Several weeks of online-only services or meeting in small group ‘bubbles’ may have left some wondering whether returning to in-person church attendance is necessary. Steve Whittle shares his personal salvation story as an example of the importance of the local church to spiritual growth. And Russell Embling looks at Jesus’ command to love one another as a compelling reason to continue corporate worship and service.
A wider family
Before COVID-19 restrictions on gathering sizes lifted, one Sunday we ‘did church’ at my place. There were nine of us and a guitar. We talked a bit about the message I had put up online, and had a nice time of breaking bread and chatting about life in general. It felt great.
During lockdown, I had a bit of time to ponder what was going to happen with church attendance in the future. I thought some folk might decide, “Well I ‘did Jesus’ at home OK, so why not just carry on that way?”
I can understand this because I enjoyed the time out too. But I am the pastor, so I had to get back in there and do my thing! We resumed our services on Pentecost Sunday, which seemed like a fitting day to regather as the body of Christ.
So why church as we know it? Why not just meet at home and do what we did in our group of nine? My answer is simply because we can. It will always be ‘the more, the merrier’, no matter what we attempt and whatever ideas we may come up with. If it is truly church it will grow, and so it should.
But the best way for me to explain ‘why church?’ is to tell my story.
Encounter with God
In 1990 my wife Robyn and I and our three children were living in a 100-year-old run-down kauri homestead on a four-hectare block at Manawaru, 14 kms from Te Aroha. Up until I went out into the world at 15 years old, I had gone with my parents to the Anglican church in Huntly. Robyn had never been involved in any type of church at all.
On 1st October 1990, I had the most incredible encounter with the Spirit of God at home by myself. All I had revealed to me was Jesus, yet this encounter was so amazing that I pulled up all the dope plants growing in my glasshouse and completely changed the way I had been thinking for 34 years. In other words, I repented.
When Robyn arrived home that afternoon and met me at the door, I told her I had been visited by God. She immediately thought I had gone over the edge with drugs and she was quite freaked out. But when I told her what happened, she calmed somewhat. She could see I was a completely different person than the one she had left that morning.
We had been to see a counsellor named Graham in Morrinsville the week before the encounter. The Lord spoke to me and told me to ring him, as he would have some answers. I told Graham what had happened to me. He was excited and told me he had experienced something similar many years before. He explained a little to me, and we had another meeting with him the following Thursday.
Robyn at this stage was amazed at the change in me—no more smoking marijuana and I was just a completely different person.
Church? No thanks!
When we next met with Graham, he said he’d pray about which church God wanted to plant us in. He ‘led me to the Lord’—I was already led but, hey, it didn’t hurt saying a nice prayer—and then he asked my wife if she would like to receive Christ as her Lord and Saviour.
I went out and left them to it. Robyn came out quite agitated after about a minute. Graham followed us out and said he would contact us as soon as he got some direction on a church. We made an appointment to meet him the following week and he gave us a Good News Bible.
We were driving home and Robyn said, “Who the heck does he think he is, telling me I’m a sinner?” She had taken offence and would not go on with the prayer.
I explained to her about living together unmarried was called ‘living in sin’ in the 60s and 70s, and swearing was probably not really a good thing to be doing (two of our sins!). It was like a knife cutting across her heart. Robyn came under conviction and started her journey of healing and relationship with the Lord.
We discussed the church bit and we both decided that we didn’t really need that part of Christianity. We were all good and would just carry on as we were. Our understanding of church was that all it wanted was your money.
Race with the Devil
That Saturday we were going to Waihi, to Robyn’s parents’ wedding anniversary at the pub. On Saturday afternoon we drove over to Robyn’s sister’s place, dropped our three children off and went to the party. The word was out that we had spun out on Jesus and no one really wanted to have an awful lot to do with us. But we got through the evening, stayed the night, and then got up early the next morning to head home.
I had always been one with his feet firmly on the ground. No airy fairy stuff for me! But as we drove toward Paeroa, through the gorge, it was really heavy going.
You have to remember, my theology was based purely and simply on the horror movies I had seen. Robyn was feeling it; the kids were feeling it. Boy, it was freaky stuff! I told Robyn it reminded me of a movie I’d seen years before called Race with the Devil. This was 7.30am, next to no traffic and we were really not enjoying our ride home. We decided we would take the kids to the local Manawaru chapel for Sunday school.
