This will probably come to a different conclusion than you are expecting. I have three hopes in writing this for our church. First, I hope we will grow in our love for the local church. Second, I hope we will grow in our understanding of the gift the local church is to us. Third, I hope we will have a greater sense of the tension present as we live as exiles between two worlds—this temporary one and the eternal one to come. To do that, I want to attempt to answer the question: How should Christians think about their membership in the church, when they cannot be with the church?
As this pandemic has required us to cease meeting in person, I have heard earnest, well-meaning Christians trying to explain the nature of the church by saying it’s a people, not a place or asking how we can be the church to those around us. I am certain these explanations are meant to approach our present circumstances with faith, hope, and optimism. That is commendable. However, it may unintentionally lead to confusion and a missed opportunity to yearn for the fullness of what God offers us.
Our word church comes from two Greek words—kyrios (which means Lord) and ecclesia (which means assembly). A church is an assembly of the Lord’s people. It is people who have been called, redeemed, and gathered by God for his glory. The New Testament refers to the church both universally and locally. Universally, all Christians are part of the Church. Locally, we come together to worship and fellowship. The large majority of instances where the New Testament talks about the church have the local church in view—local assemblies of believers under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. I am keeping this extremely condensed, so let me share my conclusion with you; When the Bible refers to the church, it most often means Christians together.
So, what should we do when we cannot be Christians who gather in the same place? I have two answers: 1) Make the most of what we can do for now and; 2) Long for more some day in the future. We are doing our best with what we have. The online services, virtual meetings, and phone check-ins are a gift from God. Truly, they have been a joy. God gives us special grace for these strange days. But, even in this life we are usually given more. In the world to come we will be a part of unending worship and unbroken fellowship. Let’s hope for both all the more during this time.
I hope you have missed meeting together as a church. For us to want more than we have now is right and good. It’s one of many evidences that we are God’s redeemed people. Pray that we would be able to meet together soon. When you do, it’s also a prayer for God’s mercy to come and God’s power to be revealed. As you do that, also be sure to thank God for what he has given us right now. That helps us to live as Christians are meant to live in this world, satisfied here and now, but to yearn for something pure, perfect, and full.
When I think of my part in our church body, I do not first think of myself as a pastor. Our Saviour is my church. I am, primarily, a member of our assembly of the redeemed. I miss being with you my church family. The streaming service, Zoom Bible studies, and online prayer meetings are highlights of my week. But, I can’t wait for more…first, in what I hope, is weeks and, second, in the New Heaven and the New Earth. Maranatha (come quickly Lord Jesus)!