The Great Winnowing
A lot of people aren’t coming back to church. Let that sink in a minute. Real people—souls, names, faces, and life stories who you know and love—are most likely not going to return to regular church gatherings in a post-pandemic world.
The reasons will vary. Some simply got out of the routine over the past year and now prefer time on their boat on the weekends. Others, with their ‘free pass’ to skip church this past year, have come to realize that they don’t really know why they went in the first place. Others may still take a Sunday hit of spirituality from a live-streamed church service, but will have no qualms about ‘doing church’ on their phone. It may be that some families with only one believing parent have now formed a new weekend routine, and the believing parent simply won’t have the will and endurance to steer the family ship back to church.
This is the great winnowing.
Too dramatic? Perhaps. I’m not suggesting that a John-the-Baptist-like announcement of reckoning is at hand, nor that the pandemic has brought on an ‘end of the age’ separation of the sheep from the goats. But separation will happen. The pitchfork of the pandemic has tossed local congregations to the wind, and what lands on the threshing floor this summer and fall will—in many cases—not be the same congregational make-up that gathered in March of 2020. We dare not shrug off this winnowing in callous indifference, nor scorn the absentees in haughty disdain. Instead, what would a faithful response to the great winnowing in your church look like?
Lament. There will be a temptation for those who remain in a church to feel betrayed and angry at those who don’t return. Instead of taking the winnowing as a personal, anger-inducing affront, pray for God to bring about sorrow for those who separated themselves from the flock of God and this means of his grace. Like a parent yearning for a wayward child, pray for a tender and sorrowful heart towards those who have left the gathered church.
Pursue. Seek out the absentee sheep. The elders have a prime responsibility here— but not exclusive responsibility. It is the calling of every member, every Christian committed to a church, to exercise this act of brotherly love. Take a minute and write down the names of people you haven’t seen at church. Are any of them within your relational sphere? Start there, by graciously engaging them to rejoin the body of Christ for worship. Remember, not every wandering sheep needs a thump with the shepherd’s crook. Some sheep may simply be timid and need gentle encouragement. Some may have become complacent and need gracious accountability. Others may not see the connection between their personal faith and the need to meet regularly as a faith family, and will need biblical exhortation. Pursue absentees with earnest love.
One caution for pastors: Don’t be passive-aggressive in the pulpit about people needing to come back to church. Call them. Visit them. Look them in the eyes and let them know you love them. Teach, urge, warn, and plead with them, but reject the temptation to subtly drop hints, shame, or verbally sideswipe absentees from the pulpit.
Examine. Paul exhorted the Corinthian church, writing, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5). He wrote that to the church. To people who already thought that they were ‘good to go’ with Jesus. None of us is above this exhortation. When a person who professes faith in Jesus yet separates from his church, it is a check-engine warning light on the dashboard of the soul. Not gathering with the church (especially coming out of a pandemic) is not a definitive pronouncement of one’s spiritual state, but it’s cause for examination. Early church fathers, including Tertullian and Cyprian, likened the church to Noah’s ark. Cyprian wrote starkly, “If someone who was outside of the ark of Noah could escape, so could also someone who is outside of the church” (On the Unity of the Church, 6). Salvation in Christ apart from active participation in a local faith family is a novel concept, and all who forsake the regular assembly of the church do so at their own peril.
We need not fret when the great winnowing comes. Christ will build his church. Period. There is a time and season for everything under heaven—even winnowing in the church. Whether your church is winnowed significantly or hardly at all, be faithful and steadfast. Lament the loss. Pursue the scattered. Examine yourself to see whether you are in the faith.