As I write this, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of over 513,000 people in the United States alone. A number that large can feel abstract and impersonal. For perspective, it’s roughly equal to the population of Sacramento, California. Can you imagine something wiping out the entire city of Sacramento? We see a gigantic number on a page, but for millions of people that number represents grandmas and grandpas, moms and dads, brothers and sisters. This deadly virus has decimated lives, leading to unquantifiable heartbreak and suffering.
But COVID-19 will claim other kinds of casualties as well. You won’t see numbers reported for these casualties. The national media isn’t interested in reporting on it, and even if it was, the data would be nearly impossible to accurately quantify. COVID-19 will also claim spiritual casualties.
Consider this: We are just now completing a full calendar year of lockdowns and restrictions due to COVID-19. For a whole year now, millions of Americans who previously lived out their faith in Christ in the context of healthy accountability as members of local churches have been prevented from doing so. Some have been prevented because their churches have stopped meeting. Some have been prevented because they made the decision to not go back to church until they deemed it safe enough to do so. Either way, one full year is plenty of time for one life-preserving habit to be replaced by a soul-deadening habit.
What is the impact of churchless Christianity? Churchless Christianity is Christless Christianity, for the church is “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). That may sound strange in individualistic modern America, but that is nothing other than New Testament Christianity. There is no such thing as Christianity without the local church. The local church, among other things, is the God-ordained means through which God, in his infinite wisdom, ensures that his people persevere until the end.
When God’s means of persevering grace is neglected, the ability to endure in the midst of a hostile culture is decimated. The lone individual is no match for the supernatural tempter and the world. We desperately need the support of other Christians (what the New Testament refers to one hundred times as “one another”), a steady diet of God’s Word preached and taught, and participation in declaring the Lordship of Christ through weekly worship. When these things are missing, the Lordship of Christ gets easily replaced by false gods that can’t save.
I’ve spoken with many concerned pastors over this past year. Many have expressed optimism that church members would return once the vaccine got rolling. We are now multiple phases into vaccine distribution and many vaccinated church members continue to make the choice to live apart from local church fellowship. How do you explain it? A new habit seems to have replaced a former habit. Life now seems conceivable without the church. The consequences won’t be reported, but trust me, they will be spiritually fatal.
In 1 Peter 1:6-7, Peter challenges the church to rejoice in “various trials” that they are facing. For Peter, trials are opportunities for faith to be validated. It is only through trials that the Christian can prove the genuineness of his or her faith. Trials don’t produce faith. Trials do not kill faith. Instead, trials prove faith. If faith perseveres through a trial, the Christian can grow in assurance that his or her faith is genuine. We need trials to validate whether our faith is real or not. It’s easy to have “faith” when nothing is at stake. The fire of testing is necessary for validation.
COVID-19 is the kind of trial that Peter is talking about. If that is the case, the virus itself cannot claim any spiritual casualties. It will, however, reveal the pre-existing condition of the heart—one that was formerly undetectable. It will, like other kinds of trials, wash away any façade that masked the heart’s true condition. False faith will not stand under the pressure of trials. Fake Christians won’t continue in the faith after a pandemic.
COVID-19 has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of our beloved brothers and sisters. As Christ’s church we must do everything we can to ensure that it doesn’t rob millions more of beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. The ancient question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has already been answered affirmatively for members of Christ’s body. Don’t be apathetic towards disappearing church members. Don’t let COVID-19 claim another soul.