COVID-19 has revealed a lot of things about ourselves that we’d rather not know. We’ve discovered how much we’ve taken our lifestyle for granted. We’ve confronted the limits of our control over our lives. We’ve realised the extent of our selfishness and disobedience as a society. But of all the things that COVID has exposed, the one I find most disturbing is our lacklustre attitude to church.
For all the joy of seeing familiar faces again, the real tragedy is the faces we aren’t seeing. Some people haven’t come back.
Over on the west coast, churches have been meeting physically for about six weeks. And for all the joy of seeing familiar faces again, the real tragedy is the faces we aren’t seeing. Some people haven’t come back. They’ve been isolated from the herd. And this poses a threat more deadly than any coronavirus.
Part of the Herd
I don’t know whether you’ve ever thought of yourself as part of a herd. As individuals raised in a society dominated by individualism it is not a thought that we frequently have. In fact, it is only since COVID-19 that the concept of herd immunity has become widespread, and with it, the notion that we are, in some sense, a herd creature.
The Bible holds a similar understanding of Christians. We are part of a herd. Though we come to faith through an individual choice, that choice incorporates us into a community of believers whose individual attitudes and behaviours have implications not just for ourselves, but for those around us. And one of the most significant is our attitude to Christian fellowship.
In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer warns against the dangers of neglecting to meet together (Heb 10:24–25), for such a habit, once established, typically results in falling away. And if that happens, there’s no coming back. Once someone turns their back on Jesus, God’s only provision of salvation, it is impossible to “restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Heb 6:6). “There no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,” only “a fearful expectation of judgment” (Heb 10:26–27).
If that doesn’t scare you, you should read that last paragraph again.
The greatest threat to holding fast is our sin and the prescribed antidote is travelling with the herd.
It concerned the writer to the Hebrews so much that his letter is riddled with warnings to avoid such a state by holding fast to Jesus. We are to “pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (2:1). We are to “hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory” (3:6), “hold firmly to the faith we profess” (4:14), “show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end” (6:11), and “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (10:23).
The way he envisages Christians doing this is by encouraging a herd mentality. We’re given an insight into the spiritual dynamic at play in Hebrews 3:10–12. He says:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
The greatest threat to holding fast is our sin and the prescribed antidote is travelling with the herd. We are to exhort one another every day, keeping each other sharp and alert to sin’s deceitfulness, because if we get complacent, we might get dragged away.
Isolated from the Herd
If you’ve ever watched a nature documentary, you know exactly what the writer is talking about. We all know the scene: the camera pans across the savannah as a herd of wildebeest migrate to their final home. But their arrival is far from certain. Lurking in the long grass is a lion, waiting to pounce on the stragglers and the drifters, those who for whatever reason have become isolated from the herd.
Where the analogy breaks down, of course, is that while sin does indeed lurk in the long grass, it very rarely strikes with the suddenness of a lion. It is described as “deceitful”, working by degrees to lure us away from the herd, inch by inch, until one day we look up and suddenly find ourselves alone on the prairie with the vultures already landing.
The moral of the story, at least for Christian wildebeest, is that we need to stick with the pack if we want our faith to survive. And that means going to church, even if it currently doesn’t take the form we’re used to. Church is God’s means of protection to help us hold fast to the very end. It’s not optional, it’s not even just helpful. It’s the necessary means by which we arrive safely home.
We need to stick with the pack if we want our faith to survive … those of us who choose not to go to church have not understood this.
In my experience, those of us who choose not to go to church have not understood this. We think Christianity is the journey of a lone wolf rather than a herd migration, and so are unaware of the danger we expose ourselves to when we travel alone.
Journalist Jason Gagliardi recently wrote, “Herd immunity may be difficult to achieve, but herd stupidity is with us in spades.” Sadly, his comment could just as equally apply to our church attendance as to our nation’s disregard of government restrictions.
Research released by Barna revealed that during COVID-19 a full third of people have stopped attending their church online. Other statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest that this is just the next iteration of an already downward trend. Where once Christians would attend church four out of four weeks, rain, hail or shine, it’s now commonplace—even before COVID-19—for church “regulars” to attend two out of four weeks. We’re isolating ourselves from the herd and making ourselves easy targets for sin and falling away.
Trading Our Herd Stupidity for Herd Immunity
So how do we trade in our herd stupidity for herd immunity? By cultivating the same herd mentality that the writer to the Hebrews adopts. We return to our church, regardless of whether it is online or in-person, and resolve to faithfully attend even when we’re tuckered-out, zoomed-out, flat-out, or just plain down-and-out. Because the sin within makes no allowances and gives no quarter. It welcomes rationalisations and excuses—indeed, that is how it deceives us and draws us away.
Sin within makes no allowances and gives no quarter. It welcomes rationalisations and excuses—indeed, that is how it deceives us and draws us away.
I’m acutely aware that in our current context this will not be easy, for any number of very legitimate reasons. The sick need to stay home, the elderly and vulnerable must keep their distance, parents are trying to engage (or at least contain) disinterested children on Zoom in the absence of kids programs, some can only attend fortnightly because of building size restrictions – the list goes on. Wisdom will be required to navigate what commitment to our church fellowship looks like. We just need to be wary that the reasons that make running with the herd harder don’t become reasons to stop running at all.
During COVID, Satan has sought to scatter us. And at least for a time, physically, he has succeeded. But the worst thing we can do at this time is to let his machinations fool us into lone wolf thinking and forget that we are part of a herd. So let’s trade in our herd stupidity for herd immunity. Let’s re-commit ourselves to the regular meeting of believers in whatever form it presently takes so that together, as a herd, through mutual encouragement, we can see each other safely home.