The following post was originally published on Matthew Burkholder’s blog.
If you’re like me, you cannot wait to worship in a church full of people again. Each lockdown Sunday, I am reminded of the privilege we experienced when worshipping together in person. To think that many Christians throughout history have had to worship in secret for fear of government persecution puts into perspective how privileged we are in the Western world. Many of us have wisely put that privilege aside to obey our government for the well-being of our neighbours. We are sacrificing the beauty of the physical gathering of the church and have a small taste of living our faith in isolation. More privileged still, however, we have offset that isolation with technology that previous generations and many Christians today lack. When lockdowns are lifted, we will once again gather in person with our masks off, singing praises together as a family.
However, what concerns me most is the nature of that future gathering. I’m going to be blunt. Many Christians have failed as shepherds, blatantly made the ‘gospel’ political, equivocated our situation with genuine persecution, bought into conspiracy theories, become combative with other believers, demonstrated ignorance of science, spread warped theology, mocked other church leaders, discouraged solutions to the pandemic, and shown a severe callousness to the vulnerable. And they have done so very publicly on social media. We know now the inner delusions of countless Christians, and many of them will be showing up to our buildings to worship very soon. These Christians are engaged in a culture war where the perspective of kingdom living is profoundly blurred, and when this war’s damage is assessed after the pandemic, the casualty list is going to be severe.
Evangelicalism, the tradition mostly heralding these ideas, will likely suffer an increasing loss of influence and respect in our society–a badge of honour for many evangelicals as they are convinced their neighbours are, of course, their enemies. Make no mistake about it; an evangelical “culture war” is nothing but a symbolic war on humanity, a destructive and detestable belief that all things outside the explicit boundary of evangelical sub-culture are evil. It exposes a diminished view of the omnipresence of the Holy Spirit, the sovereignty and grace of God, and God’s love for all humanity. That many in the broader evangelical church feel comfortable engaging in hostility against the very people we are called to serve is a testimony to how lost many are in the script of the Christian faith. Ironically, this culture war has its own compelled speech and behaviour code-talk like us, look like us, act like us, think like us–or you’re out. And out many will be. Evangelisms will undoubtedly experience an Exodus. So many have already made their way to the outskirts of the tent, and now is a time many of us are asking the question: “Why am I still here?”
It’s a question that emerges in response to beliefs modern evangelicalism has gotten very wrong: sexual orientation is a choice, evolution and faith are in conflict, abortion is the only moral cause of our age, the kingdom is right-wing, racism is not systemic, and capitalism is divinely ordained.
When the doors to evangelical churches open again, many simply aren’t coming back even to the best and brightest examples of what our loving communities can be. People are fed up, and quite frankly, I don’t blame them. COVID has merely exposed a myth that has long been eating away at the root of the evangelical tradition, the belief in our supremacy-supremacy in all things no matter how ill-equipped we are to engage in them. And if you want to expose this flaw, witness many evangelicals rally against vaccines with irrational nonsense during a health pandemic that has claimed the lives of millions. The ineptness of their intellect is clear and yet they are convinced they are an enlightened and chosen group, even receiving special instruction directly from God. That they are more cult-like than Christ-like is lost on them.
How then can we worship together?
To begin, we must once again buy into the actual evangelical gospel. Not the culture-war-win-at-all-costs gospel, but the gospel that heralds spiritual victory via sacrifice. The kind of gospel that expects us to pick up our cross and follow Christ into places otherwise abandoned by society. As our churches sit empty, now is the time to consider what kind of people we want to be sitting in our chairs when we return. The draw of evangelicalism has historically been its appeal to God’s work in the lives of all humanity regardless of one’s standing in society. It was a religious movement for the average person because the Holy Spirit is within reach of anyone. It took social concerns seriously because it recognized the devastating effect of sin in the world. Many fought against slavery, and no doubt would be embarrassed by any generation of evangelicals who mocked social justice. Initially, many evangelical churches like the Methodists, the African Methodists, the Freewill Baptists, and the Christian Connection empowered women to preach the gospel, believing again that the Holy Spirit does not discriminate.
We must once again recover this conviction in a gospel from and for the margins. If we are going to lose people because of something offensive, let us lose people offended by their sense of self-righteousness. If we stay committed to the evangelical supremacy myth, we deserve extinction. Ask yourself: Are those who are weaponizing COVID in your community also the exclusionary and self-righteous group that has caused your community distress in the past? What made the gospel of the New Testament so radical was that it bypassed the traditional religious encounter with God (through the temple and personal holiness). There will always be groups among us who cannot handle the loss of security these institutions and behaviours provide. In the New Testament, it was the Pharisees. In our context, it appears to be a small group of evangelical pastors and Christians who believe that we must go through them to meet God.
It is high time we start treating worship for what it is–a sacrament. Evangelical churches can no longer afford to have a bankrupt view of who we are and what we are doing when we worship. We have created an entirely flipped culture of worship that has taken root in everything we do-from our singing, prayer, music, preaching, and sadly, even in observing baptism and the Lord’s Table. We have created a culture wherein worship is primarily something we do for God and others. It is no wonder we have felt free to turn the church into a mechanism of other human activity such as politics. No–worship is something that God does for us and in us. Instead, we participate in and respond to God’s saving activity in the world when we worship. Baptism is the Spirit moving to seal us, and the Table is Christ meeting to transform us.
You might be asking, what does this have to do with gathering again to worship? First, we need to remember that the church is more profound than the individual components that make up its body. As tricky as it likely will be to worship again with certain people, we are not there to connect with one part but the whole, and that whole is the physical body of Christ. Of course, human relationships are essential, but there is specific liberty in knowing that no one wayward part of the body will rob me of encountering Christ when I worship.
When we approach worship sacramentally, we rebel against the notion that anyone stands between Christ and us. The focus instead becomes on transforming the lives of the community. Many modern worship leaders must repent of reviving and modifying the old error of late medieval Catholic theology-that a priest stands between the church community and God. Our worship is not transforming specific individuals to consider others before themselves. The time for reform is now.
Finally, embody grace. The grace that was demonstrated on the cross of Christ was meant to show its extreme difficulty. Grace is not effortless. I hope that our churches will be more committed to the great gospel and sacramental worship when we return and that in doing so, those loud, unchanging and irrelevant voices will move along, knowing they won’t find a home here anymore. I might be too optimistic, but I honestly believe a large group of us are committed to reshaping our tradition for the better despite the loud delusional voices and that some of the detractors can change. However, I believe that grace is the mechanism for that change. A liberating gospel must free both the oppressor and the oppressed, and we must learn to navigate as reconcilers between two very different groups of people. This is going to be extremely difficult. The group of people causing significant harm has constructed justifications and echo chambers seemingly impenetrable by reason and Christian morality.
In my church, we practise open communion like many other evangelicals churches. It’s a radical claim and one that introduces tension into the structure of our community. Why? Because it says, all are welcome. Regardless, the Christian community–Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, Mainline–will always have radical outliers from within. It sounds cliché, but we will have to grapple with detracting and harmful voices irrespective of where we end up, even if we end up worshipping alone. If there is one lesson to learn in all of this, it is that as voices narrow they become more prideful and exclusivist-and what is more narrow than a voice of one? No, the world of which we are a part is fallen and our voices imperfect. When we come back, however, I will do everything in my power to make the gospel the loudest voice of them all.