April 2020 was a month of incredible uncertainty for the future of church gatherings. The church I was pastoring in Kansas was doing church virtually. Several months before, no one could have imagined anything like this. I still remember the first time I began taking the COVID-19 situation seriously. I was at a church board meeting on March 11 when one of my elders announced that the NBA season had been canceled and that there would be no March Madness. Then Melissa texted me saying Andrews University had canceled classes for the rest of the school year. I was in shock! That’s when I said to myself: This is serious! That evening our church board, before any government order was put in place, seriously debated canceling the church service that week.
We did cancel our church service for March 14 and, though no one could have predicted this at the time, for several months after that. What we initially planned to do voluntarily (live stream our service rather than hold in-person services) became an order issued by our national and state governments. By mid-April, most states across the United States had responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by ordering residents to avoid gathering together in large groups. Most churches even in states that had not issued stay-at-home orders were doing something similar to what my church was doing as far as worship services were concerned. All of this, as would be expected, produced varied responses from the Christian Community.
Some Christians were happy to have a break from having to attend church. In fact, years later, many have never returned. Congregants were participating in a worship service in the comfort of their homes and experiencing a more relaxed Sabbath or Sunday with the family. Others were anxious to be back in church right away, and were not enjoying the whole virtual experience at all. They much rather worship in person, though they understood that the sacrifice of not meeting in person was temporarily necessary. Still, others feared that the COVID restrictions were a violation of their religious freedoms.
On the other end of the spectrum were tens of thousands of Christians (if not hundreds of thousands), who believed that they must attend church, despite coronavirus restrictions, in order to be good Christians. They sincerely believed it would be displeasing to God if they don’t. Corporate worship was a value they held dear, and one they believed to be very important to God. Consequently, dozens of churches throughout the country refused to comply with COVID-19 restrictions. Some of these were featured in the mainstream news, mostly in a very negative light.
Several days after Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) issued a stay-at-home order directing residents to avoid large gatherings to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church decided to continue holding in-person services for hundreds of people. He was arrested and fined but continued to believe that God wanted him to open the doors of his church for normal services.
Rodney Howard-Browne of the River at Tampa Bay Church was also arrested for violating orders to discontinue in-person services. He eventually closed his church — but never changed his mind about the legitimacy of the restrictions imposed by the government on public gatherings. He was quoted as saying, “And if it is the end, then so be it. We’re willing to die for the cause of the Gospel.”
A large Baptist congregation in Lawrence, Kansas celebrated Easter Sunday with an in-person service. Their leader, Scott Hanks, was quoted as saying, “I believe very strongly that the Bible commands us to have church.” John Greiner, leader of the Glorious Way Church in Houston initially moved services online after his county limited large gatherings, but his congregation eventually began holding in-person services in violation of the mandates. He said, “We can’t do what God called us to do on livestream.”
On Palm Sunday of 2020, Pastor Jon Duncan of Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi, California, was greeted by several police officers in the parking lot about half an hour before he intended to hold an in-person service. Pastor Duncan and his congregation decided to continue holding in-person services amid the coronavirus outbreak. He said, “We do believe this right to meet is upheld by the First Amendment.”
Tens of thousands of Christians were convicted that they should continue to have in-person worship services despite coronavirus restrictions. They sincerely believed it would be displeasing to God if they didn’t. They were willing to go to jail, endure ridicule from mainstream society and suffer large fines. Does God really care that much about church attendance? What is the value of public gatherings and participating in church rituals, after all? And are these things what matter most to God?
What does the Bible say about God’s values? Is it possible that God’s people could misunderstand what he really wants from his people? The Scriptures indicate that God’s people have often been mistaken about what really matters to him.
This Sabbath we will conclude our series on the book of Haggai. Why does God insist that the Jewish exiles who have returned to their country get to work on rebuilding the temple? And if the temple is so important, why did God allow the Babylonians to destroy it nearly seventy years earlier? Haggai tells the people of Judah that the glory of the second temple (the one they were to rebuild) would exceed in glory compared to Solomon’s temple (Hag 2:9). What did this mean? How does this shed light on the value God places on rituals and public gatherings?
Our study of Haggai 2 will answer these questions.