The past months have undoubtedly taught believers the indispensability of fellowship. Christians were not meant to sit behind a screen on Sunday mornings in their pajamas while sipping bad coffee. Where fellowship is lacking, members suffer, grow weary, and are vulnerable to stagnancy in the faith. We all now know that the individualistic Christian life that has been wholesale marketed to American evangelicalism is a fraud. There is a reason the epistles were written to churches and the you’s of the NT are y’all [pl.], not you [sing.]. We need this group project called the church.
But as restrictions begin to lift and churches start to offer options for in-person services, some members—for one reason or another—find themselves in tension. Of course, I am thinking of the home-bound members.
The church has always had its share of home-bound members, even B.C.E. (Before COVID Existed). This demographic of the church is made up of saints who are confined indoors and unable to fellowship. An example would be my own family’s story. Since the end of 2018, we have been to church together at most a dozen times. Our eldest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, a blood cancer for which treatment has often resulted in an imbalanced, inconsistent immune system, so church is infrequent, at best, for my small family.
The church’s list of home-bound members is expansive, and reveals an important distinction we must make when thinking about church membership and fellowship. Whether it be for the protection of a newborn, an immune-compromising health condition, or the simple vulnerability of age, some find themselves live-streaming services they ache to attend. In these precious home-bound members, pressure and guilt may have begun to fester. Some of this guilt may have come from the heavy hand of leadership, the “gentle challenge” of a friend, or the gnawing command not to forsake gathering together (Heb. 10:25, context important).
The church and its leadership should be burdened for these well-intentioned, vulnerable members. Not all stay-at-home members are the “idle” to be “admonished.” Many are the “fainthearted” and “weak” who should be “encouraged” and “help[ed]” (1 Thess. 5:14). Don’t forget the last command of 1 Thessalonians 5:14 either.
If this is you, reader, it burdens me that bully-styled leadership and careless words have been your recent experience of the church. You are a church member, regardless of the last time you filled your pew. And sadly, so many words have been spent urging members to get themselves to church that what it means to be the church in the gray-areas of days like these has fallen to the wayside.
Church membership and fellowship are not synonyms. Church membership is not fellowship, it entails fellowship. To be clear, membership involves and is strengthened by a consistent gathering of God’s people (Heb. 10:24–25). Nonetheless, fellowship makes up only part of what it means to be a church member. At the core of being a church member are unwavering commitments due to the bond believers share with their elder brother, Jesus Christ. These commitments extend beyond the scope of sola fellowship.
Whether they are navigating the gray areas of life in a pandemic world or have pre-existing reasons for being absent from corporate gathering, stay-at-home members need fresh reminders of their usefulness to the church of Jesus Christ. Even when being amongst the flock is all but impossible, stay-at-home believers should be encouraged toward their continued responsibility to be active members through the following fundamental commitments.
Committed to Holiness
Being absent from the corporate body is not license for any member to be spiritually negligent or undisciplined. You might not be able to congregate with the members of your local church, but you are still called to think, act, believe, and live like a member of Christ’s body. There are no vacation days in the Christian’s timecard.
Christ gave His life on the cross not for you to masquerade in righteousness on Sunday mornings in front of your church friends, but so that daily you might be holy and blameless (Eph. 5:27). The church family is “the temple of the Living God” that by the Spirit’s enablement is made to bring its “holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 6:16; 7:1). This reality is not altered by any circumstance. Thus, home-bound members can be a blessing to the local church as fellow members hear, see, and witness the sweetness of one’s personal commitment to the risen Savior.
Your church will have a role in supporting and ministering to you as a non-fellowshipping member. If that is you, the question is: will they find a Christian pursuing holiness? Or will they find a Christian who has lost his way? When life circumstances force us to shelter-in-place, we are reminded afresh that we are the church not because of where we meet, but because of who we are in Christ. So, if you are barred from fellowship, be holy. It honors your Savior and encourages those members privileged enough to gather.