Robyn was sitting holding onto our new Bible and all I knew to say was what Graham had told us: “I cover us in the blood of Jesus.” I had no idea what it all meant but I was beginning to figure out that if God’s for real then there probably is a devil.
We got to the outskirts of Te Aroha when suddenly a cow appeared on the road. I slowed to a crawl. We had both seen the cow, but then it was gone. My hands began to shake—like ‘under the power of God’ shake. I said to Robyn, “God’s visiting me, just like he did last week.” Then I spoke the words, “We are going to a church in Te Aroha.” Robyn replied, “I don’t know where there are any churches in Te Aroha.” I said, “Neither do I but we are going to one!”
The pastor waits
I was still under this power that was basically driving the car when I saw the bell tower of the old church right next door to the Jehovah Witnesses. I read the sign, which said ‘Pastor Waits’. I told Robyn, “It’s this one, and the minister is inside waiting for us.”
The front doors were closed so I said to Robyn, “Get the kids. The side door is open and he is in there waiting for us.” As I grabbed the door to open it, I met someone coming out. He was taken aback. All I wanted was to get in the church—more horror movie doctrine—and he was trying to calm me down because I was talking flat out.
We sat down in the church and he started asking us a few questions. Then the pastor said, “You’re not a couple who live out at Manawaru, are you?” He told us he’d had a phone call from a counsellor from Morrinsville the previous night, telling him about a couple whom he felt the Lord wanted the pastor to connect with. Graham had given him our phone number. That just blew my doors off!
The Lord had told the pastor to go to the church. When we arrived, he was just on his way back to the manse, puzzled why God had had him waiting down at the church.
As I found out, the pastor’s name was Russell Watts but I had read the sign as ‘Pastor Waits’!
God is ‘into’ church
So, the story is pretty crazy but it is what happened and 30 years on here we are still in the same church. I am convinced that God is into the small and large local church, and when folk tell me they no longer attend because of whatever reason I think, ‘Well you are missing out on such a blessing.’
There is no way we would have stood without the support of so many in that little fellowship. We grew and were blessed by so many, but we had to push through some hard times as well. If I hadn’t had that experience it could have been a lot easier to run, but I used to say, “Well God drove me in here and he can just as easily get me out.”
So why church? Because I have four children who were all baptised in this little church. They are all committed to the Lord and attend churches, as do my nine grandchildren. Their lives are nothing like my life was pre-Jesus and it is because we instilled value on attending the local church wherever you are, and being a part of a wider family than your own.
Why church? Because Jesus said, “You are going to a church in Te Aroha” and that is good enough for us.
Contributor: Steve Whittle
Steve and Robyn have been pastoring in Te Aroha since 2003. They have four grown‑up children and nine grandchildren. They have been walking the Jesus way since 1990. Prior to the call to ministry, Steve worked as a fitter welder and Robyn was a full‑time mum.
Evidence of love
COVID-19 has shaken us up. It has affected everyone in some way, which has meant that whole communities are needing to rediscover how they function. This has also had an impact on the local church.
In some cases churches have bounced back as strong as they were pre-COVID, or even stronger. Some of the things they were able to do differently have stuck and increased their effectiveness.
In some cases local churches have struggled to regain momentum. The break away from church gatherings has given some people the opportunity to withdraw from fellowship or to look for another one to connect with. This may well have given opportunity that they wanted but didn’t feel comfortable with doing anything about before, especially if the congregation is a smaller one.
Loving each other
Whatever our post-COVID-19 experience, I believe it is a good time to remind ourselves of what it means to be a participating member of a local church.
Firstly it is a response to the one significant command given to us by Jesus himself in John 13:34 (NLT): “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.”
That sounds simple enough until you try to do it. To help us get to grips with that I want to suggest four things we can do that will start to give evidence to the love we are to show to each other. These are found in Hebrews 10:23-25 and Acts 2:42.
1. Regularly gathering together
Coming together regularly says to the other members of the fellowship that we value their friendship and support through this journey we call life. In Acts 2:46 we discover that the early Christians met on a daily basis, or at the very least, on Sunday (Acts 20:7). One thing we never find the New Testament writers accepting are non-gathering Christians. In fact it seems like these believers just couldn’t get enough of each other. Meeting together once every four or five weeks would never have sustained them. It would never have shown their Christian friends that they really do love them.
