Love Your Neighbor, But Which Ones?
An Open Letter To Our Conduit Church Family
This week Andy Stanley announced that North Point Church in Atlanta will not be holding in person gatherings for the remainder of 2020. Anticipating questions that this could bring, I felt it was appropriate to address why Conduit resumed and continues to hold in person gatherings.
The question about cancelling church services is usually framed as “loving your neighbors”. Which carries an implicit connotation that those who aren’t cancelling services are not loving their neighbors.
For us at Conduit, the question was; What do we do when the needs of neighbors are in conflict with each other? Which neighbor do we choose?
We’ve been told by medical and government officials that if the cause is important enough then gathering in a safe and sensible way is permitted. Air travel is deemed essential and thus people are still moving between cities and states. Grocery stores are considered essential and therefore people are able to purchase food in a safe and sensible manner. Organizations that offer day care such as the YMCA are considered essential and thus tens of thousands of children continue to be cared for throughout the lockdowns (with zero recorded transmissions or outbreaks). The cause of speaking up on behalf of our black brothers and sisters is considered essential and thus protests continue across the country (some safe and sensibly, others not so much).
What this means is that the question isn’t just simply about what is “safe or not safe”. If you’ve worked at Walmart or Sonic you have not done so with zero risk. It’s just that the risk was deemed acceptable for the service you provide. What the question is about is what is “essential or not essential”, and what risk we are willing to take for something deemed essential.
And ultimately, who gets to make the call of what is essential?
Is gathering weekly as a church an essential activity? If you’re not a person of faith, the answer is most likely an immediate and enthusiastic “No”. For some people of faith, the answer is also “No”. This is evident in the fact that the average church attendance has fallen from weekly to every 3 weeks for most Christians.
If your understanding of “going to church” is to come, sit down, be preached to and then go home, then I completely understand why once every three weeks is enough. But “going to church” isn’t what Jesus came to accomplish.
He came to seek and save the lost. He came to make us (the Church) His Bride. He created the idea that the ecclesia, the “called out”, is His conduit of accomplishing His will on the earth. What is a body if not a conduit for accomplishing what the head desires?
Part of being a body is coming together. The hip bone connected to the thigh bone, etc. He designed us and knows exactly how we are wired. We are wired for purpose, for meaning, for belonging, for a mission that is beyond ourselves.
When we were making the decision to return to in person gatherings we took into consideration many things. Ultimately it came down to whether or not gathering as a church is essential. This decision wasn’t made in a vacuum but with lots of thought, conversation, prayer, and seeking wisdom from multiple sources.
The Scriptures command us to gather. And as always, the commands of Scripture aren’t meant to be burdensome but for our flourishing. As we examined what that looked like, we realized that flourishing has real life implications. Implications that we believe are essential.
Gathering Saves Lives:
If a church gathering was simply about coming together, sitting and hearing a “good relevant message”, then we can do that sitting at home. But the Bible tells us when we come together that we inspire one another to do good works. When Conduit comes together, the energy of being together in the same room with the same mission has a tangible effect.
We have given away millions of dollars to drilling wells, building schools, and setting slaves free in South East Asia. Can this be done online? Yes. And no.
I’ve been doing this for ten years and can tell you first hand that raising funds for a specific initiative will double if we talk about it while we’re together in person. There’s a reason why organizations like Compassion International sponsor tours where a personal appeal can be made to an audience to sponsor children. The impact is far greater when an appeal is made in person.
Every week we aren’t gathering together is a week we aren’t talking about injustice. It’s a week where a slave’s voice from South East Asia isn’t represented. Every dollar not raised represents a meal for a child in Uganda or medicine for a widow in Haiti.
Gathering For Emotional Health:
“Online Community” is an oxymoron. You can call it online church or “church at home” or any other euphemism you want. But sitting and watching someone sing songs and preach a sermon is not online-community. It’s watching TV.
My 14 year old son, looking at the options for public school this fall said it best about online learning, “But Dad, none of my friends will be there. I’ll be all alone”.
With most public education options increasingly going online this fall, a weekly gathering for an hour among other humans isn’t just something nice to do. It’s something we and our kids need now more than ever. The longer this drags on the more we need it.
Emotional health was already a code red in the United States. The isolation of lock-down policies is pouring fuel on the fire. Loneliness and isolation are increasing. It’s well documented that phone calls to suicide prevention hotlines have skyrocketed and addiction recovery centers are overflowing with clients. The research is in and there are side effects of the lockdown that are emotionally devastating large numbers of people. If we can be a source of encouragement and hope for them, that’s essential.
Size Of The Gathering Matters:
I understand that for larger churches this is a very difficult proposition. In an interview with Christianity Today Andy Stanley said that they wanted to focus 100% of their resources on online communities. He said it didn’t make sense for them to focus so many resources (money/people) to the in-person gatherings where maybe only 20% of the people would attend. That’s a legitimate challenge for them and I have no judgment against him on making that call. It costs an enormous amount of money to keep the doors open on a facility that size.
For small to medium-sized churches that’s simply not the case. Opening our doors on Sunday takes very little additional resources. It’s wrong to suggest that what’s right for North Point is right for Conduit or any other church.
Churches like North Point have enormous investments in professional content creation. It’s much easier for them to shift their focus to something they were already staffed for.
For churches like Conduit, we intend to keep our focus on what we are already doing really well, and motivate one another to good deeds and meeting needs, both in our community and abroad. (Hebrews 10:24)
The Mission of the Church:
If I were to ask the school teachers in Haiti that we provide salaries for, or the children in Kenya that we are feeding, or the flood victims in Nepal to whom we are providing relief if we are essential, the answer is yes. If 10 years of anecdotal evidence has proven we can double the impact in those places by meeting on a Sunday, then that feels pretty essential.
A divided world needs a united Church. We know that there is conflicting information flying at us. I don’t know a single person who would disagree with that statement. Our challenge is to not let conflicting information bring conflict into our church family and harm this amazing mission that Jesus has given us.
There are children in Asia and Africa and beyond, counting on us to get this right. And we have an opportunity to bring hope and healing to people struggling with anxiety and depression in our own country. Let us not allow division to weaken or dilute our impact.
For those who feel safer in your homes, we genuinely support and love you. We know that some have underlying medical conditions or are considered high risk. You not being able to join us on a Sunday doesn’t mean you’re less spiritual, that you are living in fear. (I take malaria meds when I go to Uganda because we are high risk there.) For you, we will continue to livestream our services as a part of what God has called us to do at Conduit.
And we will continue to meet in person. We live in a state that has been very supportive of the church and we have not violated a single law in our gatherings. But should that change we will continue to find a way to meet. We’ll gather in the sanctuary, or we will gather in the parking lot. We will gather on a farm or in the woods. We will gather in homes or in barns. But we will gather. Jesus compels us to. And the world needs us to.
We’ll love our neighbors, all of them. (Matthew 22:39)
In Humility and Love,