Has COVID-19 Made 9Marks Raise the White Flag on Multi-Site and Multi-Service Churches?
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Should COVID-19 quarantines and governmental restrictions on church gatherings impact how we view the nature of a church and whether or not multiple services or sites are permissible?
This question becomes especially germane with the talk of our cities opening back up. Suppose your church has hundred members, and your state says fifty people can now gather. Do you begin to meet again by dividing the church between two or three services?
CHRIST’S CHURCH DOESN’T CHANGE
A number of friends have put some version of this question to me in recent days. They know that my new book, One Assembly, argues against the multisite and service structure. I believe the Bible teaches that a group of Christians must gather regularly to be a church. Which means your 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services are both churches, as are your north and south campuses, at least as the Bible views them.
Yet here we are with many “churches” presently “meeting” through Zoom calls or holding “services” through livestream. Does that make me reconsider what I wrote in One Assembly? Do these circumstances change the nature of the church?
Not at all. A church is whatever the Bible says it is. The commentators might breathlessly declare, “This pandemic will permanently change the way the world works—business, education, international trade, being good neighbors, even handshakes!”
But don’t get swept up in the hype. Jesus isn’t watching the COVID-19 outbreak from heaven, scratching his head, and thinking, “Well, now that changes things.” The nature of the church remains unchanged even in extraordinary times: assembly required. Exceptional circumstances don’t change that.
Our present moment might better be likened to the church having a broken ankle. The broken ankle is still an ankle. The challenge is simply to figure out how to hobble on it.
On the matter of hobbling along then, am I saying a church should never move to multiple services or sites in extraordinary times? In fact, I think a church can use more than one service or site in such times temporarily. And the key word there is “temporarily.”
NATURE OF THE CHURCH, NECESSITY OF THE GATHERING
Lest you think I’m contradicting myself, let’s back up and think about how the New Testament uses the word “church.” I’ll start with an analogy. In the book One Assembly, I argue the NT uses the word “church” like people today use the word “team.” The Washington Nationals baseball team, for instance, has to gather and play in order to be a team. That said, we can still refer to the team as a team even when they’re not gathered to play, as when we say, “The team drove in separate cars to Nats Park.” In other words, we can use the word team to refer both to the people-gathered-to-play or to the people-characterized-by-gathering.
Furthermore, applying that to this present moment, we would not say that the Nats (2019 World Series champions, by the way) are no longer a team because they are presently barred from playing by the pandemic. They’re still a team. We would just say they are going through an extraordinary time. That said, the longer they cannot play, the rustier they will get as a team. And were the quarantine to last, say, five years, it would be difficult to envision how there would be much of a team left.
To turn to the church then: I’m not going to show you all my biblical homework here—see One Assembly—but I do believe that the New Testament uses the word church in this same way. It can refer to either the gathering of the people or to the people characterized by gathering. For instance, Paul can say to the Corinthians, “When you come together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18), referring to the gathering of the people. Or he can say, “To the church of God that is in Corinth” (1:2), referring to the people characterized by regularly gathering (see 1 Cor. 5:4; 11:18, 33; 14:23; Rom. 16:23).
In other words, a group of Christians becomes a church, in part, by regularly gathering together. Yet having so identified themselves, we can continue to refer to those members as a “church” even when they’re not gathered. Again, like a “team.”
Which means, our churches are still churches even though they’re not presently gathered, as with the Washington Nationals. That said, the accumulating impact of not gathering, over time, demonstrates how essential the gathering ultimately is. Little by little, relationships in a congregation grow more distant. Their shared life and development diminishes. And eventually—imagine them five years down the line—the fact that they call themselves a church means very little.
EXTRAORDINARY TIMES & EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES
Now let’s return to the multiple services or sites question. Here I basically want to say, extraordinary seasons allow for extraordinary measures, so long as we recognize those seasons as extraordinary, exceptional, atypical, irregular. When the ankle is broken, you put a cast on and walk with a crutch. You don’t want to live permanently with that cast and crutch, but they’re helpful for a little while.
Think again of the Nationals. Maybe they’re spending more time in batting cages or practicing hitting and fielding without anyone running bases. Maybe coaching occurs through Zoom calls. Maybe they would even divide the team in half for a few months if that helped them for one reason or another. I don’t know. The point is, we all understand how such temporary accommodations could be temporarily useful without undermining the integrity of the “team.”
I believe the Bible also allows for such temporary provisions in a church’s order and life in extraordinary moments. For instance, we should ordinarily baptize people in the gathered assembly of the church, as the combination of Matthew 18:20 and 28:19-20 teaches and the precedent of Acts 2:41 illustrates. Yet in Acts 8 we find something exceptional. The Holy Spirit plops Philip down in the middle of a desert, where he finds himself with an Ethiopian eunuch who professes the gospel and asks to be baptized. No church is in site, but Philip baptizes him.
Likewise, I wasn’t thinking of a pandemic when writing One Assembly, but I did offer this illustration: Suppose a church building burns down, and, while rebuilding, the congregation meets for a year in a smaller structure that divides them in half. I’d be happy to continue affirming them as one church, at least for a limited season (see page 110).
WISE & LESS WISE ACCOMMODATIONS
That said, I do think the pastors in this burned-down-church situation should consider the wise and less wise ways of making accommodations. After all, they wouldn’t want to teach their members bad lessons or cause them to develop bad ecclesial habits.
Therefore, the elders might encourage people to pick one of the two (or more) services (or sites) and commit to it for the year. They might divide the elders between the services. They might use different preachers in each. Frankly, those separate congregations might even make independent member and elder decisions for the space of that year. In effect, they would act like two separate churches for that year, knowing they would unite again and accept one another’s membership decisions when they returned to the new building.
Why? Because they want to do everything they can to help the church remember that a church is a gathering of Christians who have covenanted together to help each other follow Jesus. And the weekly gathering is like the family dinner table, where we look around and think, “These are the ones I’m committed to all week.” So even though the church is temporarily divided, the pastors should look for ways to teach and model the right things. This would even want to think carefully about the language they use at the start of services. Maybe they say, “Welcome to this gathering of half our church! Sorry for the temporary disruption.”
The goal in all of our accommodations, in other words, is to stay as close to the biblical model and to always point people back to it.
In short, there’s a difference between short-term accommodations and permanent structures, I argue in One Assembly (see page 123). Short-term accommodations don’t redefine what a church is (like a broken ankle doesn’t redefine an ankle). And you don’t want to build a church on the short-term accommodations. But you can make temporary use of them. A refugee might be happy to live in a tent for a week, less happy to do so for a decade.
For that reason, if a presently quarantined church has the opportunity to begin gathering again, but only in parts, I believe the New Testament leaves it able to do so. That said, look for ways to limit the bad lessons and highlight the good ones.