A Time to be Silent
"What can we do?"
As a Pastor, and one of the leaders here at Diamond Hill, when the Covid-19 pandemic prompted recomendations and later orders from our Governor Roy Cooper regarding "Social Distancing" and support of the Federal recommendations suspending gatherings of first, more than 50 persons, and later of 10, our church leadership, like those of practically every other church in America, immediately began discussions about how the church could continue the centuries long tradition of the Church's gathering for worship. For many of us, the prospect of merely ceasing the activity without any efforts at continuing it, runs against the grain of what's in the "DNA" of most everyone in vocational and even voluntary ministry! After all, of all Christians, we are first hand witnesses of what we would identify as a growing indifference or complacency about church attendance among professing Christians and local church members. How often we've pleaded with our members about the importance of "not forsaking the assembling of themselves!" (Hebrews 10:25) It was almost unthinkable to simply resign ourselves to a month long or more absence of members from their place of worship. The desire to provide some substitute or fill in for that suspended Sunday gathering was almost instinctive! I felt the impulse! Perhaps, as one having long been suspicious of my "instincts," aware that they are too often guided by "fleshly" impulses, I tried to pause before drawing any conclusions! In the pause, and while observing the courses of action taken by so many of my contemporaries, I was made uneasy by my observation that in almost every case, the discussions revolved around the question "What should we do?" In fact, unto the present time, I have yet to have read or heard the question, "Should we do it?" The answer to this question, seemed to have been a foregone conclusion yet I could find it asked nowhere. The internet articles and available resources abounded with how to conduct online, live-streaming of worship services, or how to organize and carry out "Drive-In" Worship services. But still, no articles asking or discussing wether or not we "should" do these things; no apparent theological consideration or examination as to whether these things or any other alternatives would be consistent with Biblical truth.
Foundational to the question "Should we" must be a consideration of the nature and character of God. In the current circumstances....the Power and Providence of God must be an uncompromised conviction that any answer should take into account. Whatever decisions we make, must reflect this great reality. The Psalmist writes of his God "...all things are your servants!" (Psalm 119:91) He speaks directly of the heavens and the earth, but he expands upon these by concluding the verse with "all things." In other words, not only do the heavens and the earth serve the purposes and plans of God, but also everything, in every place, at every time, is serving those same purposes. In (Job 38-42) God leaves no doubt as to His universal power and providence! Carrying this truth into our present circumstances; The Corona Virus, mysterious though its role may be, is serving the purposes of God. As are those working around the clock to mitigate the suffering brought on by the virus. As are those ordained of God to govern during this time. In the larger discussion here, the argument might be made that so also are those who are "Live-Streaming worship services" and providing "Drive-In worship" services. This is true, however man, unlike viruses and hurricanes and earthquakes, is a moral agent, created in the image of God and accountable to God for the nature of his "service!" He is responsible! Both Peter and Judas served the purposes of God, but each had a very different kind of service and each was held accountable for that service. So while those who live stream and those who provide drive-ins and those who do nothing, all, in the providence of God are serving His purposes, each must someday give an account for the decisons he or she made in regards to that service. We cannot simply do as we're inclined to do instinctively or impulsively and rely upon the fact that what we chose to do, "served the purposes of God" no matter whether it was or wasn't consistent with His nature or the truth of His Word! Neither right choices nor wrong choices, thwart the purposes of God! They merely demonstrate what the nature of our instrumentailty is. This is what it means for God to be The Absolute Sovereign! This is what it means when it's said that "all things are His servants!"
The Purpose of God?
So then, if all things are serving His purposes, and since men are accountable to God for every decision, in answering the question "should we..." we must also consider what the purposes of God are.....or perhaps to what one great purpose do all things serve God? The witness of Scripture overwhelmingly indicates that this ultimate purpose of God is the display of His glory! Consider among these the folowing:
(Isaiah 42:8) "I am the Lord, that is My Name; I will not give my glory to another, nor My praise to graven images."
(Isaiah 48:11) "For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act. For how can My Name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another."
(1 Corinthians 10:31) "Whether then you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."
(Romans 11:36) "For from Him and through Him, and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen"
(Romans 9:22-24) "What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles."
(Ephesians 1:9-14) "He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him (Jesus) with a view to an administration suitable to the fulness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also, we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation - having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God's own possession, to the praise of His glory!"
There are many others, but perhaps these are sufficient to demonstrate that whatever the hand of Providence brings, it is to this great end; that the Glory of God might be displayed.
What we Know!
