Discerning returning

Lancaster county is now in the green phase and most churches around us are worshiping in their buildings, but we’re not.

Church council and Ministry team have met 3 times since June 4 to discern when God wants us to return to worshiping in our church building and that is why we are not worshiping in our building yet, we are waiting to hear from God through the Spirit. Millie and I have been preaching the need for discernment in our meetings and we decided to practice what we preach so we chose that our first attempt will be to discern when we return to our church building for worship.

At the time Millie and I decided this, we were still in the red phase and I thought, at the time, that we’d probably be in the red phase until the middle or end of June because covid-19 cases were still not decreasing very fast. My guess was wrong. We didn’t have as much time as I thought we would and that added to my stress.

Spiritual discernment is not about voting, but about coming to consensus with what the Spirit is telling us. Normally when we want to make decide to return to our building for worship, we would probably vote.

On this past Thursday, Millie and I shared with Church council and Ministry team what God had been putting on our hearts. The basic message can be found in the June 28 worship video on YouTube. God is asking us “Where is your heart? What do you really want when you go to church? Are you really looking for God, or is something else more important to you?

We also shared that in these past 3 months we have all become witnesses to something extraordinary: thousands of churches have closed their church buildings in the US alone, but we are not alone in this. Churches around the world have closed their buildings in response to covid-19. Never before has this happened. We are all witnesses of this, but Millie and I are saying this is a wake up call from God to the church. God is trying to show us something and to tell us something. We can only see what God is showing us when we are kept outside the “comfort” of our church building. If we return to worship in our building before we see what God is showing us we will miss it. It’s like God shaking us awake and then we say “hi” to God and then turn over and fall asleep again.

When Millie and I returned from sabbatical to leading worship on March 22, the building had already been closed to worship the Sunday before on March 15. Since then, Millie and I have been preoccupied with the practical aspects of doing church work in a pandemic. We had to learn how to do online worship gatherings. We had to learn Zoom. We had to work at staying connected in a lock down. We all had to deal with the frustrations of technology and trying to stay connected. We were distracted not only with the practical aspects of worship in a lock down, but also with the politics of the lock down.

God was trying to warn us about something on March 8 when Phil Shertzer preached at our church. I listened to the recorded message and I talked about it on April 5th and I’m going to remind you what I said on April 5th

March 8th was the last service that we had in our church building. Phil Shertzer was preaching. His message, centered on being baptized with the Holy Spirit of God. Phil talked about how being baptized with the Holy Spirit will turn our world upside down. As I was listening to the recording, a particular part of his message caught my attention:

“There is major change coming to the church of Jesus Christ. That includes MMC, that includes the Mennonite denomination. Some of the structures and the things we trusted in for years are crumbling. They are changing they no longer work. It doesn’t mean that God is asleep. It just means that God is about to change some things. Are we ready to roll with those changes?”

Phil Shertzer (message to Millersville Mennonite on March 8, 2020)

The very next week, March 15, things changed. And they are still changed. Our structure of Sunday morning gatherings at our church building is changed. God is not asleep. It means though that God is changing things. Are we ready to roll with those changes?

That’s what I said on April 5th. What Phil shared with you before the lock down has caused me to wonder, but I was too distracted with practical matters to think of the spiritual significance of closing all these church buildings.

Conrad Kanagy is another source of discernment during the lock down. He started sharing messages in email then on Facebook and then on a podcast in May (https://www.buzzsprout.com/1109915). His series is called “A Church Dismantled” and Millie and I have looked at and pondered what Conrad has been saying.

While Conrad’s messages are about God’s message to the church in the pandemic and the dangers of returning to normal church without figuring out what God is telling us, I did not connect God’s reason for closing church doors around the world as the sign that God is trying to wake us up to see something that is outside our church buildings.

So when we got to our discernment meetings on June 4th and 11th, I knew there was something that God was trying to tell us, but I didn’t know what it was because I couldn’t see the connection. My only thought was that we could return to worship in our building if we do it right and the Spirit would guide us in the correct way. There are so many problems with many different opinions that are all entangled with politics that gathering together would take a transcendent mind to figure it out. As Conrad puts it, it puts pastors in a “no win” situation, a place I don’t like. My hope is that the Spirit would show us a way.

On our June 4th and 11th meetings, a lot was shared. There were some spiritual insights and many practical questions about opening the church building for worship again. Many of us are ready to return to worshiping in the building right now, but the Spirit isn’t ok with this.

Every time I left those meetings I felt like a big weight had been dropped on my shoulders and it was making me anxious and stressed. In all our meetings I couldn’t figure out what the Spirit was trying to tell us. How could we get back together in our building again and all be on the same page with God when we couldn’t figure out what God is trying to tell us.

For around a week I had felt that Jesus had abandoned our meetings altogether. That we’d never be able to understand what the Spirit was telling us. For a while, I wanted to give up discernment, and instead vote when we should return. It would be easier, but whenever I thought about doing that, I felt like I was being unfaithful to what Jesus was asking us to do.

When I prayed to ask God about why weren’t understanding anything from the Spirit, I was reminded of the scripture in Matthew 28 where Jesus tells his disciples that he is with us to the end of the age. It was also shared in the first meeting the story of Daniel chapter 3 where Daniel’s friends are put into a fire by king Nebuchadnezzar. I wasn’t in a fire, but I felt like my faithfulness was being tested. Daniel’s friends might’ve felt abandoned when they were put into the furnace, but God was in there with them.

At a Friday evening Bible study, I was reminded about fasting and how when people in scripture were in a desperate places, they would fast and pray. I was in a desperate place. So I started fasting breakfast so that I would take the time to pray and I asked God: When should we meet for worship in our building again. Everyday, I would pray the same question.

A few times I would wake up at night and I couldn’t go back to sleep because I worried about our next discernment meeting and still I had no idea what to say or to do at these meetings. So I’d pray at night while I couldn’t sleep: God, when should we return to worship in our building?

My morning prayers while fasting started turning toward wondering why God would want us to wait to return to worship in the building and I came to the following conclusion: because God wants us to see something which we can’t see in the church building. That thought has stuck with me since. The only reason to close all these thousands of church buildings all around the world all at the same time is to tell us: wake up, there is something to see outside the building and you’ll miss it if you go back now.

On Wednesday, Millie and I decided that we would share with Church council and Ministry team at the discernment meeting what God had laid on our hearts about returning to worship in the building.

On the night after our meeting, I woke up again and again I could not go back to sleep and I thought about what Millie and I shared at the discernment meeting the previous evening, that the closing of the church buildings around the world is the church’s testimony that God is calling us to wake up. We are all witnesses to this. The scripture in Revelation 3 came to mind at that time. God is trying to wake up the church in the middle of our sleep, to see something and be changed by it.

I do think that we will return to our church building for worship, but at the moment I feel like it will only be after we’ve been changed by what God is wanting us to see.

“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

Revelation 3:1-3 (NIV)
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