Our physical sanctuaries have been closed for some time, and we can expect that they will remain closed for a while longer. When they are allowed to open, it will probably be in stages. The question in the minds of many pastors and leaders is: What will church be like when we can meet again?
A Lesson From the Past
The Jews whose temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the conquering Babylonian army in the 6th century BC were deprived of their usual worship for seven decades. But God kept His promise and brought back the remnant to Jerusalem, where one of their first priorities was to build a new temple. Against all kinds of challenges, they finally succeeded in completing the temple. It was time to dedicate the new sanctuary.
In his book, Ezra notes that the building was completed “according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia” (6:14). The sovereign God was working out His will on earth, even recruiting earthly rulers in the process.
Some of the older Jews who had seen the older temple wept while the temple was being built (3:12)—probably because they had been deprived of the regular worship at the temple for so long. But it was generally a time of joy—notice how the word “joy” appears three times in Ezra 6:16–22.
Besides rejoicing, the people also restored the regular pattern of worship, with the priests and Levites taking their proper places, and the restoration of Passover observances. In addition, emphasis was given to holiness, in that they resolved to separate themselves from the idolatrous practices of neighbouring peoples.
There were some things missing, though. The ark of the Covenant, an important item in the temple, was absent. It had been taken away during the Babylonian attack and was lost; no one knows where it went.
Though the contexts of the Jews returning to a newly-built temple and our situation today as we anticipate returning to our sanctuaries are different, there are some parallels we can observe.
To be sure, we will have to continue new precautions we have learnt. Pastors and leaders will have to make decisions in the transitional period on whether restrictions on singing and shaking of hands are needed, and how they can prevent the church, especially where there are many seniors, from ending up as new clusters of infection.
But as we return, there will surely be a sense of joy as we gather again to worship God. As we do so, we can think of the following.
Things to Keep
Some people speak as if it will be a brave new world for the church and the larger society. This is overstated—the church has persevered through all kinds of crisis in its history, from severe persecution to war and deadly pandemics, and kept what is central and dear to Christians.
One of the things we must retain at all costs is the real communities that we are supposed to be. The church, the Bible reminds us, is a gathered community. We celebrate being a community of people, whose spiritual formation is dependent on the regular interaction of the people. It is in this context that we learn to do the many “one another” things that the Bible speaks about—forgive, bear with, encourage, love, and so on.
An online community is too disconnected from such real-life interactions, and is but a pale reflection of the church as community. You can switch off your online connections at will, or surf to find preaching by people you don’t personally know. But in a local congregation, you will have to rub shoulders with real people and develop the love and patience that come from embodied life. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the church as “Christ existing within community”. How true.
We must also hold on to the holiness that God has called us to. God “has saved us and called us to a holy life” (2 Timothy 1:9). Much of the holiness that we read about in the Bible is experienced and grows in embodied community.
Things to Let Go Of
While we must hold on to that which is important and central to being a congregation, we may also have had time during the COVID-19 pandemic to reconsider the necessity or effectiveness of what we have been doing in the past. We may have sidelined what is central, and celebrated the peripherals instead.
We may have to review what may be our addiction to programmes—many of which may have outlived their usefulness and have become a burden to bear. As best-selling author Steven Covey observes, we are often “in the thick of thin things”, having neglected the more important matters.
In the early days of the church, vital decisions had to be made regarding Jewish rites and customs, and whether Christians were expected to adhere to them. Guided by the Holy Spirit and God’s Word, the church wisely decided to let go of rites that had outgrown their usefulness or relevance (Acts 15:28–29). The emphasis was for Gentile Christians to turn away from idolatry and live a life of holiness.
The church exists to be the bride of Christ (that grows into His likeness) and the body of Christ (as His servant and witness). Anything that we do in church that does not contribute to these central roles should be seriously reviewed and released if not needed. Anything that distracts us from our calling must be discarded.
Church budgets may be affected; already incomes have suffered decline. It is time to review our budgets and what they say about our priorities. Budgets may need healthy pruning and refocusing.
Things to Rediscover
Like the Jews who rediscovered the Passover, we too will have to bring to focus what we had been neglecting. The Great Commission involves teaching believers to obey everything Christ has commanded us (Matthew 28:19–20). We are to make disciples who will make disciples (2 Timothy 2:2).
The partial lockdown has brought forth some deep needs. For example, do our church members know how to maintain and deepen their spiritual lives, even in isolation? Do they know how to feed on good spiritual nourishment? Or were they feeling bored, filling their time with entertainment and superficial pursuits? Did parents know how to teach their children about God and lead their families to worship God?
We cannot be sure if there will be more serious disruptions to our normal church life in the future, but we must take steps to prepare and fortify ourselves for any eventuality. We must help individuals to learn to pursue Christ and be devoted to Him regardless of circumstances. We must help parents to nurture their children and enable families to function as little units of the Christian faith community.
Many people know the story of how a group of fishermen organised themselves and lost their original mission as they got busy doing everything else except fish. The church must avoid this and rediscover its mission—of evangelism and outreach. As radio broadcaster Paul Harvey once said, “Too many Christians are no longer fishers of men but keepers of the aquarium.”
The pandemic has opened many Christian eyes to the presence of needy neighbours who often live on the margins of society or are socially invisible. Have we been too comfortable in confining our Christianity within our four walls, and neglecting what the Lord said about being salt and light in this lost world?
The post-pandemic period may expose many new challenges—such as those who have lost their livelihoods. In Singapore, more than 20,000 people lost their jobs in the first quarter of 2020 and almost 9,000 business entities closed down in April. This has potentially pushed thousands of families into poverty and increased social pathologies in families. Frontline medical staff who have been working in the exhausting edges of death and tragedy face post-traumatic stress disorder, while there has been an increase in mental illness among those who find difficulty coping.
Former Anglican Archbishop William Temple’s assertion that the church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members must make us think carefully about what the focus of our church life is.
We must also take note that what is true for the church is also true for individual believers and families.
The post-pandemic church will have opportunities to repent of past consumerist distractions and self-indulgent excesses; to return to Christ, His gospel, and what has been safely guarded by the church through the centuries; to reorganise accordingly; to restore what may have been lost; to reach out to the lost; and to experience a revival of holy living and devotion to the Lord. While we do so, we must remember whose we are, what the end of history will be like, and who is Lord in all situations as the Holy Spirit guides us through the future.