In light of the question posed before...."Should we.." We now have two foundational realities from the Scriptures upon which to answer or at least attempt to answer that question.
1. ALL THINGS are serving God's purposes.
2. God's unltimate purpose is to make His glory known.
To summarize: All things, including the Corona Virus and every thing associated with it are serving to make known the glory of God.
So when we ask, "Should we" do this or that, we must also ask if that "thing" which we propose to do will lend itself most fully to the display of the glory of God?
I use the term "most fully" simply because there may be a number of things that would lend themselves to this great end in which case, given an option of only one, we would want to choose that thing which is most glorifying to God.
What Then Should we do?
With the obvious creativity we see in America's relgious community and the premium we seem to have placed upon it in the church today, the options for "what" to do in the present Corona Virus environment are not sparing. To decide which option we might choose of the many alternatives is itself, a difficult proposition, but for the purpose of this post, I want to consider the two most common alternatives offered to the normal gathering of the church for worship. The first:
Online, live streaming - While on the surface, this would seem to have some potential for glorifying God, a closer consideration of the practice raises some concerns, not so much about the format, but more about the underlying implications of the order and content. Particularly concerning are two aspects of the practice. First, many if not most of these Live Streams seem to attempt to duplicate what usually happens at their church on a normal Sunday. The order is the same; a welcome and opening prayer, a song or two, a word about giving or announcments, another song or two, then the preaching, and a closing prayer. The concern here is; "should we be attempting to replicate the worship of the Body of Christ when they gather together?" Do we really want to suggest by our content and order in Live Streams that what the members are viewing digitally is the same, or even similar to what they experience when the Body is together for worship? It's commendable that those who choose this option honestly desire that members watching online, will find encouragement and experience worship in much the same way as they would at the normal church gatherings, but as commendable as that is, I'm not convinced that for them to do so through a digital format is profitable for their long-term spiritual maturity since it suggests that the worship experience...even the essence of Christian worship itself can be experienced in full, remotely and apart from the gathering of the Body. If this is true, it would not seem to be the "Most" likely to display for them the Glory of God. Secondly.....It could potentially reinforce in the thinking of watching members the false notion that worship is a spectator experience. That worship is defined and determined by what's happening on the stage or up front and not also by what takes place in the hearts and minds of those gathered there for worship! This is a particularly sobering threat to the church today when we so often see in church gathering places multi-colored lighted stages, with darkened auditoriums and "Praise Teams." With environments such as these which draw attendants attention to the platform, I'm concerned that Live Streaming as a subsitute for the gathering of the church, only reinforces an unhealthy view of worship and what is to be the central focus of that worship....Our Lord Jesus. It is this potential that compels me to ask if this alternative to our normal gathering for worship is a wise choice as a means to display the glory of God. If we determine that it is however, is it the "most" advantageous for the display of God's glory?
The second most common alternative to our normal worship gatherings was;
Drive-In (up) Church. While this alternative struck me initially as a novelty of sorts, in my research, I discovered that it was likely first practiced and advocated in 1955 by Robert Schuller, former founder and pastor of the Crystal Cathedral. Apparently Mr. Schuller set up a service at a Drive In Theater where attendants would remain in their cars, and be given the old speakers that some of you will remember, hung over the edge of your partly opened window glass. It was said that Mr. Schuller not only conducted these services but was a champion for expanding the practice nationwide.
"Churches Reconsider Drive-In Worship" christianitytoday.com
A&E Biography Robert Schuller (Youtube)
Interestingly, the practice was overwhelmingly disregarded by most churches across America as, "silly." Whatever one may think of Mr. Schuller's efforts and ministry, the idea of an existing church holding a "drive-in" worship service was certainly unusual, and apparently quite exciting in the midst of our curent circumstances with the Corona Virus. Certainly not apparently considered by many as "silly."
