Go to Church

I have a confession to make, and it may not be very surprising: It’s hard to pastor people when the government has declared a pandemic. There are a few reasons for this. To begin, there really is a virus going around. A very small percentage of people really are having complications and dying. It’s hard to pastor someone who is undergoing cancer treatment and genuinely should not be exposed to the possibility of a disease like COVID-19 while they have no immune system. I genuinely recommend speaking with your elders or pastor if you wonder whether you should still be staying away from public worship during this time. I want to be very clear: part of what makes pastoring hard right now is that some of you genuinely need to stay home. If you are avoiding public places, not going in to work, having others do your grocery shopping, and taking precautions in your daily life, this is likely you.

Another reason why pastoring during this time is hard is that people have a natural tendency to want to stay home on Sundays anyway. This was true before COVID, and it was already one of the many challenges pastors dealt with: helping God’s people to fight against the temptation toward spiritual lethargy. Which of us doesn’t have a fleshly part of us that sometimes yearns to “do church” from home? Because of this natural tendency, for some people I do think COVID has become a natural excuse not to come to church. Comfort, laziness, and fear are sort of teaming up at the moment to assault the souls of God’s people. If you have been giving in to these temptations lately, what I write here is meant to be an admonition for you.

Let’s just say what many pastors know: there are church members who have no pre-existing conditions, they are not in an age group that is considered “high risk.” Their life has changed, certainly, but they have also grown accustomed to standing in lines at the grocery store, to having visitors in their house again, and even going back to restaurants… yet nevertheless they are unwilling to return to church. Some pastors I’ve spoken with shared with me that their parishioners have just straight up told them, “I just love doing church at home. I want to do this even after the pandemic is over.” As I say, pastoring when people already have this natural tendency is difficult.

Why is pastoring during this time difficult? Because going to church is good for a person’s soul. I take that for granted and assume it in all I say here. And a real pastor needs to be able to say to someone who should be in church, “You should be in church.” And he needs to be wise enough not to berate someone with an immune disorder for not sticking their neck out against doctor’s orders. It’s also difficult to pastor right now because often pastors cannot tell the difference between those for whom COVID is a convenient excuse, and those for whom there is a legitimate medical reality keeping them away. Worse yet, pastors are not doctors, and in some ways we are not equipped to know the difference!

What to do, then? Most pastors I know are a bit paralyzed. They don’t want to put burdens on people who are already hurting and lonely, but at the same time they see what we all see: perfectly healthy church members who have no pre-existing problems that we can see, who live life as normally as one could imagine right now, yet who inexplicably say “Church is the one thing I won’t do normally.” Out of a desire to be “pastoral” many become paralyzed.

With the exception of perhaps Martyn Lloyd-Jones, pastors are not doctors. We are not medical experts. But it also stands to reason that doctors are not pastors. A doctor may tell you to do something that is good for your body, but he is not primarily concerned with the care of your soul. Pastors and doctors have different priorities in a moment like this. When a doctor says, “Stay home,” they are giving you medical advice, but not spiritual advice. What I’m about to say here is not medical advice, but it is spiritual instruction – and often those can conflict with one another. Here is my spiritual advice: go to church.

So what can a pastor do to minister to someone who likely should be coming to church if it is an option, but they say they are doing it because they are afraid of getting sick? I think one answer is found in Luke 17:32-33:

“Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

The context of this passage is the teaching of Jesus regarding the coming real world destruction of Israel. To put it broadly, he is telling them what to do when very real destruction is on the horizon. He isn’t writing about a pandemic, but he is writing about a coming time of danger when it will be dangerous just to exist in Israel at all. How do we live in a time of trouble where we fear our own death?

Jesus tells them that they should face the coming danger with boldness and not fear. Then Jesus says, “Remember Lot’s wife.” This was a woman who was not prepared to leave behind her things… something she loved more than God’s command to not look back. As a consequence she was turned to salt. Jesus says, “As you face a situation of danger, remember her. Learn the lesson of her life and death.” What is the lesson of her death? I might suggest it’s exactly what Jesus says in verse 33: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it.” Lot’s wife loved her life. She loved her home and her things. She loved her life too much, and so she was judged. We often think of Jesus as only speaking words of comfort, but these are certainly words of hard warning. Jesus shows us here that it is loving to warn people when their souls are in danger.

What is Jesus doing here, though? He’s telling us why it is that we should be courageous in the face of danger or in the face of trouble. What is the reason that he gives? “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it.” In other words, in your efforts to keep living, you may endanger your own soul. You may try so hard to “preserve your life” that you end up developing a soul sickness that no doctor can fix. That’s what he means with this phrase “will lose it.” We may end up sacrificing our soul for the sake of the body if we aren’t careful.

But Jesus offers a second reason why we should be courageous in the face of danger or trouble, and that’s this: “But whoever loses his life will keep it.”

Jesus is talking about death here. Jesus wants his disciples to think differently about dying; how does he do that? He tells them, in essence, “it is better to put your body in danger than to put your soul in danger.” This follows from what he’s saying: if you die because you didn’t seek to “preserve your life” you haven’t lost anything, you’ve only gained. Jesus says there is something worse than death. In other words, death isn’t what we’re trying to avoid: judgment is worse. The ultimate goal of the Christian is not to preserve the number of our days on the earth, but to enter the kingdom of God.

Jesus isn’t pushing his disciples toward recklessness, but he is saying that if we are given a choice between our soul and our body, we ought to care more about our soul every single time. If we don’t we may have to learn the lesson of Lot’s wife.

What kind of a pastor would I be if I didn’t make the direct application that is most on our minds? I think many people whose churches are open need to be in church. That’s it. That’s the application. That is not medical advice, but it is my spiritual advice, straight from Jesus’ mouth: “Remember Lot’s wife. Go to church.”

Adam Parker is the Senior Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church in Beaverton, Oregon. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.

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