A frost lay heavy on the ground here this morning. After a longer-than-normal season of blooming plants, short sleeves and green grass, a sudden cold snap arrived. My grandfather would call it a “killin’ frost.” It will likely bring an end to many of the weeds that we combat regularly; ice will clear a field as surely as fire.
Though the seasonal temperatures have begun to drop to the lower ranges, the American church has seen a period of spiritual “hard freezes.” Estimates vary, but the sobering statistics as a whole should not be ignored. 1 in 5 churches may close their doors permanently due to the hardships of COVID-19. 20-30% of those who stopped attending church during the pandemic might not return when in-person services become the norm again. Add to these stressors the heightened negativity and decreasing involvement of some members, and you have a volatile mix at best. Spiritual complacency is more dangerous than a physical virus.
I thought about these realities this past Sunday. We began meeting again in person after a long period of online-only services, then decided to return to virtual services for a short time due to an outbreak in our local community. Sunday was our first service back as a church family in a couple of weeks. The number of people in attendance on Sunday morning was around the anticipated amount, and many familiar faces were present.
Our Sunday evenings consist of meeting times for small groups, programs for children and students and a prayer service. When I walked through the doors for our prayer time, apart from a couple of staff members, there were only two people in the room. Our other ministries had a similar low attendance that night. Thanksgiving weekend, COVID fears, a dislike of masks, a cold, rainy evening and months of sporadic involvement all funneled into a single moment.
As I stood there, leading that half-handful of the faithful in prayer, I could not help but think of a quote from John Onwuchekwa’s book on prayer:
I know the idea of a prayer meeting doesn’t sound very glamorous. The trouble is churches and pastors feel the pressure of innovation constantly. Our society is obsessed with innovation, so the common and plain are regularly devalued. People want something fresh, new, and exciting. Pastors like me are tempted to think we need to create exciting events that people will want to attend. Yet prayer meetings are seldom exciting. People come into a room, share their burdens with each other, and together take them before God with eyes closed and heads bowed.
The truth is, we don’t need to innovate. We only need to be intentional. The prayer meeting isn’t meant to be a theme park. It’s more like a storage facility, and we are all cars without trunks. We were never meant to store up our concerns within ourselves. We were meant to off-load those things to God. The prayer meeting isn’t a place of attraction, but a place of necessity.
A consistently well-attended church prayer time is hard to find, even without a pandemic. It’s where the real battle occurs; that is one reason why it is not as popular as other events: warriors are always few. Though the vast majority of members have been supportive, encouraging and highly adaptable, the last few months have been especially revealing as people have grown weary of the fight and dropped their guard, not only in prayer, but in every other facet of church life.
I have heard people complain angrily that wearing a mask is contributing to a conspiracy, and others stated that failing to wear a mask is borderline attempted murder. A church member contacted me in want of a never-ending political commentary from the pulpit. Others voiced concerns that we were praying for all leaders, including those we did not agree with or support. Some people did not like (or chose to neglect every opportunity for) meeting online with our Bible study groups and our virtual worship time, and others were strongly opposed with restarting in-person services again. Under the pressures of the moment, a couple of people revealed deep-set opposition to our mission, vision and strategy, and thus showed that they won’t be walking alongside us as God works here in the future. Individuals who wrestled with slow changes in times past now faced the difficult necessity of adapting rapidly to the changes required by shifting circumstances.
During this time, we lost some people who decided the way we approached this crisis was not to their liking. Some faded slowly, some found other churches and others just gave up on church altogether. One can’t help but hear the echo of Jesus’ words in these moments: “The love of many will grow cold…” (Matthew 24:12). Through all these ups and downs, I kept thinking, “If the American church cannot navigate a pandemic, it will never endure persecution.” You will never know how much fight you have left in you until something tries to take the fight out of you. This is just a stretching session that has revealed just how stiff and immobile we have become. It’s the warm-up before the game. If the trial run breaks you, what will happen on race day? Or, in the words of Jeremiah, “If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?” (12:5).
After our prayer time ended on Sunday evening, and everyone bundled up to head home, I walked outside and stood looking to the western sky. Night had already fallen, and the wind whipped the cold, stinging rain across my face and across the barren parking lot. I thought back to how things were last year at this time and the consistent involvement of those attending then.
It was right about this time that the solo invitation to the emotional wallow arrived in my mental mailbox. “Pity cordially invites you alone to attend a celebration in honor of all the things you probably did wrong. Please indicate your choice of entrée: cold comfort, humble pie or crow.”
But upon the heels on that thought came another voice, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much…” (Luke 16:10a).
Pondering this, another thought emerged: if one has been faithful in much, should not that same person be faithful when presented again with the very little? Faithfulness is just faithfulness; only the circumstances to which it is applied change. The ultimate audience of our faithfulness never grows or shrinks; it is always for God alone.
Faithfulness is being able to say, “This is the right response to God’s truth. This is how I will follow him, regardless of how others might respond (and regardless of how I might feel).” Fear says, “How others respond will determine if this is the right thing.” The lack of faithfulness in others must never shake our own faithfulness. The fear-based approach is rooted in customer satisfaction instead of warrior building.
We can easily tailor our churches to consumer comfort instead of spiritual challenge. We begin to think more like business owners and less like shepherds. We try to create an experience instead of introducing people to the living God. We view the crowd as irrefutable evidence of God’s approval, and we despise the “day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10). When we approach worship with the mindset of a consumer, we become the ones who must be pleased and served by God instead of the other way around; this leads only to deeper discontent. As N. Allan Moseley reminds us, “Those whose goal is to please the self are never fully satisfied.” Yet we still try to force others to please us, and we still demand that all things bow to our idol of expectation.
The pandemic has challenged and overturned many of our ideas of how church “must be.” In his article “If You Can’t Be With the Church You Love, Love the Church You’re With,” Jared Wilson relates:
Our preferences are important, but they are not sacred. They are not laws. Disappointing us is not a sin. Too many Christians join a church with a kind of relational legalism in play — I’ll attend, I’ll give, I’ll participate so long as you never challenge me, correct me, or disappoint me. In such cases, the object of worship is not the God who calls us through self-denial to sacrificial love of each other but is actually ourselves. Don’t deify your preferences. Don’t idolize your comfort. Maybe you can’t experience church exactly the way you want to right now. But what if the experience of church isn’t supposed to be all about you? What if it’s more about glorifying God through loving others, even denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus into service of others for His sake?
If we view the life of faith as more of a transaction than a transformation, we will see everything spiritual as being up for negotiation. Faithfulness alone will cease to be the goal; the target will become being faithful in little so that we can get more. We will care less about being “faithful in much” and focus solely upon the “much.” We will desire the gifts over the Giver.
Perhaps, for the consumer church culture, this season is the most-needed gift. It’s a cold rain and a killin’ frost that strips away everything that does not endure.
Back to the wet, windswept parking lot…
As these thoughts stirred in my heart and my spirit, I considered the reality of the evening: God was pleased with the faithfulness of this church staff. We ministered deeply to a small number of people, and God was with us as we prayed, studied and talked with each other. We did what God called us to do: to serve as Christ did, whether to many or few.
If we are faithful with much, we should be faithful with little.