People walking into church with masks on and social distancing

Why Both Andy Stanley and John MacArthur are Wrong About Whether the Church Needs to Reopen

Okay, I admit it. I wanted the title to be a bit of shock bait, but at the same time, I do feel we’re getting it wrong when it comes to keeping our churches closed or brazenly opening the doors as an act of religious liberty (aka civil disobedience).

Even though I agree with about 90% of the protesting churches, many of them are opening for the wrong reasons.

First, I am a pastor. My heart bleeds for my congregation and community. I am not as incensed by the violation of our civil liberties as I am deeply burdened for my people.

I have closely watched the impact that this pandemic has had on hearts and homes.

I am NOT saying that COVID-19 is not a real health concern that should be taken seriously. It’s real and it’s a concern; not as much as we initially were told, but still worthy of concern and caution.

I AM saying that there are very real spiritual concerns that are being virtually ignored in the flurry of all the medical, political, and constitutional arguments.

The spiritual impact of church shutdowns is REAL and PRESENT dangers that are not only harming our people today but will have long-range consequences.

I have listened respectfully and carefully to all the national ministry voices quick to remind us that the church is not a building and that gathering weekly is not essential, that the church has never really been “shut down” because we can still do everything God wants us to do using technology and that it is better to keep everyone “safe” by staying online.

I’ve listened.

I’ve prayed.

Most importantly, I’ve watched.

I’ve watched the results of a prolonged shutdown and its impact on people.

I’ve studied the impact of COVID-19 infected people in my church and compared the symptoms of Corona to the symptoms of lockdown and what I discovered is that the church, using reasonable cautions and safety protocols, MUST reopen as soon as possible.

We are underestimating the effects of a long-term shutdown of the church and that our country will pay dearly the longer this continues.

We are underestimating the effects of a long-term shutdown of the church and that our country will pay dearly the longer this continues. Click To Tweet

As a side note, I also believe that many of these effects cross over to other institutional shutdowns such as schools.

10 REASONS CHURCHES NEED TO REOPEN ASAP

 

1) 50% of millennials are not watching

According to a recent Barna study, one in three practicing Christians stopped streaming church during the early months of the pandemic, this digital dropout was led by practicing Christian Millennials; fully half (50%) were not tuning in to online worship services at the time.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think that our streaming services are a substitute for in-person services.

Everyone’s pouring energy into improving their online services.

We need to be spending at least as much energy into planning the reopening of the church!

2) Disconnection is damaging.

God formed us for fellowship. Real, live connection.

Even if you don’t believe in God, science has proven that human beings need social interaction as much as they need food and water.

Even if you don’t believe in God, science has proven that human beings need social interaction as much as they need food and water. Click To Tweet

Isolation leads to devastation.

In-person fellowship is not a nicety, it’s a necessity.

3) Habits are forming.

Some studies have shown that it takes about 21 days to form a habit. So far, we have had over 210 DAYS to form the habit of skipping church.

Even before the shutdown of churches, church leaders were talking about how church attendance had been declining for years. The COVID shutdown may speed up this negative trend.

Church leaders who are declaring that everything is fine with the church shutdown are being lulled into false comfort. Just because giving hasn’t tanked doesn’t mean people aren’t forming the habit of churchless Christianity.

It’s sort of like when people keep paying for their gym membership after they quit going. Eventually, they’ll also stop giving.

4) Parents are frazzled.

One of the biggest advantages of having a children’s program that runs simultaneously with the adult service is that parents can pay attention to the message instead of tending to their kids.

Taking church online took all that away!

Parents are facing a new level of interaction with their children which many are not prepared for.

Of course, some positives will come out of this. I agree with most of them. Yet, for this article alone, I am restricting my focus on the impact of online-only church services.

The overwhelming feedback I’ve received from parents of young children is that it is a struggle to watch the service on a Sunday morning with their kids. Many have told me it’s easier not to even try. ☹️

5) Children are suffering.

What is virtually absent in church leadership conversations is the impact shutdowns are having on our children.

What is virtually absent in church leadership conversations is the impact shutdowns are having on our children. Click To Tweet

We reopened our children’s ministry on October 4th.  It was immediately obvious that our children were CRAVING being back.

Here’s a snippet of what one of our young moms posted on her social media after we reopened:

Have you all ever “ugly cried” with a mask on? No? Let me tell you it’s not fun. Today Oak Ridge Baptist Church opened up Family Ministry and both boys got to go to church!

I was beyond worried about how my son was going to react.

Was he going to cry when we got there? Have a fit in the hallway because I couldn’t walk him to his room? Was he going to freak that he wasn’t going to be with his brother? Was he going to have fun? All the anxiety and questions.

Well, when we got to the hallway, he was welcomed by so many people, they told him how much they missed him and how happy they were that he was back. He was so excited that his little butt ran, I mean RAN, into his room.

That went well, so deep breath Momma and go into the service.

The first song was We Praise You by Bethel Worship and I was feeling it! Everything was great until we sang “This is what living looks like. This is what freedom feels like. This is what heaven sounds like. We praise You, we praise You”. 

Let me tell you, there is a lot right now that I/we are not doing because of all the “What ifs” and the anxiety. Not to mention the pain of wearing a mask everywhere and whatever else, and so that just hit me.

I am so glad I decided to take the boys to church today. We needed it. I don’t know about other moms with littles, but I can’t watch the service at home with them and pay attention. It felt so good to be back for me AND on top of it all, these boys had a ball.

It hurts my heart to think of the hundreds of kids we loved and taught every single week who have been missing this for SEVEN MONTHS!

6) Worship is meant to be experienced not watched.

