By Gio Pineda – The Church at the gates of the coronavirus

The Church worldwide has experienced persecution and danger throughout the centuries and somehow it always finds a way to continue to grow.  Jesus said “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  Matthew 16:18

One of the formats adopted in areas where the church is in danger is called the “House Church.”   A small group of people who meet to fellowship, grow in the word, pray and break bread together.  This format follows that it is more important to multiply the church than to grow in individual numbers.  Large crowds in a given location could create unnecessary or dangerous attention and so the believers prefer to meet in small numbers and if there is a desire from others to join then they simply start another group in the home of a person of peace who opens their house and invites family and close neighbors to the meeting.

There are communities in the western hemisphere that have never needed this format of church to grow in the past.  Here, we enjoy freedom to meet in a large number as logistics permit.  Larger and larger buildings have been made available to accommodate the number of believers who wish to congregate.  The concept of the “Mega Church” is a well-known   expression of this ability to meet in large facilities to worship and fellowship as believers.  Whether it is rented commerce strip mall, a cathedral, a hotel or a stadium, God has allowed us to meet and celebrate for many years.

 In many cases local churches in the west have adopted the much-needed small group strategy to provide a more intimate setting for fellowship for their members.  This secondary format during the week has been a great way to invite neighbors and friends also to a Bible Study and from there migrate to the “Church” that meets on Sundays in a larger building.  The small groups use different names in different communities; “cell group,” “family group,” “homegroup,” and a variety of other creative names that attract neighbors, family and friends and create a gateway to the Sunday Church service and other activities of the local church.  Some churches have used this powerful tool as a means to evangelism and groups form with the vision of sharing the good news with “unchurched” neighbors and friends who would not necessarily step into the “big church” on Sundays.  Yet the strategy remains to eventually link the new believers to the “main church.”

The Coronavirus has brought a new dynamic to the church this week.  As the government recommendation to abstain from meetings over 250 people swept the nation last Friday, churches found themselves struggling to decide what to do.  Some met on Sunday with less congregants than usual and others started a service online.  Some simply didn’t meet and had no solution to the dilemma at hand.

As I interacted with Pastors and church leaders during this last weekend. My goal was to encourage and bring hope.  The Church will continue to grow. It is actually in moments of danger like this that the church shows its best.  It serves the needy, it helps the people at risk, it prays, it reproduces and perhaps this could be the revival that we have all been praying for.  But there are some essential elements I want to mention and encourage the Church to consider and pray for wisdom at this time.

In the last three days, I have heard a couple of solutions for the church situation at hand.  Let’s look into them:

  1. Live stream of the Sunday church service.

Churches are working hard this week to create or adjust an already running internet platform that would provide a live service streamed on Sunday morning.  It is amazing what we can do with technology these days.  There are many services already available via television and radio that people can tap into and so we can “have” church on Sunday, but is that all there is to it?

The Biblical concept of Church begins with fellowship.  The Church is the fellowship of the believers in Christ.  The book of Acts tells us that they met together, they broke bread together, they persevered in the teaching of the apostles and in prayer. So, the first thing to point out is that the Church involves more than one person in front of his screen.  Where possible believers need to seek the way to meet together.  It doesn’t have to be in large numbers, especially when there is danger in doing so, for where two or more are gathered in his name, Jesus has promised to be present in their midst.    In the individualistic society of the technological era, the concept of streaming a church service could mean individuals at home watching the service on their phones or tablets, which is nice but it could very quickly move us away from the biblical church.  In doing virtual church we would hope that it is temporary and that at best families would get together to watch and participate together in the service at home via internet.  But we must face the truth, when it comes to technology, most of us do it on our own, as I am right now on my laptop, alone.  There is no interaction, there is no fellowship, there is no Ekklesia.  Technology is a tool that can easily take us to isolation, whether it is during work or entertainment.  I know some do use it collectively but in general terms it is mainly used in isolation.  This is dangerous because it could give a false teaching of what Church is.  I know there have been cases where people are limited in their access to church and so they listen to radio or watch tv sermons or live stream on Sundays and that has worked great for those confined involuntarily to isolation whether it is in prison or in their homes because of sickness or age.  And even in those cases we know of ministries that provide fellowship to these individuals.  Well, things changed last weekend and now TV, Radio or Streaming is the norm.  Most are now working from home and on Sunday will tune in to the local church stream, hopefully as a family or with friends or neighbors but in some cases, it will be still in bed, with pajamas and alone.  We must take a very serious look at this “solution” we have come up with.  We must pray and discern what is TRUE about the Church and what is FALSE.  To have Church without the fellowship of believers is a false representation of the biblical Church of Christ.  This solution has to come with education and teaching that reinforces the importance of families being the church or at least “having” church together.

  • Church plans to use the small group format.

On Sunday, when the recommended limit to meetings was 250, I heard that the obvious thing to do was to consider small groups meeting in homes and the transmission of Sunday service through the internet.  Many churches did this already for last Sunday’s service but what none of us would have imagined was the new recommendations that came almost one after the other, first 25 as the limit and then 10 people limit in public meetings.  This last recommendation immediately cancelled all kinds of small group gatherings, including the ethnic pastors meeting on Monday night and the discipleship prayer group tonight.  So, it would seem that the only solution now is to have a virtual Sunday service at home and again I hope and pray that at least families would gather together to celebrate church.

We have to keep the biblical Church alive.  I think it is very prudent to continue teaching what the biblical Church is.  A small piece of the Church continues to be Church and the big expression of the small Church is also Church as long as the DNA remains consistent with what the Bible teaches.

That the DNA of the big church flows through the veins of the small group and that if they had not mentioned this before, it was a mistake. 

Small groups of believers in a family or close friends’ unit must see themselves as the Church of Jesus on earth and step up to the reality of our times.  The teaching of the priesthood of all believers must come alive in our very homes this week.  The small group this week is not the same as the one 2 weeks ago, because we will probably not meet on Sunday at the big church this week.  Every aspect of worship is now on the lap of the small group that I would now suggest we call it as it is called in so many places, the “House Church.” 

The format of the house church came to us as it has to so many throughout the history of Christianity, through dangerous circumstances.  As you can see, we are not far from our brothers who meet and multiply churches in restricted areas of the world.  We have come to be all the same.  Our restriction came from a virus and not from religious or political persecution, still a restricted time for the Church in the west.  The House Church is powerful and simple at the same time.  In most cases we will not enjoy the expert’s music nor the technology that goes with it.  Maybe will sing without music or play a YouTube of worship music and sing along or maybe it is time to take out the old dusty guitar or to play the untuned piano or harmonium. I don’t know which form it will take, but I can guarantee that as families gather in homes to enjoy the presence of God, sing praises, study and obey the Bible, and experience being the body of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, the House Church will be alive and it will become very powerful. 

It will be a mistake for churches today to move on to small groups at this time and miss the chance of passing on the DNA of church.  To see it as a temporary solution to the danger of meeting in large groups and only hope for all his to pass so that we can get back to “real church.”  Even if large gatherings were allowed sooner than later, what a step of faith it would be to believe that it is true, that we can empower the small gathering to be the full expression of The Church with Christ as the head.  Let us think about this and pray for wisdom.  May the Lord grow our faith during this time of trial.  It is his Church. He will take the glory for it.  He will grow it.  He will use it.  He will come back for it.  Come Lord Jesus, yes, come!

So when we gather as families on Sunday in our homes, let’s discover the simple and yet powerful experience of the House Church.

Giovanni Pineda