There is little denying that the church is changing in response to this pandemic. More churches than ever before have begun broadcasting their worship services online. The church’s reach has increased, and many people worship with more than one congregation, often choosing to engage with at least one church outside of their community.
There are wonderful things taking place in the church right now, but there are also things that we will need to approach with care as we think about what it means to be the church.
Here are some of the positive things I am seeing:
- Churches are caring for the well-being of their communities. One of the chief reasons many churches went fully-online during the early months of the pandemic was because it was a way to show love to the community surrounding the church.
- Churches are finding creative ways to minister. By partnering with local food ministries, coat closets, etc., by hosting drive-through community events, by doing socially-distanced community ministry, etc., churches are finding new and creative ways to minister.
- Churches are expanding their reach. This actually has mixed implications, but many churches are upgrading their capacity to reach a broader group of people by adding online services. While this is largely a good thing, some of the challenges associated with this trend will be outlined below.
- Churches are re-thinking long-held practices. One of the first things I recognized when we went into lockdown was that there were ways we were not adequately equipped for this process. Much of what we did focused on the ability to gather in one location in large groups. It highlighted a need for small-group ministry, mass-communication abilities, etc. It has caused us to re-think our children’s ministry and the way we do Sunday worship services. And the changes we’re making are with long-term, post-pandemic strategy in mind.
- It has caused us to wrestle with theology. A generation ago, you could hear the hip youth pastor of just about any church say “today, we’re going to celebrate communion with Coke and Cheetos.” It seemed rad, even if it wasn’t theologically sound. Now, we’re wrestling seriously with the implication of doing communion, even with all of the proper elements, online. Is this theologically appropriate? Regardless of the conclusions we reach, I’m glad we’re wrestling with these issues seriously.
- We’re remembering the importance of embodied community. There is no substitute for the gathered body of Christ. If we were ever tempted to take it for granted before, perhaps we will re-think that temptation in the days ahead. A theology of bodily presence, of worshipping bodies, of togetherness, etc., is developing out of the necessity of our situation.
- We’re thinking in terms of Covenant-Keeping. Gathering together post-lockdown will require covenant-making and covenant-keeping. It is irresponsible to take unnecessary risks and gather together despite them. The church will need to evaluate what it means to be a covenant community, acting with the well-being of others in mind, and living in ways that serve God and the church of Jesus even when it isn’t a Sunday morning.
- We’ve made sacrifices for one another. We’re not just a group of people living for themselves. The pandemic-era church is a church sacrificing for one another and for the community around it. First, we sacrificed our gatherings. Now, we’re sacrificing comforts to meet needs, preferences to facilitate pandemic necessities, and opinions in order to preserve unity. This is a good thing! Lord, let the church of selfish expectation pass away forever! Make us a people who sacrifice for the good of others!
On the other hand, here are some of the struggles:
- Church online is too easy. It’s easy to sleep in until 9am on Sunday morning, get the coffee ready, and watch church online. In the first days of the pandemic, families sang the worship music around the screen. In the later days, many started to become passive, disconnected members of an audience rather than an engaged, worshipping family. Online worship does not make demands on us – and that isn’t a good thing.
- Discipleship is lacking. Few churches are adequately prepared to make disciples in a time like this. Online discipleship is tedious and disconnected, and fewer and fewer people have the patience for it. Unless small groups were already established, the framework for solid disciple-making likely wasn’t already in place, and has been difficult to establish afterwards.
- Consumer-entertainment focused church. This was already a problem, but is being amplified in a pandemic necessitated online-worship church. Rather than participants in worship, we become consumers of a worship show, similar in many ways to a television show.
- The Rise of the Critics. The pastors who I am talking with are all recognizing the same struggle: we are experiencing higher levels of criticism than ever, often from people who were previously supportive. The anxiety many people are feeling seem to be finding a common target in many churches: the pastor.
- Necessary Ministry is Suffering. AA ministries, Celebrate Recovery, Mental Health ministries, etc., are all struggling. What can we do? We’ve worked to point people to online groups, outdoor groups, and worked to keep the church open as long as possible for these ministries. But people are suffering. How will the church step up?
How will the church meet these needs? How will we adapt to these challenges? And once we’re meeting in-person again, what changes will we keep, and what changes will we abandon?