Sadly many Christians today have neglected this foundational demonstration of love for each other. Thomas missed a significant encounter with Jesus because he took a Sunday to go to the beach or wherever (John 20:24).
2. Faithfully serving together
We are designed for community, and although we can do things on our own there is nothing better than doing it with friends. It is as we do it together that we “motivate one another to acts of love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24, NLT).
We are better together, that’s why one of the greatest pictures of this gathered community is the body. (See Corinthians 12 about gifts of the Spirit and the important interrelationship between the many parts of the body.) Our non-attendance and non-participation in this gathered community we call the ‘church’ means some members are doing what they don’t feel cut out for by the Holy Spirit because other members aren’t involved. That is never going to bring glory to God and growth to his church.
To draw an analogy, although we marvel at the feats of amputees who compete at Paralympics, we appreciate that their disability hinders them from achieving what an able‑bodied Olympian will achieve. It would be an eternal pity if our non-attendance during COVID-19 caused our churches to ‘dismember’ themselves and therefore function in a way that is less than their potential.
3. Joyfully fellowshipping together
Read again Acts 2:42-46, about the fellowship of the early church. This is love in action; this is doing life together!
There are two simple and practical questions that can help us understand how much we love each other.
- During the past three months, how many people have invited you for a coffee or meal that wasn’t church related?
- During the past three months, how many people have you invited for a coffee or meal that wasn’t church related?
Fellowship demonstrates love; it encourages persistence; it creates a spirit of acceptance and togetherness. These are all things that we can’t enjoy and develop on our own. By coming together regularly we put ourselves in a position where fellowship can start to be enjoyed. It reaches into our homes and we start creating activities that bring us together: coffees, meals, outings and visits. Fellowship also becomes a key to burden bearing as we grow to love and trust each other.
During our alert level four lockdown, we at Katikati Community Baptist Church did what most did and conducted our meetings via Zoom. We found them to be effective and efficient as a meeting, but what we missed was sitting around with a cup of coffee, before, during or after the meeting and enjoying the connection that Zoom couldn’t provide.
4. Enthusiastically worshipping together
Something many of our people missed during the lockdown was singing together. We know that singing isn’t the only way to worship, but it is one all-inclusive experience of worship. Then there were the times when we wanted to meet for prayer and praise but couldn’t.
What we miss when we fail to meet together in a worship experience is the ability to bounce our worship and praise involvement off another’s. It stimulates and motivates our worship.
Worship is seen in our complete and total surrender of who we are and whatever we have to the Lord Jesus. Remember Romans 12:1?
Beloved friends, what should be our proper response to God’s marvelous mercies? I encourage you to surrender yourselves to God to be his sacred, living sacrifices. And live in holiness, experiencing all that delights his heart. For this becomes your genuine expression of worship (TPT).
So as we continue coming to grips with our post-COVID experience, let’s take to heart the encouragement in Hebrews 10:25.
This is not the time to pull away and neglect meeting together, as some have formed the habit of doing, because we need each other! In fact, we should come together even more frequently, eager to encourage and urge each other onward as we anticipate that day dawning (TPT).
We don’t do it because it is good for us—although it will be—but because it is good for the people you meet when you do gather.
Contributor: Russell Embling
Russell, with his wife Lois, has been involved in Christian ministry for 46 years. This started in France and the UK before spending 16 years co-leading a discipleship-focused Bible College. The last 24 years he has pastored in four different churches. They are currently serving as pastors with the Katikati Community Baptist Church.
- During lockdown or gathering size restrictions, what did you most miss about not meeting in person with your faith community? Did it give you a new appreciation for this facet of Christian life? If so, how has this changed, or will change, your participation in it?
- Do you agree with Russell that meeting together is not so much for your benefit but “for the people you meet”? Why, or why not?
- It is said that COVID-19 caused ‘online’ to become the new front door of the church. The upside of this is that seekers who previously may not have felt comfortable entering a church’s actual doors, have been able to ‘taste and see’ Christianity anonymously. As restrictions around gatherings are relaxed, how do you think churches can try and engage with these people and draw them alongside and inside?
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked TPT are from The Passion Translation®. Copyright © 2017, 2018 by Passion & Fire Ministries, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ThePassionTranslation.com.