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No one has memory of times like these when the American church has wrestled with nationwide closure of our weekend gatherings. For many now, church, like school, has moved home. If COVID-19 continues to have this effect through or even beyond Easter, what opportunity does this present that we would not have any other way? How should we see this moment as sowers of awakening?
Church is suddenly becoming simple again. With programming at a near halt, church has quickly become distilled back to the potential of “plain Scriptural Christianity” by which Wesley benchmarked the awakening of his day. And that could be opening unprecedented doors for awakening in our day. It’s tempting to swoop in and try to relieve each Sunday’s diaspora with our best effort at an online replica of weekly worship. But what if we took an awakening posture toward these inconveniences? What if right now is the truest test we’ve ever faced of how we are actually equipping, not merely feeding, our fellowships? It was the inadequate number of ordained clergy that led to the calling up of hundreds of lay preachers who became the backbone of early Methodism. Similarly, now could be a moment like never before in the American Christian movement for the surge of the priesthood of all believers. And all through history, that is what awakening has looked like.
We could make moves of church surrogacy, creating substitutes and filling in gaps to send a message of “we’re not sure you all can do this at home, so just let the professionals handle it.” Or we could move toward deputizing dads and moms to be preachers and teachers, authorizing singles and students to be prayer leaders and disciplers, with church staff energy then invested in hosting webinars on how to do those things rather than only live-streaming our services. For decades Sunday mornings in America have been populated by many who were there because our spouse expects it, or our friends enjoy it, or our kids need it, or our career benefits from it, or our routine supports it. Right now, though, COVID-19 is piercing through all of that with unavoidable reminders of human fragility in the form of daily virus testing numbers. How we help people get to God and grapple with their most ultimate concerns, at home with those closest to them—that could be an awakening prospect unlike what we may ever see again.
But it would not be unprecedented. Home has always been a hearth of awakening fire. Jonathan Edwards’ Faithful Narrative of the first Great Awakening began with the conversion of Phebe Bartlett who had been deeply “affected in a time of family prayer.” Wesley transcribed the entirety of his mother, Susannah’s, instruction regarding family worship into his journal on August 1, 1742, the day of her funeral, to ensure its broad publication. Duncan Campbell focused on home, along with heart, church, and community, as the essential localities of the Hebridean Revival. A friend this week reminded me of the documentary Sheep Among Wolves telling the story of Gospel expansion today in Iran, a movement with no buildings, no hierarchy, led principally by women in homes, yet resulting in more people meeting Jesus in recent decades than in the previous thirteen centuries combined of Islam’s existence in the region. But this all goes down to our deepest root as the people of God, how His love and power operate in the home. Another friend texted recently about how Passover (Ex 12) could frame our awakening vision now: God’s call to His children to enter our homes, “shelter in place,” turn our tables into altars, and be ready to leave behind what we have known for something better.
In less than three weeks we will remember Jesus’ final Passover, His crucifixion, and our victory in the Resurrection. If conditions remain as they are, what will that be like: the first Easter at home in American history? What if Easter this year is not about the lilies and gorgeous music. Not about big attendance and family brunch? All of that is likely to be stripped away, and for the first time in living memory Easter can only be about the living Christ, risen from the dead. In a time of daily mortality counts, this Resurrection Day could declare more personally than ever before, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting!” (I Cor 15:55 [NLT]) And all of that will unfold in the simplicity and shelter of our homes.
Maybe we start thinking now about how to help friends and families lead their own sunrise services. Perhaps in a new way we experience Jesus in the presence of a band-sized church, where two or three are gathered. Because the awakening we long for will never rise above the worship life and prayer life of our households. Sometime, eventually, we will be looking back on this moment, so full of opportunity that we could not have any other way. Could it be that we don’t have to seek awakening right now, but that instead it is coming home to us?
Through March 28th, 2020, download Grow at Home: A Beginner’s Guide to Family Discipleship for free in our store.