We hosted our first in-person “Night of Worship” a week ago. We followed all safe distancing protocols and used a registration system limiting how many could attend. Of course, it was a hassle having to administer a registration system, and yes, hundreds could not come due to safe distancing protocols, BUT it was still worth it.

As soon as the music and prayers began, you could feel the presence of God in the room.

There is something to corporate worship.

Jesus said, “Where two or more are gathered in My Name, there I am in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)

Whenever God’s people gather in God’s name for God’s glory, God’s power and presence fill that place.

The phrase I heard repeated over and over in the lobby following the service was, “I needed that!”

7) Video tends to be non-participatory.

The buzz word I keep hearing the church leadership experts throw around is ENGAGEMENT.

Video stats can only report things like “views” and “shares,” etc.

The real problem is that we have no idea what’s happening on the other side of the camera lens. Is anybody there? Is anyone watching? Is anyone engaging?

One of the most obvious yet forgotten realities is that when we attend a service in person, we’re exponentially more likely to engage with the service.

It’s a lot easier to disengage from some video playing on TV than it is when surrounded by other people in a live setting.

8) Video fatigue.

While we’re on the topic of video, how many of us are BURNED OUT ON ZOOM??? 🙋🏼‍♂️

Video is an amazing tool, but the explosive volume of use is taking a serious toll on our psyche.

Researchers are finding that excessive video conferencing is causing us to struggle with frustration, impaired communication and concentration, headaches, tension, anxiety, decreased relational intimacy, burnout, and fatigue.

9) The longer the church is closed the harder it will be to reopen.

We started back in-person services in August after being shut down for five months. Our initial strategy was centered on REOPENING. We quickly discovered that this was going to be far more complicated than we had ever imagined.

After a couple of weeks, we decided that the better view was that we are RESTARTING our church from ground zero.

Nearly all the problems we are solving week to week feels like we are church planters. Of course, this affords us all kinds of cool opportunities to do things from scratch but with a little knowledge under our belts.

Churches that have decided to remain closed for the rest of the year or longer have no idea how difficult reopening will be.

Churches that have decided to remain closed for the rest of the year or longer have no idea how difficult reopening will be. Click To Tweet

10) Churches are spiritual hospitals.

From the earliest days of this pandemic, medical facilities approached the crisis with a mindset of adaptation, not termination.

At no point did a hospital say, “Well we better close until the storm blows over.” No, they simply modified their operational procedures to maximize safe operations.

Of course, I’m being silly to infer that hospitals may have shut down because as we all know, hospitals are more important now than ever.

And so is the church.

I genuinely believe that soul care is even more important than medical care. Really? Yes. Churches minister to the whole person for their whole life.

Churches minister to the whole person for their whole life. Click To Tweet

Our church exists to bring hope and healing to hearts and homes.

Shutting down the church when hearts are hurting, and homes are struggling is like closing the hospitals when a pandemic is spreading. It’s not only unwise, it’s uncaring.

Churches don’t exist for their benefit.

Churches exist to apply the healing of the gospel to the wounds of the weary and friend, our country needs that healing now more than ever.

So yes, the church needs to be open not when the crisis is over, but when the crisis is raging all around us. That’s what the church is for!

8 Comments
  • Scott Creager
    Posted at 13:44h, 15 October Reply

    AMEN! I feel for my fellow brothers and sisters. Everyone is locked in on some form of media which unfortunately is a fear market. Prayers for those living in it.

  • Dave Huffman
    Posted at 14:09h, 15 October Reply

    Thank you, Brian, for writing a clear, thoughtful dialogue that we can discuss.
    I would welcome more discussion on how churches could meet, but still keeping many of the health protocols in place.
    Somewhere in the middle is where I land, and where I think the church needs to be.

    Great, thoughtful words! Bless you –

  • Chris Woodall
    Posted at 14:18h, 15 October Reply

    I agree with your assessment that the longer our churches stay closed, the more difficult it will be to have people engage once our doors reopen. Two of the churches I lead worship in have remained closed and are using Zoom as the main vehicle for worship. We tried outdoor worship on several Sundays but were forced inside with Zoom due to overwhelming heat. The larger third church that I minister to has reopened for about a month now and attendance has been about one third of normal. We also have Saturday Night Outdoor Worship every week from 5:30 to 6:15 which attracts about 70-100 each week. We are finding that many of the elderly with underlying health concerns are very fearful of being inside for worship. But I have also observed that there are younger people in their 30’s that are fearful as well. I would just encourage everyone to place their trust in something that’s greater than any pandemic we could battle. Praise Jesus for His victory over all of this!

    • Brian
      Posted at 16:38h, 15 October Reply

      Thanks Chris! I agree that we also need to keep our vulnerable safe. It’s so hard to balance the need for reopening without making the vulnerable feel guilty for not coming.

  • Art Good
    Posted at 17:01h, 15 October Reply

    I’m not buying it. Disperse the church. 10 people meeting in someone’s living room. Multiply that by however many make up your congregation. It isn’t that hard. We don’t need 100, 200, 500 people meeting together all at the same time watching a presentation put on by a select few for an hour.

    • Brian
      Posted at 20:21h, 15 October Reply

      I would say that it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people. House churches can also be one of many types of churches God can use to reach people for Christ. It’s not an either/or, it’s both and.

  • Bob James
    Posted at 13:18h, 18 October Reply

    How exactly is John MacArthur wrong? You’ve written an article that seems to fully support his position.

    • Brian
      Posted at 22:02h, 18 October Reply

      Hi Bob. Agreed. I do agree with much of what MacArthur has said about the civil liberties issues. My personal *opinion* is that MacArthur’s motive and methodology for reopening could be a turnoff to the lost.

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