Is this a time for worry and concerns?

All over the world, church leaders are praying, scratching their heads, reading what they can get in their hands about virtual ministry, and worried about when "normal" church gatherings at our church buildings would resume and if "our people" will return! Last week, I tried to share the cluster of concerns and my partner in this short series of posts, Lee Wilson, later shared some strategies for maximizing church YouTube® sermons and services posted online.

This week, I hope to do two things in this post.

First, I want to emphasize that while the future appears uncertain and unknown, we need not give in to despair. Jesus' church has survived and even thrived through the ages during times of adaptive change and unprecedented upheaval!

Second, we have the advantages — even while acknowledging their limitations — of using online resources, building online communities, and reaching new people through online outreach. In the process, we can provide a landing spot for our younger believers who live much of their lives in this virtual and interconnected world.

But where do we find the principles to guide us in using this virtual and interconnected world?

The Lord calls us to his future for us!

When we open up the book of Acts and watch the fantastic growth of the early church, we MUST notice that there were NO church buildings! Our dependency upon big church gatherings is rooted in the experience of the Israelites great festivals several times a year. People came from many places and took part in a shared celebration of God's goodness and covenant. These large gatherings were essential for their shared identity as God's chosen people.

However, God never intended for the large gatherings to replace the foundation of faith rooted in the family and the communities of faith built into the fabric of their daily lives. In other words, the "Celebration" gatherings of significant size were not intended to be a replacement or supplant the smaller "Community" gatherings of God's people in families and groups. Caring for the foreigner, providing for the widow, and caring for the fatherless around them was not the job of the "Celebration" group. These needs were the responsibility of the "Community" groups, families, and clusters of extended families, that made up their fellowship.

We see these principles lived out in the book of Acts, especially after Acts 8:1-4. The early church had immediate needs in their first days. Large numbers of people came to Christ and many were from outside Jerusalem (Acts 2:36-48). These people presented ongoing needs that the early "Celebration" group had to address (Acts 6:1-7). Even then, however, the genius and power of the early church lay in the inclusion of new people in homegroups, the "Community" size groups, that complemented the larger gathers (Acts 2:46; 4:23-31; 12:1-17). We see the importance of these "Community" groups reflected in Paul's letters addressed to house churches — read Romans 16:1-23, for a list of several homegroups and their leaders mentioned by Paul.

The early church lived through all sorts of cascading, adaptive changes, and thrived. We can, too, if we will take our cues from them and the leading of the Holy Spirit as we move forward.

Nailing down the truth about the nature of the church to have a foundation for the future:

While I hope to address some of the implications of the early church realities in a few weeks, let me emphasize one vital and salient point:

When we spend the majority of our time focusing on how to have great virtual worship services and determining what we are going to do when we are all back in the building doing church "normally," we miss the point of why the church is essential. Jesus didn't found the church, and Paul and the apostles didn't plant churches all over the world, for them "to have church" — i.e., a church building where they went for worship services. Jesus established the church to reach the lost world, grow disciples to maturity, and encourage and equip Jesus' disciples while we provide care to those in need. When our primary focus on our church focuses exclusively on what happens on Sunday morning, we have lost our way from what Jesus intended for us and how the early church lived!

Don't get me wrong; I do believe honoring Jesus on the first day of the week with other believers is an essential part of our discipleship. I do believe some big church meetings are vital. However, the avalanche of information that I see these days all focuses on what and how we are going to re-gather and get the church back to doing what the church is supposed to do.

The truth is much simpler: If the church isn't doing what the church is supposed to do now away from our "worship boxes," then getting everyone back together in our "worship box" isn't going to help. That kind of church-in-the-box sure isn't going to matter to young adults who are looking for authentic community and a life of faith lived in their real world.

None of us is looking for a bunch of people in a box offering optimistic slogans. Most of us are sick of cheery sound bites trying to convince everything is going to be okay and that their business or that group genuinely cares about our hardships. We recognize this for what it is: advertising froth.

Instead of spending all of our time focused on re-gathering, we need to ask ourselves how we are have been doing the essential things that go with being Jesus' church:

  1. How well are we doing the mission of Jesus to reach all people groups in our world?
  2. How well are we growing disciples to maturity to fulfill that mission and not be dependent on someone telling them what to do and how to do it?
  3. How well, are we encouraging and equipping Jesus' followers while providing care for those in need?

Again, we will come back to that three-point list in a few weeks. Let's move on to our focus for today.

Do we have any Bible insights to guide us in our new version of the virtual and online church?

