The Great Resignation of the Local Church: A Review of the Pandemic and The Enduring Culture of Change

This is a sort of rambling look-back at the last two years and an encouragement for Christians to pause and reconsider outside of their circumstances and by looking at the broader picture. This look-back begins early in 2020, when society underwent a change akin to a pressure cooker.

For those who don’t know, a pressure cooker is a sealed pot that uses pressurized steam forcing food to cook faster. It’s great because the elements in the pot are all forced to cook together to create something that is a unique blend of the different flavors. Thing is, too much pressure and the pot can cause catastrophic damage. It’s so much pressure that you have to slowly release the steam so that you can manually open the pot.

That happened to all of us in 2020.

Christians in the Broader Pressures in Culture

There was (and while I’m writing this in 2021, there still is) a global pandemic of a novel coronavirus strain that seemed to originate in China (then thought to be pneumonia) and quickly spread to the rest of the world. To prevent the spread, there were closures of business, shutting down of travel, shutting down of in-person work and school, daily reporting of rising numbers of death, and parents now working from home while managing their children. No one got a break from one another and, even if this or that individual was afraid, they were surrounded by a cloud of fear, opinions, and pseudo-science.

In the United States, it was also a presidential election year. The health crisis was politicized, party lines were deeply drawn, and positions that in the past were avoided as the basis of impolite conversation, became table stakes in the non-personalized, disembodied halls of social media.

Fellow Christians helped one another trying to encourage one another but few were ready. Overnight, people who were used to meeting together and navigating each other’s foibles, were completely disconnected leaving non-expert pastors and elders and deacons trying to figure out how to leverage their internet connection to help.

Add to these ingredients the further centralization and mass adoption of the psychological human. The topic of identity was already big in regard to race and then gender, but it became a pressurized ingredient with everything else.

Individual Christians Drinking In Pressures Unaware

Individuals, who were close to all of this, didn’t look at this from a macro-perspective.  They each saw their own situation is unique and, though it was, it all had a similar shape. Police officers and medical staff, all first responders who had to continue working through this, were navigating a situation that no one in the world was equipped to navigate since the last time something like this had happened was a hundred years ago and the world was nowhere near as psychologically connected as it is today.

In public, police shootings, public outrage, social media abuzz with hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, and political flames stoked by a President who used the bully pulpit in unwise and dangerous ways eventually leading up to the storming of the United States Capitol. At home, increased forms of abuse, depression, stress, fear, and a redoubling in sins that are within reach.

In all of this, no matter what platitudes my fellow brothers and sisters could offer one another, we were all embroiled in all of it and we atomized our perspectives. No matter the number of times one would waive away the concerns, it was essentially part of the air we breathed and did not realize that we had parsed it all down to our own individual level.

Christians and the Pressures of the Resignation Culture

In 2021, these pressures, amidst loosened restrictions and new opportunities to work further from jobs, were part of the motivators of the great resignation.  In the workplace, some left their jobs in 2020, others just couldn’t work at all and were supported by delayed payouts, but 2021 we saw an explosion of people leaving workplaces to go to other jobs. Low wages were seen for what they were: unimportant in light of greater things. Jobs that allowed the flexibility for a person to stay safe at home and were willing to pay for the needed talent of a now greatly increased digital marketplace grew. While the hospitality industry suffered, especially in restaurants who are almost begging for table waiting staff, other industries saw a dramatic need and uptick.

In 2021, it got to the point that people were willing to take on debt while searching for a new job than continue in the conditions before the pandemic. Identity and mental wellness had long joined forces but now was united through the pandemic pressure cooker.

This same thing was also happening with local churches. 2020 was the year of explosive church splits and 2021 is turning out to be the year of the church resignation where people, be it leadership or lay people, simply change their place of gathering and, sometimes, with no intention of actually committing to the church gathering or the perceived weak leadership.

Individuals saw their situation has unique but, the truth is, everyone had reasons. The problem is that no one paused to look around and see that everyone had reasons at the same time. That should’ve given everyone pause that, whatever individually is going on, maybe, just maybe, we’re being affected by what is occurring at the macro level.

It wasn’t to be helped.

