I just started crying.
I was quite unprepared for the wave of emotion I felt when I walked in the church. It was Sunday morning, March 22, the first “quarantine Sunday”. I had just arrived, unlocked the east doors and turned on the lights. And as I walked across the east entry area, my throat tightened and I began to cry. I thought, “A church is supposed to be met in!” Not the best grammar, I know, but that’s what I thought. And I continued to be choked up as I went around turning on some lights and getting things ready for the stripped-down worship service we were about to do for the radio broadcast and over the internet.
When the federal and state government’s guidelines were announced the previous week, this was a situation none of us had faced before. Not knowing exactly what to do or what was safe, I consulted with Dennis Babcock, our chairman of Trustees, and we gave our church secretary and church custodian some “emergency days” and encouraged them to stay home. Without Wednesday or Sunday services to get ready for, there was no need to print bulletins or prayer lists, or to have the building “spic and span”. So until we had a clearer idea of what we should and shouldn’t do, we told our employees to stay home.
That left me at the church by myself for most of the week. Understand that I have been a “church mouse” for most of my adult life. One of the privileges being in ministry has given me has been the opportunity to be in church buildings when nobody else is there. I have reveled in the silence, and the quiet of an empty church is a wonderful time to read the Bible and to pray, even to walk around and pray out loud. And I always go over the songs we sing before Sunday, usually several times, even if I’ve played them for years. I do enjoy just singing and playing the songs in the empty sanctuary, especially when the sunlight is coming in through the stained glass windows. I love it when the congregation meets to worship, but I love being at church by myself, too.
But last week felt different. With our secretary and custodian gone, and the “social distancing” guidelines in place, it really was just me at the church. And normally when I’m at church by myself, there is always another meeting to prepare for in a day or two or three. Wednesday and Sunday services come around with unvarying regularity.
Until now. Now, because of the coronavirus quarantine, we aren’t meeting on Wednesday evenings, and we aren’t having Sunday services. So there are no church meetings to prepare for, no times of coming together to anticipate. And that made the church building feel different to me. It just felt…empty. More empty than normal. The church is empty.
And it all hit me on Sunday morning as I walked in the building. A church building is supposed to be “met in”. A church building is supposed to have people in it, gathered together to worship God.
Sometimes you don’t realize how precious something is to you until you don’t have it. To be fair to myself, church has always been something that’s important to me, ever since God got ahold of me and “shook me” when I was eighteen years old. Before I became a pastor, even before I went to prepare for the ministry at a college where church attendance was mandatory, when the church doors were open, I was there. I didn’t go because I had to go, or because I was being paid to be there. I went because I wanted to be there. I still want to be there.
And it’s not because I like to endure tedious things. Truth be told, I have sat through some excruciatingly boring church services. (What’s really bad is where you’re the one leading the excruciatingly boring church service. If you’re in charge, you can’t get up and walk out.) And sometimes I have seen people behave in astonishingly bad ways in church, particularly business meetings. I have often shaken my head in disbelief at some of the things grown adults have said and done in church. But honestly, I haven’t been bored that often, and the people who misbehave are in the minority—a loud, obnoxious minority sometimes, but still a minority.
What I have experienced most of the time in church is this: friendly greetings, warm smiles, firm handshakes, and not a few hugs. I have experienced the unique joy of singing together with other people in a congregation. (People used to sing together at movie theaters. Did you know that? They’d put the words to a familiar song up on the screen and the announcer would say, “Just follow the bouncing ball!”) And I have experienced wonderful words of affirmation from other believers who have loved me and my family through some pretty tough times. For all of that, I am grateful.
Church can be pretty boring if you treat it like a show, with you in the role of spectator. If that’s what you do, you’d probably be better off staying home and watching TV. But if you see church as a time to worship God alongside others, with you in the role of a participant, that changes everything. That means we’re there to pray to God together, to sing to God together, to support God’s work together, to hear God’s Word together (even the preacher), and to respond to God’s Spirit together. Then we leave the gathering of the church to go out into the world, to live for God together, even though we’re apart. It makes a difference when you know that brothers and sisters in Christ are facing the same challenges you are facing, as you try to live for Jesus day by day. Just knowing that you’re not alone makes a huge difference. That’s why it’s important for believers to “hang together”.
Somebody is going to point out that I’ve been using the word “church” when referring to the church building. “The church isn’t a building; the church is the people who meet in the building.” As a friend of mine would say: “I know that!” We all know that. And we know that a building isn’t to be worshiped; it’s for worshiping in. Often we use a kind of verbal shorthand and say the word “church” when we mean “church building”. It makes conversation less tedious. We all understand that the church building isn’t the church.
But that doesn’t mean the building isn’t special to us. By the end of the first century, Christians were meeting together to worship in Simon Peter’s old house in Capernaum. They expanded it several times to accommodate the gatherings, and archaeologists have found no evidence of pottery shards there. That means the house wasn’t used to live in, it was used only as a house of worship. The fact that early Christians worshiped there and enlarged it from time to time shows that the building was very special to them.
And our church building is special to us, too. Many people gave sacrificially in order to build it. And I was there when a large group of our “senior saints” took the last mortgage payment to the bank to pay it off. Some of them wept as they told me they wanted to make sure the next generation of our church could go forward with the building debt-free.
Too many take church for granted. “It’s always been there, it’ll always be there. If I want to go, I can. But if it doesn’t fit my schedule this week, if I’m covered up, or if I just don’t feel like going, then I won’t go. It’ll be there next week.”
Until it’s not.
Sometimes we don’t realize how precious something is to us until we don’t have it any more. I love the church. My wife and I love this church. When we go on vacation, we can’t wait to get back and worship with our church family again. I know many of you feel the same way.
I pray that this strange time of quarantine will soon be over. And I pray it will awaken the realization in many of us how precious it is to meet together as a church to worship God. After all, Jesus valued the church so much He purchased it with His sacrifice on the cross. May we all love the church, too, and “…care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)
I can’t wait until we can all meet together to worship in our building again.
Until then, as Charles Osgood used to say: “See you on the radio!”
Soli Deo Gloria!