A Lesson from Stephen About Doing Church in a Time of Chaos
By Caleb Kaltenbach
UFOs . . . Harry and Meghan stepping away from the royal family . . . Carole Baskin . . . murder hornets . . . the Golden Gate Bridge making music . . . Zoom-using 95-year-olds . . . America, the land of homeschooling. . . . If you had asked me a year ago what all of these things would have in common, I never—in a million years—would have guessed 2020.
Until this year, you probably didn’t say “in-person gatherings,” “flatten the curve,” “PPP loan,” and “new normal” . . . but now you do. Rarely did you mention “coronavirus” (or “rona”), “quarantine,” and “Zoombombing” . . . but now you do. You didn’t attend webinars on mental health, social distancing, and in-person vs. digital services . . . but now you do. In January 2020, you didn’t know Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, or George Floyd . . . but now you do.
The future church arrived suddenly and unannounced. Leaders of churches, ministry organizations, and Christian educational institutions had to become digital experts overnight. As I write this, most churches have reinstituted in-person worship services, but leaders still discuss masks during services, the proper method for handling Communion, sanitization of ministry areas, managing social media outrage, and discouraging “greeting one another with a holy kiss” (that last one was a joke . . . kinda).
So, how do we continue to respond to the dumpster fire that is 2020? How should church be done? Better yet, what should be our attitude toward how church should be done?
Stephen’s death provides a takeaway that may help us manage our attitude during 2020’s chaos. Right before his death, “Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). Stephen then asked God not to count his death against the people (7:60). In a pivotal moment when Stephen could’ve been angry and selfish, he chose to be faithful and humble. While in the midst of lethal opposition, Stephen’s actions and words were reminiscent of Jesus—the perfect example of humility.
Because of Stephen’s example and that of other leaders, the church grew under persecution. New Testament scholar T. B. Williams wrote in 2016, “Patient endurance during times of trial is not simply a means of achieving divine favor; it has become the very definition of how a Christian relates to God.” I believe God is attracted to humility. Humility during trials—no matter what kind of trial—fosters healthy churches and Christians.
Similarly, Paul challenged us to imitate Jesus’ humility in Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Value Others First
With Stephen’s example and Paul’s words in mind, how do we “do church” today? What should our attitude be? How should we respond to both new government rules and personal preferences?
A start might be to consistently ask ourselves: “How can I value them over me?” After all, Jesus reveres this kind of thinking. And we must keep coming back to the question, “How can I value them over me,” even when we are tempted to do otherwise . . . even when our personal feelings are unacknowledged . . . even when we have feelings like . . .
• I’m tired of social distancing during worship services.
• Online reservations for church offend me.
• It would be easier to sing without a mask.
• Wearing gloves for Communion is dumb.
• Sanitizing a room five times a day is getting old.
• I’m going to join the social media outrage mafia.
• I don’t agree with what they said!
Though it’s not wrong to be frustrated—certainly everyone experiences frustration—it is wrong to force our opinions on others “in the moment.” It’s troublesome when we’re able to manage our frustration but selfishly decide against doing so at the expense of others just so we can “make a statement.” There are times and places to make such statements, but during an in-person worship service isn’t the time or place. It takes the focus away from Jesus when people should be worshipping him—especially during a season like this one.
Martin Luther’s words in Wittenberg during the bubonic plague might set an example for us in valuing others first. He wrote,
I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person.
For some, this kind of humility begins by repenting of sin. Humility will include recognizing that others need comfort and need to experience healing. It will involve learning. It will include embracing biblical justice and acknowledging intrinsic human value . . . and speaking up when there is injustice and when humans are devalued.
Asking that question again and again—“How can I value them over me?”—brings us back to Jesus’ example and how true Christianity has grown through the years. Historian Everett Ferguson asked in his book, Church History, Volume One,
Could anything be more improbable than that a religion following a man born of an unwed mother among a widely despised people in an out-of-the-way part of the world—a man then crucified by the ruling authorities on a charge of treason—should become the official religion of the Roman world, the formative influence on Western civilization, and a significant influence in other parts of the world?
God has probably leveraged 2020 to sift you physically, emotionally, and spiritually. (I know he has been testing and purifying me.) I pray it leads all of us to humbly love God and people more.
Caleb Kaltenbach is an author and leads The Messy Grace Group. He and his family reside in Southern California.
(Be sure to read this article’s companion piece, a Bible study of persecution of the New Testament Church by John Whittaker: “Unstoppable.”)