To Reform or Return

I don’t follow many blogs these days, while I do maintain a newsfeed with a variety of Christian blogs, in reality this is mainly for the headlines and to keep a small toe in the waters of evangelicalism and its day-to-day trends. However, two headlines caught my eye recently that relate to the extended series we’ve been going through here as it concerns the COVID-19/coronavirus response. These two posts are similar in that they are both trying to think through the proper response to the present crisis, however they are different because they each edge down a divergent path highlighting what I view as the two primary options going forward. One begins down the path of, “In light of COVID-19, perhaps we should reconsider how we do…,” while the other begins down the path of, “In light of COVID-19, perhaps our getting back to normal will look a little different and take a little longer.”

The first article comes from The Gospel Coalition, written by Trevin Wax entitled, “Blowing up the 3 B’s”. The central thesis of this article is that the traditional ‘metrics’ for evaluating success have been: bodies, buildings, and budgets, with an occasional evangelistic fourth B, baptisms. Having been in church for almost four decades and having served in a variety of ministry positions, I can unequivocally agree with this summation. Bodies require buildings, buildings require budgets, and baptisms equal bodies. It’s a cycle that nearly everyone recognizes and assumes is the norm, but very few have seriously called into question. Typically push-back against any of these so-called metrics is met with a healthy dose of skepticism and usually some charge of ecclesisastical reductionism akin to saying ‘You don’t love Christ or His Church.”

As Wax’s article unfolds, he asks the following question,
“But what if the three B’s were never a great metric for understanding the health of a local church? What if the B’s were, too often, a way for us to paper over serious problems below the surface in our discipleship process (or lack thereof)? And what if, now, God has used a global pandemic to blow the 3 B’s to bits?

“Blowing up the 3 B’s” – Trevin Wax
A provocative perspective to be sure, but as it relates to the pandemic, a question I have been asking here for nearly two months. As it relates to God’s scriptural ordering of His ecclesia, a question I have been asking here since 2014. If I could tweak Mr. Wax’s thesis question, “What if, now, God has used a global pandemic to show us that His church was never meant to be about metrics in the first place; that bodies, buildings, and budgets have become equated to mean church. What if the actual emphasis was simply the fellowship of believers with the Father through the Son by the Spirit for mutual edification to the glory of God?”

As Wax continues, he offers his assessment that “the 3 B’s have been blown up, leaving church leaders disoriented.” I concur and have said as much, the virus left most leaders scrambling to figure out how to respond, with the majority settling into some sort of virtual alternative. An extended quote from Wax is below:
Maybe this sense of disorientation is a hidden gift from the Lord. Perhaps we’ve relied too long on numbers in order to judge our success, and we’ve not paid attention to aspects of discipleship that we can’t easily quantify. Surely it was a mistake to assume that a church is faithful if the pastors keep gathering the same or a growing number of bodies in one building to hear one message, as if pastoral communication is the end-all of church success, without much emphasis on the connections taking place between members throughout the week. Surely something is wrong when church members are apt to notice a dip in offerings faster than they take note of an empty baptistery. “Blowing up the 3 B’s” – Trevin Wax
In the latter half of the article, Wax offers some ways in which evangelical churches might, “rethink the ways in which we measure congregational health.” Without actually prescribing a path forward, Wax begins offering his own metrics, but one cannot help but recognize that these suggestions are simply different angles of getting to the bodies metric and as we’ve seen that inherently leads to the building metric, the budget metric, etc. In our examination of Acts, one of the purposes is to learn what the original focus and emphasis was actually on. As we’ve seen already, it’s clear not one single person was interested in church-owned property. In fact even the property they individually had was often sold in order to provide for their brothers and sisters in need. Nevertheless, even though Wax does not provide a prescription (Rx), nor does he argue for a return to Scripture to understand how Christ builds His church, perhaps by observing how God has used this pandemic, he is closer to recognizing the disease.

In the second post, Russell Moore is also attempting to analyze the situation and provide perspective on the path forward. However, he does so in a way that resembles more of trying to return to where we were, rather than considering if our ways need reformed. In an article titled, “When Will Your Church Be Back to Normal?” Moore has essentially outlined his thesis and desire to get things back to the good old days. Again, this is the second primary response to the crisis and is going to be where the majority will land. But majority does not always mean correct. As Moore’s article develops, it’s clear that he emotionally longs for the good old days, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing and could in some respects be akin to the elders of Jerusalem mourning at the sight of the rebuilt temple that paled in comparison to Solomon’s.

Moore sets up the questions he will attempt to answer
Watching thousands die every week, and thousands more lose their jobs, is a horrifying reality in this time of plague. Behind that is the malaise all around the world of the necessary social distancing and the disconnection that comes with it. For those of us who follow Jesus, the worst of these necessities has been the loss of the ability to gather together for worship. Many are thus asking, “How long will this go on? How long until we get back to normal?”  “When Will Your Church Be Back to Normal?” – Russell Moore
Moore perhaps is representative of the popular sentiment concerning the pandemic, however his summary statement represents a fundamental disconnect concerning the nature of Christian gatherings, along with the relationship of these gatherings to the State, “For those of us who follow Jesus, the worst of these necessities has been the loss of the ability to gather together for worship.” Without diving into a tangent topic, one must deliberately ask, Should anything prevent the gathering of believers? Does the State have a say in when or how Christian gatherings take place?

As Moore proceeds, he readily admits that neither he nor anyone else knows exactly when or if Christian gatherings will return to normal, though he does point out this will take time. Perhaps revealing his penchant to delve into political overtones, Moore offers the following
Despite the caricatures, the vast majority of American Christians has [sic] not only complied with health and civic recommendations, but has been out in front of such recommendations.
Again, Moore’s synopsis begs the age-old question, “What hath the emperor to do with the Church?” Here, Moore shifts to the positives found during the crisis as he highlights the ways that believers have creatively served and ministered, most notably with the dramatic rise of online/virtual services. While I have been critical of the online streaming response as a suitable long-term alternative, I readily admit that it was simply trying to make the best of a bad, unexpected situation.

As the article continues, Moore offers some perspective on how things will be different as they continue to migrate back to normal. Perhaps this might best be summarized as a transition out of the mandated quarantine and into church as we have come to know it. Each of these observations, which really are speculations, represent Moore’s desire to maintain the status quo, only to shift how that looks given the pandemic. For instance, he surmises that we will have to have adequate spacing, until a vaccine is developed (that is a whole other blog post), maintaining connectedness with the elderly who cannot return, the removal of ‘greeting your neighbor’, installing ushers, limiting bathroom accessibility, etc. If one pauses to consider Moore in light of what we just read from Trevin Wax, it becomes apparent that Moore is considering how to return to the Bodies, Buildings, and Budgets model, only that it may look different.

Before wrapping up the article, Moore nobly calls on believers to pray for their pastors as they exercise both wisdom and prudence in deciding when and how best to return. This is an admirable call, but one wonders whether the when and how of the gathering ought to be determined by the congregation. Perhaps the collective wisdom of the body, acting as one, may provide even more prudential decisions than that of a few. As with Wax, so too here with Moore there is simply no offering to return to Scripture to see if God’s Word might have something to say regarding the response. There is no appeal to repent, let alone to reform.

As we move forward, there will be more responses from evangelicals on how to return or what it should look like. There will likely be legion responses on lessons learned. One can only hope that should the future responses travel down one of these two paths of either reform or return, Scripture will be invoked as the only authority and guide.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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