What happens when they’re alone?
This question has been on my mind a lot lately as the church races to adapt to the stay-at-home requirements of the coronavirus pandemic.
A vast amount of effort and energy is being devoted to maintaining communication between the church organization and leaders and the people who call the church their own. Churches (and people!) are rapidly adapting their regular ways of connecting to digital technology channels and are even creating new ones.
It is all to the good that believers are relearning how precious the church is as their node of connection and community. I sincerely hope that this wave of separation and others that may come before a vaccine is developed will make us value the gathered church more when we can return to it.
At the same time, though, I’m thinking more than ever about the scattered church—the body of believers that we are wherever we are when we aren’t together.
We’ve always been the scattered church, but today it is obvious in a way that it never was before. We do gather over phone and computer screens, but we are the scattered church in essence all the time now as we are continually dispersed in our homes.
So from the perspective of church leadership, I wonder, what happens when they’re alone? I don’t mean living without housemates; I mean living without us. Yes, church leaders are doing everything possible to stay in touch (figuratively). But how are believers living when direct contact with the brick-and-mortar church and their supportive relationships are limited?
What believers do when they’re alone
I take heart in the fact that this is not a new situation. What happened when the saints of Scripture were alone, separated from their normal rhythms and godly reinforcement from their community? I think of Joseph in Potiphar’s house. David on the run. Elijah at the brook. Jeremiah in the guardhouse. Daniel and his companions in Babylon. Esther in the palace. Believers scattered from Jerusalem after Stephen’s martyrdom. Paul in Athens. Even Jesus in the wilderness.
But it isn’t just a phenomenon of biblical times either. I think about when Mao expelled foreign Christian leaders from China and believers were left to figure things out for themselves.
So what did these all faithful ones do when they were alone? The same things they always did, adapted to their new circumstances.
God is concerned for his people’s suffering, but he isn’t concerned about whether his people’s separation from one another will hurt his plan. Quite the contrary. Before Jesus was separated from the Eleven, he assured them that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26 NIV). He later told them, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20 NIV).
We can have confidence that believers will stand strong and even grow in grace when they are apart from us, because they are not apart from the Triune God.
What we’ve been training for
Nevertheless, when Jesus was about to leave the disciples, he had another reason for confidence: he had already been training them how to live like him when he wasn’t around. Everything he taught them and all the practice he had given them—from baptizing people (John 4:2) to preaching, healing, and casting out demons (Luke 9:1)—was aimed at this objective.
So when I think about what happens when they’re alone I’m really wondering, what have we been training them?
Amid the suffering of the pandemic there is a gracious opportunity: for a short time, God is enabling us to see what believers have been trained to do. We’ll see it by how they actually live and what they will be like when we gather again. It’s like getting a stress test from a cardiologist—the patient’s heart rate is driven up so the doctor can examine its true condition.
Whether we knew it or not, this moment is what we’ve been training for.
A gospel-centered life plan makes a difference
Over the last few weeks, I’ve observed that disciples trained in gospel-centered life design have been well-equipped for the COVID-19 disruption. Not that they are immune from sickness, distress, or hurt, but they have the skills and composure to do the same things they always did as followers of Jesus, adapted to their new circumstances.
These believers are convinced that they have the capacity to design their life and the individual responsibility to do so—they aren’t to sit passively as victims of circumstance. But because their life design is gospel-centered, their view of things isn’t marked by hubris, fear, or self-interest. Instead, because of Christ, they shape their lives in a way that is realistic, hopeful, and devoted to serving God and others over self.
I’m seeing people with a gospel-centered life plan:
- Take initiative to stay connected to the church rather than waiting for a staff member’s call
- Offer their abilities right where their church needs them most
- Navigate changes in their job and loss of income
- Maintain and invent rhythms that keep them integrated and balanced in the stress
- Adjust their short-term goal to make the most of the disruption
- Help friends and family process the changes with the tools they have been trained in
Invest in the scattered church
For a short while, in the rush to figure out how to “do church” when everyone is homebound, all the urgent demands on leaders have also been important ones. But that is already changing.
On the back end of Easter, routines will have been laid down and a new normal will be settling in. It’s a grand opportunity to invest in what’s important on the other side of isolation. It’s a time to consider how we will train people to follow Jesus in the return to ordinary life and if it comes to it, in the next wave of separation.
Dave Rhodes and I are presenting a series of webinars on how a gospel-centered life plan—and the skills and tools that come with it—helps followers of Christ to live strong in the faith and share it with others wherever they are, whether we get to be with them or not. We invite you to join us.
Imagine a church that is as strong—or stronger—scattered as it is when it’s gathered. This is our moment to make it: the church’s moment to become a whole-life training center again.