What Is Our Witness Worth?
Dr. James Emery White Dr. James Emery White's weblog
- 2021 Feb 04
At this moment, three things of note are happening simultaneously: First, our nation is experiencing extraordinary levels of COVID infection (more than 26 million) and is marching steadily toward a half-million deaths as a result of the pandemic. With the new, more contagious and deadly strain from the U.K. now in more than 30 states, a leading infectious disease expert is predicting that the worst is yet to come. A surge over the next six to 14 weeks will hit the U.S. “like a hurricane.” All before a sufficient number of vaccinations will be distributed to begin to stem the tide.
Second, more churches than ever – even ones that were, until recently, closed in terms of large, indoor, in-person services – are scrambling to reopen. This, despite the pandemic being the worst it’s been and likely to get even worse over the next three months in terms of spread and accompanying fatalities. Why, after all this time, are they doing this now (when the worst is to come) with a clear light at the end of the tunnel if they will only wait… just a little? I honestly don’t know.
Which brings us to the third dynamic: Widespread public scorn toward said churches in the name of public health and safety. The anger toward “open” or “opening” churches from the wider population is palpable. And no segment of that “wider population” is more livid and disgusted than those who are unchurched. The sentiment is that churches insisting on meeting indoors, in person and in mass are selfish, uncaring, unloving and belligerent. Even though many churches are gathering with masks and social distancing, it doesn’t help that there are just as many, if not more, gathering without masks or distancing and posting the gatherings boldly on social media as if a badge of spiritual pride. Sadly, this causes all cautiously “open” churches to be painted with the same brush of reckless irresponsibility and disdain for the health of others.
How the church goes through this pandemic will prove to be a defining moment. Not just for the church itself, but for the watching world in relation to the church. They care little for our desire to meet, our hunger for corporate worship or our First Amendment rights. They have been deprived of much themselves. What they do care about is any group of people acting in such a way that seems to callously put others at risk. It is simply deemed selfish and unloving. And, lest we forget, these are the very people we say we want to reach for Jesus.
So here is the question:
What is our evangelistic witness worth to us?
Let that question soak in a bit. In all that we are weighing, are we considering this: the integrity of our witness? We have only a handful of months before completing the vaccination rollout, achieving “herd immunity” and gaining a relatively full return to normalcy.
I think seeing this through in a way that keeps our witness intact is worth it.
I know that many church leaders are being pressured internally to open as a result of varying political agendas. Some churches have experienced precipitous drops in giving and they feel “opening” will come to the monetary rescue. Others feel that people are drifting away, and if they don’t reopen in-person services they will never recover. I don’t know all the dynamics that churches who have opened or are thinking of opening may face.
I only know that ruining your reputation with the unchurched is not the answer.
I know some might be thinking, What of the biblical command to meet? Doesn’t that supersede everything? It would, if that was what the Bible taught. Those who voice such sentiments usually refer to the passage in Hebrews that reads:
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25, NIV).
In truth, this statement by the biblical author of Hebrews is not in direct reference to a public worship service, much less as to whether to have risky gatherings in the face of a public health crisis. The admonition in Hebrews is about the nature of Christian community and the importance of being in relationship with other Christ followers for the purpose of mutual encouragement. Further, the Greek word translated “give up” speaks to desertion or abandonment, which is not at all about going online versus being in person for a season.
So, if you feel you must open, please do so with every possible precaution. I do not personally feel this is wise, and I have led our church to remain closed in terms of in-person weekend services. I’ve blogged about that decision most recently here, and why other churches may have decided differently here.
But to those who brazenly gather without cautions in place as if making a statement to the world about the Christian faith, you’ve succeeded.
You just haven’t made the statement you thought.
James Emery White
Joanna Walters, “‘That hurricane is coming’: Expert Warns US to Brace for Virulent COVID Strain,” The Guardian, January 31, 2021, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His forthcoming book After “I Believe” is now available for preorder on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.