For over a year, First Baptist Church of Oak Park, alongside countless other congregations in our community, have been gathering virtually for worship and discussion groups. It has been quite challenging, frustrating, draining, and overwhelming to be completely virtual.
Still, it has also proven fruitful and life-giving as each congregation has developed new ways of reaching congregants. Our congregation is more active today than before the pandemic because we’ve added weekly Zoom discussion groups and prayer gatherings to our schedule. Throughout this time, I’ve pondered: What is the church?
For much of my life, the church was synonymous with a structure. Gathering with other worshippers in the sanctuary, singing hymns, praying prayers, reading scripture, delivering the spoken word — this was the church for me. But in the past year, I’ve been unable to do that. So I’ve grappled with a new definition of church.
In the early first century, followers of a man named Jesus from a lowly place in Galilee called Nazareth gathered on Mount Olivet.
The followers expected Jesus to restore the kingdom to Israel. Instead, they accepted the work Jesus had begun as their own: they became the church. And they did a pretty good job, at first. They sold all of their possessions and gave money to one another as they had need. They worshipped and ate together. They comforted each other. They shouldered burdens that weren’t their own. They followed in Jesus’ footsteps and grew in number daily.
What a sight it must have been. People of all races, ethnicities, languages, genders, and age were working together to make the world a better place. But it didn’t last long. Quickly, some of the followers saw themselves as true believers while others were not worthy. Therefore, they began to build up barriers between the righteous and the unrighteous to the point that some people were left out entirely. Since that time, the church has found ways to knock down many barriers while also building up new ones.
We know this is the case. The exclusion parameters have varied: gender, creed, race, orientation, class … the list goes on. Each time another barrier erects, the church diminishes more and more into something unrecognizable by the One who set it into motion.
If one goes back to encounter the message of Jesus, they will find these words of instruction:
• Love your neighbor as yourself.
• Do to others what you’d want them to do to you.
• Love all people … even your enemies.
• Don’t look at the faults of other people before inspecting yourself.
• Don’t hold grudges. If someone offends you, talk about it.
• Don’t repay evil with evil (Or as my mom says, “Two wrongs don’t make a right”).
Perhaps I’m entirely off base, but I struggle to imagine anyone would disagree with the validity of these teachings. One must not ascribe to the other teachings of Jesus to love their neighbor, treat others with respect, put others’ needs ahead of their own, accept faults, forgive one another, and resist violence and evil. Throughout this pandemic year, we’ve seen evidence of people (regardless of faith background or no faith background) who have done these things and more to ensure safety and meet people’s needs in our community.
Unfortunately, at the same time, we’ve also seen too many examples of churches denying the guidance of scientists trying to contain COVID-19, turning a blind eye toward countless injustices perpetrated every day, neglecting to love our neighbors as ourselves, and disregarding the most basic of Jesus’ teachings. It’s a hard truth to admit, but it is the truth. We cannot be part of the solution to these challenges unless we first acknowledge them. To meet the needs of the community around us, the church needs to become the church again.
In the early days of Eastertide and as we gradually return to in-person worship experiences, I ask myself the difficult question: how does the church become the church again? I believe the church can only reclaim its identity by looking to the mothers and fathers of faith from the first century and throughout the ages who followed the teachings of Jesus in word and action. Our problem isn’t Jesus. Our problem is following him. The church must salvage its mission to serve as witnesses to who Jesus Christ truly is. The question is: Will we?
Rev. David John Hailey is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Oak Park.