That question is important because it helps us grab ahold of a host of other questions related to the world in which we find ourselves. Questions like:

  • What does online ministry entail, or what should it entail?
  • Why should we do online ministry?
  • How do we know if our efforts are effective?
  • Is it a waste of time and money since so much of what we have done recently hasn't seemed to pay big dividends?
  • Will our efforts make much difference to the lives of real people, and the health of our congregations, in the long run?
  • Bottom line: Do we have any examples, guidelines, or principles to follow as we seek to tune our high tech outreach strategies more finely?

    Once again, for me, a great place to begin is the book of Acts. The apostles made use of a series of new "technologies" that helped enable the rapid spread of Christianity in the first century. While not "high tech" in the sense we use those words, they were reaping the rewards of Roman power and engineering. Relatively safe highway and water systems, safe sea travel, Roman law, and a traveling artisan class that spread news and commerce throughout the empire were first-century "technologies" early disciples use to spread faith in Jesus. Leaders were present "virtually" through the Holy Spirit, letters they sent to the churches, apprentices who went with their authority, and other believers who traveled sharing news between churches. In other words, they had their own spiritual "sandal-net" through which the early church grew, communicated, and reached out to others.

    Technology and Mission Intersect Strategically in Acts:

    A casual reading of the book of Acts reveals that the apostles, Galilean Jews, didn't preach the same way to different groups of people. However, the principles they used, and the strategies they incorporated, were crucial for their success. They also can give us insight into how we can work to reach others today.

    First, the Holy Spirit launched the church during one of the most crowded times of the year for the city of Jerusalem — the festival of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover. Jerusalem was full of people who were seeking to honor God! We waste our time sharing a message when people are not present or are not interested and available. While this principle seems self-evident, we often forget to apply the principles when we evaluate our strategies.

    If the church isn't doing what the church is supposed to do now away from our "worship boxes," then getting everyone back together in our "worship box" isn't going to help.
    Second, God got the attention of the crowd by sending the Holy Spirit with the sound of a mighty rushing wind (Acts 2:1-5). In the middle of the noise and busy-ness of a crowded city, God did something that made everyone pause for a few minutes and listen. How do we get the attention of people we are trying to reach?

    Third, once God had the attention of people, the apostles spoke Jesus' message in the home and heart languages of Jewish people from around the world (Acts 2:6-11). The apostles' ability to speak the language of all these people was crucial for the radical message of a crucified Messiah to be understood, believed, and bring salvation. Do we know how to speak the language — not just the language itself, but the vernacular, images, themes that are important — of the people we are trying to reach?

    Fourth, three thousand of the many people who heard that message in their heart language and responded with faith, then submitted to baptism, and Jesus gave those who responded the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33-41). Are we really asking people to respond to Jesus as Lord and Christ in our soft-pedaled salvation altar calls? How do those compare to what we see in the book of Acts?

    Fifth, amazingly, the apostles responded immediately to this crush of people needing baptism, teaching, fellowship, and care (Acts 2:42-48). In other words, they didn't procrastinate by putting off baptisms or following up on responses — not even with three-thousand responses!

    Why this strategy?

    While the apostles' message varies as they move from one people group to another, the core message about Jesus, and the strategy to share that message, remained the same. The packaging — the illustrations, the connection with ideas the audience understood — all changed. But Jesus was proclaimed as Christ and Lord and people were called to turn their lives around and follow him! (Spend some time reading Acts and notice the difference between the evangelistic sermons in Acts 2, Acts 10, Acts 13, Acts 17, and Acts 28.)

    Why did the early church use this process or strategy in reaching the lost world?

    They were obeying Jesus' Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:44-49). They were following their commitment to reach lost people all over their world. Reaching lost people was their consuming passion. Their goal was not getting people to go to a church building but getting the grace of Jesus into the lives of all races, cultures, and nationalities of people and encouraging them to live for Jesus.

    Notice Paul's description of his passion for reaching the lost with the message of Jesus:

    Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

    Final Thoughts:

    Many of our church leaders today are weary of the isolation our congregations have endured during social distancing. They are genuinely worried about their people. So, no matter how much these leaders know they have to be effective in the world of online ministry, they wonder if it is worth the time, money, and effort. Mission, however, calls us to find ways to use online tools effectively. But how? We begin with the principles taught to us by the first virtual ministry over "sandal-net" — the book of Acts and the New Testament letters. I encourage you to go dig into the book of Acts and start seeking insights for the original church planters and early virtual ministers of the "sandal-net" to know how to navigate the world ahead of us!

    Over the next several weeks, we will pause from our regular article schedule and try to give some insights into both our biblical foundations and practical solutions to help make our online impact more effective. Don't give up on virtual or online or high tech ministry. We have these tools the Lord has provided. These tools are tuned to our time, and if we are wise and passionate, they help bring renewal to our outreach and the dawning of a new day for what we mean by "church"!