The other day I listened to a podcast by a very famous pastor who assured his church that there would be no services of any kind except online until 2021. Social distance is the new rule of the day. Because we are in a pandemic I understand that. Safety is so important.
However, while that’s true, I’ve begun asking the question: what if, in some ways, we are being taught to value safety and health above our need for community, discipleship, and connection with God and others?
We get groceries and some of us even go out to eat. We deem many things essential in the midst of a pandemic. But what about church participation? I’m suggesting God’s people deem church (done safely) essential.
Here’s a few reasons I’m convinced Youth Group could be worth the risk.
#1 STUDENTS NEED YOUTH GROUP.
Without doubt I prioritize safety. To be honest, I avoid all sickness (not just this virus) to a fault. I’m a germaphobe and I believe in clean! But you know what’s NOT good for the world? You know what’s worse than coronavirus? Young people who are isolated.
If we commit to live without church and youth group we are allowing the sole source of community for our kids to the non-Christian world, random interactions with Christians, and online environments. And the odds are digital community will be king for your kids.
Teenagers in 2020 are digital natives. This means they are more comfortable with technology than we ever were or will be. This is important to recognize because it means they will more naturally gravitate to online sources such as video games and social media to fulfill their longing for community.
And for how long will that last? A year—or heaven forbid—two years?
This has big implications. You're the average of the five people you spend the most time with. This more true of teenagers whose brains are hardwired to be heavily invested in peer relationships.
A person's most critical development happens as a teenager. They will be teenagers for exactly five years. To surrender two years is 40% of those most critical years. Think about that. Really digest it. So we’re saying for up to two years of their most critical psychological and spiritual development we'll just surrender them over to digital and random community rather than discipleship and Jesus-centered community--all for the sake of “health”?
If so, what we’re really saying is that time spent in Christian community and discipleship is less essential than trips Costco.
We put on masks and enter Costco. Shouldn’t walking with God and growing in Jesus-centered community be even MORE necessary in the time of a politically-polarized global crisis? Or even at least as necessary as Costco. I’m contending we mask kids up, put sanitizer everywhere, lysol everything and engage in Jesus-centered community.
#2 CHURCH CAN BE DONE SAFELY.
I mentioned being a germaphobe. That was an understatement. I might have a problem. Like, do-you-know-a-psychiatrist-level problem. Like, I don't drink off family. I will cause a scene if you drink off my drink. Life for real, don't mess around, bro. And also why are you standing so close. You're going to give me COVID, please!!
Often, I fire grocery stores and local business that do dirty. It's one strike you're out. I can't. I just can't. I assess everything by their bathrooms and dishroom. I actually judge those areas and decide if I like a place. You can have bomb apetizers but if you don't stay clean I'm out.
Here's the great thing: ever since COVID19, everyone has begun thinking like me. Some business won't make it because they aren't going to be clean enough for people to come back. I think that's a win for those of us with obsessive germaphobia.
This shouldn't be a mindset for restaurants and grocery stores only. The Church should be among the safesty and cleanest places in our city. God's church isn't called to be second in quality to the culture's businesses. We are called to lead and influence them.
To that end, at Rise we pay a cleaning company, we do lysol wipes, and we create a clean space. Not only that, we are called by God to intentional about everyting we do. From spaced seating arrangement to contact tracing, our team has fought to not just follow the governments guidlines but exceed them. Why? Because we aren't serving the governement. We're called to honor the government but we are accountable to Someone with infinitely higher authority: Jesus.
So, the church is accountable to keep people safe, be honest and transparent if someone has tested positive, contact trace, and be intentional about prevention on the front end. We are the Church of Jesus Christ and the gates of Hell won't prevail against it (that includes YOU coronavirus!) That doesn't mean we ignore guidlines but go above and beyond in submitting to them and creating a safe environment.
In our context, this means cleaning everything, arranging everyone in smaller groups (less than 25 people to a room as of now) providing sanitizer, washing hands, doing social distance, and masking up. We take it personally to keep the students, families, and city we love safe.