Committed to Service
The church needs willing servants. John MacArthur notes that in these words:
You can sit back and say, “I don’t know if I want to get involved in that; I don’t know if I want to work with those people.” But a willing servant is spontaneous in what he or she does. They just get involved and served. (The Master’s Plan for the Church, 40)
Being bound to your home might change how you serve, but it should not change your willingness to serve. Someone who wants to serve, will serve. Your lot in life might change how you serve, and that can be hard to palate, but it helps to remember that your life is in the Lord’s hands, and He ordains every step for your good and progress in the faith. In times when you lack fellowship with the body, it is not in your best interest to think on all that you can’t do. Instead, ponder all that you can do.
A key element of service in the church is prayer. Pray for your leaders, your fellow members, and the ministry teams and events occurring at your church. Do not dismiss the power of private prayer because of more visible forms of service. The unfortunate reality is that the church is full of Martha’s. If God has blessed any in the body to sit at the feet of Jesus like Mary, then worship there.
Mary chose the good portion, and by God’s wise grace, some of us are simply given it
Too often tangible service gets in the way of fervent worship, including zealous prayer. Martin Luther once said, “I have so much to do today that I will spend the first 3 hours in prayer.” In your local congregation, there is much to be done for Christ; thereby, there is even more to be praying about. All should pray, but the home-bound member has unique opportunities to pray. We can praise God for that because the lifeline of the church is in the strength of its prayers.
Pray, pray, and then pray some more. Write a card to another brother or sister who you know is enduring a trial. Call your elders and offer a word of gratitude and encouragement. Prepare or deliver a meal to that family who recently welcomed a newborn or to the brother who is recovering from surgery. Continue to give by means of tithes and offering. Perhaps you are in a situation where you cannot meet corporately, but you may be able to host a family or a Bible study in your home. (*Insert your amazing ideas here*).
The point is this: “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Being barred from fellowship for a season does not change the good works God has fitted you for. Instead, it is an opportunity to discover your God-given work for the time being.
Committed to Gratitude
No true, active church member wants to be lonely, isolated, or disengaged from the vibrancy of church life, and perhaps we should take some encouragement in that. Being away from fellow believers should not “feel right” to a Christian. A believer who is comfortable without the corporate aspects of worship is one living in a spirit of neglect (Heb. 10:25).
Missing out on fellowship is painful, and you should feel it. If you wrestle with the tension of what you might have to do (miss fellowship) and what you want to do (fellowship), you are in a good place.
There is no replacement for the blessed refreshment of being in the corporate body
Nonetheless, unwanted circumstances do not dictate the heart’s resolve. As Samuel Rutherford put it, “Believe God’s love and power more than you believe your feelings and experiences. Your rock is Christ, and it is not the rock that ebbs and flows, but the sea.”
In Christ, we can be nothing less than thankful (Col. 3:15–17). My family and I are grateful that our church has offered livestream even before the pandemic era to members who—for one reason or another—were barred from fellowship. Our kids light up when we turn on our TV Sunday morning and up to the pulpit walks their beloved “Pastor John.” That my small family can be united in spirit with our local church in that way is a blessing to us and fosters a deepened love for our church.
Moreover, we are especially thankful for the many loving, servant-hearted, life-giving members of our church who have seen our condition and sought to bring ripples of corporate realities to us as a family. We have received innumerable texts, calls, emails, delivered meals, fresh groceries, surprise gifts, good books, great coffee, notes of support and encouragement, and more.
Though we often are pained because of what we are missing, we are reminded that we should be grateful for God’s work through our church. That we are so well loved and connected to what is happening at our local church reminds us that God’s hand is present in the life of our church. It serves as such a blessing to see that other members of the body are producing the fruit purposed for them, and it is only fitting that we would turn our eyes back to God in praise.
Members Are Essential
During these days of uncertainty, many have championed the phrase: Church is essential. My prayer is that we believe that phrase for all that it truly means—beyond Sunday and beyond fellowship, in season and out of season.
Charles Spurgeon once noted, “Nobody can do as much damage to the church of God as a man who is within its wall, but not within its life.” No doubt, he is right. But let me for a moment encourage the souls of those unable to be amongst the people of God, even if for a season: few can be as much a blessing to the church of God as a man unable to be within its walls, but remaining within its life.
I pray that if life has forced you into being a home-bound member, you would recognize your usefulness and value to the church. And if you are a shepherd of God’s people, may you expend great effort into encouraging, exhorting, and including these brothers and sisters toward the good deeds set before them.