Christians Ignoring the Pressures that Breed Disunity

Protestants, who didn’t have a proper understanding of the necessity of the physical, and maybe more than anyone, didn’t even realize how missing facial expressions (or other non-verbal-yet-physical clues) are critical for human communication and relationships, snapped. Church goers, even in the frigid North East, who were uncomfortable with everything from handshakes to hugs, didn’t realize that the non-human touch of a non-family member helped relationships. This wasn’t helped by everyone leveraging the necessary tool of a face mask to prevent spreading of the virus. This wasn’t helped by church leaders working to the point of complete exhaustion. This wasn’t helped by weeks of disconnectedness inflating past issues to the point of incompatibility.

The BBC, in end of 2021, reported a spike of divorces and breakups. The closest of relationships underwent such strain that these couples couldn’t maintain unity: they had had enough. Time will tell if the same occurred in other countries. No fault divorce, of course, leaves this as an easy option. Likewise, In June 2020, Lifeway reported that one of the top pressure points for local churches was maintaining unity. It was a late warning indicator during a time that churches were starting to open again. The damage had been done and people hadn’t really dealt with what was going on. Instead, leveraging the individualistic language of identity and mental health, and the tools of virtually meeting anywhere, many Christians were already referring to their own church gatherings—that they hadn’t had in a few months, basically 16 Sundays—as oppressive, abusive, uncaring, or toxic.

Christians Never Encouraged to Split Churches

I find it telling that when Paul wrote the church at Corinth (you know, the messed-up church with divisions, idolatry, prostitution, people getting drunk at the Lord’s supper, outright chaos during gatherings, and extreme power plays) not once did he tell the people to start a new church or find another church. He expected them to meet. The one time he comes close to telling them to stay home is regarding the Lord’s Supper. He tells them that their meeting does more harm than good and that when they are coming together it’s not for the Lord’s Supper but for something else. Yet, instead of telling them to give up on being a church, he tells them to have their meals at home then come together to take part of the Lord’s Supper.

The Thessalonians, formed after two-weeks of ministry, Paul checks up on them to make sure they’re still meeting. The Galatians, being infiltrated by a crowd of people who are polluting the message that Christ also came to save Gentiles by grace through faith apart from works, Paul encourages to learn the Gospel again and to bear one another’s burdens. Jesus sends letters to several churches through his intermediary, John. He never tells any of the people in those churches to go meet elsewhere. Instead, he issues a corporate praise and warning.

There were no other churches around. Nor was that an option. These people, of all types of different cultures, sometimes as wide as historically pantheon believing pagans and monotheistic Jews, had to figure out that they were one unified people of God and deal with all of the interpersonal and doctrinal issues.

I used to joke about the color of the carpets or if men wore ties as reasons for splits, but now, Christians have justified church splits and made it a moral high ground. Something Scripture speaks directly against.

Christians Reforming Churches

I purposefully used the term Protestant above. Do recall, that the reformation was primarily an attempt to reform the church. That reform had to do with the fact that the church seemed to have abandoned Scripture in her other pursuits. Reformation is good but what must be careful about making every topic a die-on-the-hill issue that necessitates separation.  

I’ve spoken about why church is important, but I think I need to go back underline why a long-term commitment to a local church is good for our souls. It’s easy to hop from church to church every two to five years, and be carried along on the winds of change and experience. It’s even easier to be part of a mass of people who perform an exodus from their local churches and pat each other on the back for the outward momentum. It’s much harder to commit to a local church for a lifetime.

Christians, Slow Down

I think it merits its own post, but one should go very slow before leaving a local church. I don’t mean “take two months to mull it over while attending a different church”. That is not slow. Two months is essentially 8 Sundays. If an average Sunday is 2 hours long, during this time of consideration one is essentially taking 16 hours of exposure to a new place to decide.

No, commitment to the local church means looking at an assembly through the perspective of the cross and the empty tomb. It means viewing people as purchased by the blood of Jesus as a new family we will spend all of eternity with in the last day. It is looking at the local assembly from God’s point of view. These are His people, not mine. I am here not as an individual for my own glory, but for the Lord and His glory. These are saints called according to God’s grace. That God is building us all up together to the full stature or the head who is Christ Jesus our Lord. That, just as I take this one bread and partake of the body of Jesus, I am proclaiming that my brothers and sisters next to me are also part of this same body, and we are knit together by God. That we are expected to meet until he returns.

It means that we must override the culture narrative that we are always taking in and expressing individually. We must override that narrative with the proper corporate story found in God’s plan. It means going slow while culture tells us to move fast. It means properly aligning our perspective with what is in the word of God and being careful with our own tricky perspectives.

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