But even I say that, some of us won't prioritize gathering. Here's a question that gets at why:
#3 HOW MUCH IS IT REALLY ABOUT SAFETY?
This may be controversial. But I’m just going to say it. It’s been nice not going to church. There it’s all out in the open.
But think about what that means!
I’m a pastor, theology-geek, and a church-obsessed weirdo. I’m a nerd for church stuff. Lindsey and I go to churches on vacation. Like, we have scheduled multiple vacations for a Sunday so we could visit a church in a different city. That’s serious church nerd-dom, fam. But here’s the truth: not running 3 and eventually 4 services at Rise has been nice to a certain extent.
Now, If I feel that way as a Pastor and card carrying church-geek, how much more true is that of the everyday Christian? How many of us would be honest enough to admit that it’s not always safety keeping us from community?
Listen, legitimate concerns for safety are totally understandable.
But for many of us it’s also true that we’ve lost the habit of attending church. That’s a discipline many of us worked to embed into our lives and family routines. But it’s been broken by the virus.
Do you not think Satan is at all glad to see us lose that discipline in our lives? As Christians, we know that there is a war going on in the unseen realm for our souls, our families, and the future generations. Engaging with the body of Christ, attending, worshiping, learning, and serving is a part of how we wage war.
Getting our families and students back into church life as a regular part of our family culture is an important step.
I think if we’re honest sometimes our concerns with safety are more layered than we realize. And what’s at stake by totally disengaging from church is much greater than we realize, too. Now, for some us there is a great deal of real concern and sacrifice, so please let me take a moment to speak into that as well.
#4 WE'RE CALLED TO CALCULATED RISKS FOR THE KINGDOM.
There’s this freshman dude in my small group who started coming to these Wednesday nights new to the faith and humbled. He came in spiritually curious and week after week I’ve watched him become hungry for God. He recently joined our leadership bible study and asked what he could do to serve. His heart is soft to things of God and he’s hungry for mentorship.
You know what? The world would tell that kid to wait until the pandemic is over to be discipled in Jesus-centered community. You know what I say? No. Follow Jesus now. Mask up. Be careful. Honor the vulnerable. Participate in a mixture of in person and digital. Great. But let’s get him plugged in. I want to see him keep growing as Jesus follower. I’m walking with him.
I have high-risk relatives. Plural. I’m a dad with three kids, and I feel the weight of responsibility if I get sick or risk my children getting sick. I go to get groceries knowing that there is some inherint risk involved. Why do I do it? Because if I do not there is an even greater risk of my kids being hungry (and grumpy!) I've calculated that one risk is worth the other. It's calculated.
Think about this. We are constantly taking calculated risks in order to work, eat, or go to the hardware store. I need you to see this: COVID19 is not the only risk involved. There is an eternal risk involved in keeping our families away from Jesus-centered community.
Life is not without risk. Following Jesus has never been without risk. Following Jesus is, perhaps, more risky in this life than it is to remain in unbelief. But as for me and my house we will serve the Lord. The Tjadens' are a family committed to taking calculated, fact-driven, mask-covered risks for the kingdom of God.
HERE’S THE CONCLUSION...
Church can be done safely and I am going to unapologetically find a safe way to disciple students. Spaced out. Smaller groups. Honoring the government. 100%. But if you think I’m going to WAIT to see a generation lost to lies, sin, unbelief, politics, and an online social life for the next two years, you’ve got another thing coming.
Remember when the men in Luke 5 carried their paralytic friend up the roof and broke the roof to get him to Jesus? It’s like that. I’m going to do whatever takes to reach students for Jesus. I’m ready to see 75 students, with masks, broken into groups across our building being poured into by some of the best youth leaders in our city (Yes, that’s within Oregon’s guidelines for churches/our square footage—by the way).
Hell is still hot in the midst of pandemic. Souls are still on the line and eternity is still forever. We need a Jesus movement now more than ever. Revival is essential. And I’m praying to see Jesus win the future.