“Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever been really excited about second place? Have you been totally thrilled to be the next-to-best? That’s kind of an awkward question. I mean, on the one hand, second place may feel like a huge victory. But, on the other hand, if you were striving to win, second place can feel like a total letdown. Why am I thinking about this today? Because right now the church is living in second place and we are realizing just how important winning really is. Let me explain.
When all of this mess really started up in earnest about six weeks ago, no one really had a good sense of how long it would last. Some were more optimistic and were counting on being back up and running in a month’s time or so. Others resigned themselves to a long, dreary slog through weeks and weeks of stay-at-home orders. It is dawning on most that the more pessimistic outlook was a bit more in tune with reality. The longer this goes, it will begin to wear on people in different ways which will add an entirely new level of challenge to everything else we are facing.
In the church world, pastors and denominational leaders began immediately to wrestle with what this would all mean for the church. In many ways the church has shined through this season with different ones finding creative, meaningful ways to minister to the needs of their communities with the love of Christ. It is a praiseworthy thing that the first thought of most churches was how they could serve their communities before giving any really serious thought to themselves. That’s what the love of Christ does.
As this season has worn on beyond a month and various ministry efforts have been put in place and have hit their stride, the questions have changed somewhat. We are over the emergency period and are now trying to puzzle through just what exactly we should do with the season we are in. On the one hand, we are blessed beyond measure to have access to the technology that we do. Imagine this happening even ten years ago. There was no Facebook Live then. There was YouTube, but the amount of equipment you needed to be able to stream live to YouTube very well was way beyond what most churches could easily obtain and what many pastors could have mastered. (I went looking online for a webcam the other day with the goal in mind of streaming to YouTube as well as Facebook Live and there’s not a decent one for less than a few hundred dollars you can obtain sooner than a month and forget about picking one up from a store within 50 miles, they’re already all gone.)
More than all the technical solutions and means of staying connected that we have, though, as this season wears on, people are coming to more and more fully realize just how precious the gathering of the saints really is. What I mean is this: Folks are missing church. We are starting to understand in ways we haven’t before why the author of Hebrews commanded the believers in his audience to not neglect to gather together. Indeed, there have not been a few in recent years who have gotten in the habit of doing that very thing. When a better offer has come up, they’ve taken it. The church is always there and so they’ll catch it next week. They’ll just watch online. There are other preachers on TV they can listen to this week.
But now the church isn’t there. Not this week. Not next week. Not the week after that. We’re meeting online and that’s going really well for many churches…but can we be honest enough to acknowledge that’s kind of like celebrating second place?
One of the things we’ve been doing in my church in addition to Facebook Live sermons and Bible studies and Zoom Sunday school groups and the like is to actually get on the phone with our people. In addition to what I suspect is happening throughout our community organically, I’ve set more than a dozen different people (including myself) on making regular, weekly contacts with everyone in the church on the phone. These are just small, quick reminders that they’re loved and missed on a much more personal basis than a Zoom call or livestream, but they’re making a difference. And as I’ve been making my own calls, one of the things I have heard time and time again is that folks are missing their church family. We’re all glad for the technological means we have of staying connected, but we want to be together live and in person.
In other words, as much as it’s nice to be up on the winner’s podium, second place just isn’t as good as first. Or, as my lovely wife whose birthday is today said it the other day: “You just don’t realize how important your church family is until you can’t get together.”
Being a part of a group matters. Being a part of the church matters. And when you’re a part of the church, being there matters. It matters, and I think we are all starting to understand just how much it matters. So be grateful for the means we have of staying connected while we are apart, but when we are back together again, don’t take advantage of it anymore. Hold tightly to what is precious and stop pursuing the things that aren’t.