Apart from the questionable origins of the idea of "Drive-In Worship" services and while the practice shares some of the same concerning characteristics of the Live Stream Worship Services, there are additional concerns for me as well. One of these rests in the nature of automobiles and automobile ownership in America. Aside from perhaps our choices of clothing styles, nothing exemplifies human autonomy quite like our automobiles! The markets appeal to our self-preceptions. They play upon some inherent idea within our being that a certain automobile is "Us" or who we aspire to be! From our teen years the Automobile represents our freedom! It's the gateway to prosperity, entertainment, adventure, and unlimited horizons. We adorn them and customize them according to our own tastes, we even give them names! We make a statement with them about who we are and where we're going and what we value. With a car we become literally "self-movers" To combine the automobile, with all its humanistic connotations, with the idea of Worship seems to to me an incompatible combination. There are two competing ideas within the combination. The one, Worship, calls for humility and a recognition of the greatness of God and the complete and utter insignificance of man in his own strength; the crying out for and rejoicing in mercy! The other is itself a public symbol of human autonomy and strength and ability. Nothing says "Human" like the automobile! Yet with the Drive-In Worship service, we are asked to bring these two contradictory notions into some sort of temporary harmony. We're to relax in the comfort of our heated or cooled vehicles, perhaps in sweats or pajamas, with our latte near at hand in our convenient cup holder, while contemplating the glorious God in who's presence Moses was commanded to remove the sandals from his feet. The God before whom the Prophet Isaiah found himself prostrate, crying out "Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips..." (Isaiah 6:5) Akin to this, we are safe and secure in our Automobiles. As dangerous as driving is, still with our restraints, lane and backup cameras, alert icons and sensors monitoring every aspect of engine operation....we're as secure as we can be. Add to that a well practiced feel for the handling and braking, and we feel nearly as secure in our cars as we do in our homes. One has to wonder if it would even be possible to seriously contemplate the fear of God in such a comfortable space; To tremble at the sense of one's precarious condition before God but for His mercy and the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Honk if you Love Jesus?
The lightheartedness and perhaps lack of solemnity before God was magnified by one participants video recording of their Drive-In Church experience where following the ministers prayer, there was a spontaneous erruption and cacophany of horn blowing and the same spontaneity following a soloist's selection. Perhaps it was an"amen" or perhaps it was an "applause." What it likely wasn't, was a sober response from contrite hearts pierced by a sense of their wretchedness and the Glory of God.
I can appreciate the need for social distancing, but if the experience of the presence of God is real, one would imagine that stepping out from the comfort of one's automobile even for a moment, would become almost instinctive.
I apologize to my brothers and sisters if my tone seems harsh, but this "Alternative" worship option is for me the most disturbing of all. My Jesus is far to glorious and precious for such seemingly flippant and casual consideration. Especially so as we enter into Holy Week where the Cross looms large! It's hard for me to imagine that this alternative worship option could ever lend itself toward displaying the greatness and majesty of our God, rather I worry that it could actually obscure that glory!
An Overlooked Alternative?
There is another alternative to our normal gathering for worship although it seems in large part to have been overlooked and it is this; Accept the providence of God in silencing the worship of the corporate church for a time. Let God move by His spirit in the hearts of believers as they reflect upon how their private and family worship, blessed as it is, is very much different than the worship of the Body of Christ when we are together. Mediate upon the ordinances and what each says, not only about our union with Christ, but also our union with one another. Gather your family together, and acknowledge the providence and wisdom of God in your absence from the church house and ask with earnest what stubborness of heart and mind and spirit He would expose in you. Let you heart sorrow and grieve freely over the temporary loss of that sweet fellowship of the church worshipping together. Let the Spirit of God restore a love in your heart for that brother or sister in your fellowship who offended you five years ago and whom you've not forgiven. Embrace your family! Appreciate them! Thank God for them, and tell them of your love for "that other family" down at the church, the longing for whom is making your hearts sad! With tears, remember all the times you've opted to sleep in, or spend the day out on the deck or on the lake, or hiking that favorite mountain trail somewhere, never imagining that days like these would come when you would long for that Sunday morning alarm clock to go off; when you couldn't get away from home fast enough to make that drive over to the church house; when you would long to see once again the warm smiles and greetings of your brothers and sisters and hear once again the united voices of your spiritual family singing praises to our great God and Lord Jesus Christ and actually mean the words that they sing!
This seems to me the "most" likely alternative by which the true glory of our God might be shone forth in the place most in need of a renewed glimpse...His Church! Perhaps Covid-19 will serve and glorify our God by stirring our hearts anew to the unspeakable joy of being His children and recipients of His mercy through Jesus our Lord!
Our ministry continues at Diamond Hill. We want to know of needs and we want to make every effort to meet those needs. Through every means available to us, we want to encourage you with letters, calls, recorded website devotions, Newsletter articles and info, and with blog posts such as this admittedly more lengthy one. Your Elders and Deacons are here for you and we love you......enough indeed to accept our current circumstances as servants of God to the end that He might make His glory known and loved in our midst! We won't be exciting or dynamic or cutting edge or creative, but we will be praying and waiting anxiously for the day when we can unite again, assured that God's purpose for us at Damond Hill with this Corona Virus has been accomplished!
To Him be the glory forever and ever Amen!