Many have expressed concern about the decline of faith and church attendance. The closing of places of assembly due to the current coronavirus scare has intensified worry about continued decline; some even consider these closures an infringement on our freedom to worship. Why are Christians so panicky as they try to keep their faith?
I remember that when I was young, church members spoke of church as a religious edifice. Church attendance was holy, much like approaching the Biblical Sanctuary. The church building held a sacred position, and when its divinity or purity was not honored, many became uncomfortable or even indignant. Church demanded one’s reverence and respect. After all, it was God’s holy precinct. While the older members called for reverence, the younger generation called for relevance. We saw churches broken into various clubs for meeting individual emotional needs. I am not sure God wants us all to fulfill our religious impulses in the same way anyway, but as we have temporarily closed our churches, we are left asking ourselves what sort of church we are.
Many honest Christians focus on the spiritual parts of the Sanctuary as a model of the ideal church and yet miss the entire point. Church is not the Sanctuary, Temple, or Tabernacle. None of those words accurately reflects a modern church building or institution. The Tabernacle was different. God came and dwelt in it. Think of it as a place that actually contained the presence of the eternally infinite one. It was a portal through which the God of the universe came and dwelled among mortal men. Yes, we are the temple of God, but we should not relegate this metaphor to some modern-day structure or human organization.
Today, the church is finding itself cowering in the presence of coronavirus. No longer able to prioritize church attendance, some of us feel uncomfortable and perhaps even concerned that we are on a slippery slope towards losing our religious liberties. Christians have culturally conditioned themselves to think that they are meant to inhabit human structures. To join the church is to enter a grand establishment or an institution akin to the kingdom of God. In this tradition, one’s privatized Christianity not only belongs in houses of worship but must infiltrate houses of government, filling seats in Congress and even the Supreme Court.
The problem with this is that it politicizes the church, and God begins to look more like national allegiance and denominational beliefs than like God. Christians sometimes forget that they have been called to do something much simpler and yet seriously profound—performing meaningful acts of kindness like helping others, speaking kind words, offering cups of cool water, meeting needs, and treating people fairly. These activities are not confined to human institutions. Perhaps we should more carefully consider what Jesus means when He asks us to build up His church and worship Him in spirit and truth; we should consider what He told the Samaritan woman at the well who asked similar questions about our places of worship. Jesus told her the emphasis is not on a building but on a people who are empowered by His Spirit: “an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:23, NASB).
Given the political chaos currently shaping our world, we may envision far-reaching consequences that will define our country and restrict civil liberties. People seem to be losing trust in the operations of organizations and governments. Integrity, trust, and civility are breaking down on every level, which calls for some concern. Some fear the infringement of liberties may even soon become commonplace. Yet, though Revelation 13 speaks of religious persecution, we must be vigilant to avoid overclassifying pandemic restrictions as badges of persecution. There will be a time to stand up when our freedoms are being eroded. But even if we are not vigilant and our religious institutions and churches are someday taken over by government, I am hopeful that the human structures of our religious institutions will have served their purpose and that God’s church as divine activity will be victorious.
Going to church is not a biblical concept. We conceptualize church as a particular place or institution. While organizational structures remain important for bringing people together to become better equipped in spirit and truth, however, they are not the point. Churches and organizations are expendable. People can go to a church building and yet never assemble as God’s church. I’ve seen this happen many times.
Does collective participation matter? Absolutely. The point of the Sanctuary is to have God dwell among men—not in the Sanctuary but among men (See Exodus 25:8). To be sure, it is also a meeting place where scriptures can be seriously studied and people can encourage and help one another (Hebrews 10:24), but these are effects of God dwelling among people. God’s supreme regard and purpose for His church have a single aim: that He may dwell among men to reach out to the world.
I think clarity on the meaning of God’s church is vital. Jesus said that Peter’s statement of faith in Him as the Christ forms the bedrock on which He builds His church (Matthew 16:16). We often look to our favorite pastor or leader when seeking meaning. We can thank God for those who have devoted themselves to the study of God’s word, but what has happened to living by faith? Too often, we rely on an organization or church to do research for us rather than on God. Where is our faith in Him?
We seem to be great at religion but lousy at faith. If we don’t stand firm in our faithfulness, the church will not stand at all. There is nothing wrong with organization and human structure, but we must go beyond them to assemble ourselves more seriously to really be the church. Moses wanted the entire congregation to speak meaningfully for God, for all to ascend the mount to hear God’s words for themselves and thus become a spirit-filled community in God’s name. The church would then become something much bigger than any human building, institution, or denomination could contain. It would become a dynamic movement.
Christians should be seeking God as a person: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33, ESV). We have been given our assignment from Jesus. Attending to His words and working for His kingdom is our calling. “You are my witnesses,” declares the King. Our mission is to bear witness to the person God is. Even if we are temporarily kept from our church buildings, we remain part of God’s organization and family—and perhaps even more so if we are doing our job. We are the community that has been sent on a mission. The church is a group that is redeemed and trained for the spiritual purpose of witnessing the glory and character of God’s love.
In times like these, I find that the ancient prophet Habakkuk provides relevant words. He makes one of the strongest statements of faith you’ll ever find: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation (3:17–18, ESV). When a pandemic surges around us, when our churches shut down, and when the economy tanks and food shortages emerge, will faith be found?
Living by this kind of faith is not about getting inside a church building but about getting inside the work that Jesus is doing. It’s about desiring God’s presence—not a religious experience that meets our needs, not a social competition to become the chief cornerstone, and not a club we can visit and then leave to do our own thing. When we emerge on the other side and start returning to our churches, may we have developed a concept of church that is deeper than a human structure. Let’s try entrusting one another to God’s keeping, which will fit us together for a habitation of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11). The church is more than just a group getting together for some religious activities. It’s about becoming a part of God’s household. God is trying to get His people in order so He can come and fill His house and thus dwell among us. To be frank, if we neglect this, we’ve ceased to be the church.
Wherever we find ourselves during this season of isolation and instability, may God dwell among us peaceably as we seek to share the character of God’s love with the world.
Craig Ashton Jr.