groups of up to 100. There is no prohibition on how many services our church can hold on a given day. We can also have youth groups, small groups, and other religious studies on the church grounds. Sure, we have to wear masks and maintain physical distancing when we meet in person, but can we really, with clear conscience, insinuate that this equates to government persecution? Let’s remember that every church has the opportunity to freely broadcast their message on numerous digital platforms, expanding the potential reach of their message far beyond their usual local reach.
Based on my understanding, the global church has largely refrained from making Covid-19 a theological issue of faithfulness. Perhaps this is because they know that, in midst of trying times, faithfulness is not measured by attendance, but in how one loves God and neighbor in the middle of chaos, questions, and prolonged seasons of grief.
The world needs the hope which the church has to offer — if we can be courageous enough to recapture it. If not, her insistence on meeting at the potential cost of the community will make her even less relevant to a society already questioning what contributions churches make to the common good.
Instead of attempting to escape the pain, the church should lean into the pain of the world and lead the way forward. A good way to begin would be by helping neighbors, feeding the hungry, counseling the lonely, ever praying, admitting powerlessness, and introducing the Man of sorrows to a weary world.
This is what the early church did. Not long after the book of Hebrews was written, the church entered into a season of extraordinary persecution that lasted for over 200 years. They did not forsake gathering together. They gathered in tiny groups in homes and in moderately larger groups in caves. They shared meals, burdens, and prison cells. They didn’t have buildings, and the idea of being able to meet openly with 100 people at a time would have felt like an incredible luxury.
We have a choice in front of us. Will we insist on filling our buildings regardless of the cost to the larger community, or will we keep the historic church in mind and the global church in sight as we creatively improvise our way forward, bringing the message of hope to our communities?