As local churches have wrestled with how to be the church during these past months of this global pandemic, several things have become glaringly clear to me as I’ve worked with my fellow elders at my own church and have taken part in discussions with other church planters and pastors. None of these “revelations” are from out of nowhere, but the quarantine has illuminated them because they’ve been lurking around our churches after dark for a long time and now the pandemic has cranked on the spotlight and pointed it right at them.
SPOTLIGHT CIRCLE 1: Online presence
The first is the most obvious. I said to someone right after the quarantine kicked in, “I know God will use all things for his glory, so I’m curious to see how He will use this pandemic. But I can tell you one way God is already using it: Most churches have some sort of online presence now.” Whether it’s using Facebook Live, Youtube or some other medium, an incredible amount of churches — even my mom’s sleepy little country church of mostly senior citizens — had to scramble to figure out how to hold service online. With this, many churches started holding varying types of online gatherings over formats like Zoom or Skype to maintain some type of fellowship. I’d be interested in seeing a study measuring the number of churches with no or little online presence before quarantine to those now with regular online activity.
I thank God that we have the technology at this time to respond in this way. In a time where many are stuck at home looking for hope and answers, having more churches online proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God can’t be a bad thing. For better or worse, we’re in the social media age, and your church having an intentional online presence is an important way of letting people know you’re there. We have found that not only are our usual congregants joining us for online Sunday morning service, but also some brothers and sisters who used to attend our church but moved away, friends and relatives of members of our congregation, and others who have stumbled across us some way or another.
Today, people — especially younger people — seeking out a local church will search online first, check out your online content first, even listen to an online sermon or two, before they even consider stepping into your Sunday service. So, again, more churches online can’t be a bad thing.
SPOTLIGHT CIRCLE 2: Smaller Gatherings May Be Better
Yet, though a lot of thought and effort has gone into how to still have a Sunday service while in quarantine, something else the quarantine has brought into the light is that the church is so much more than a Sunday event. The church isn’t a building or a weekly gathering; the church is a people — God’s people.
Let’s be plain: the bigger the church, the harder it is to feel like you’re part of a family. As some people in our congregation have grown tired of quarantine, have experienced Zoom fatigue, and have become more comfortable seeing others while taking reasonable precautions, some have gathered in small “viewing parties” to watch our online Sunday service together and, so far, we’ve hosted two backyard mini-services. Where having non-local people join us online is great, we also need to understand that the people of Christ are called to live together in face-to-face relationship.
Our church has consciously avoided having a building to not have the burdens that come with owning property (especially in an expensive state like New Jersey). This allows us to use the financial gifts given to the church for other things. But the current situation has us now rethinking if we even need to do a weekly rental for a Sunday service, thinking instead of a home-church or micro-church model with large corporate gatherings being less frequent. (And we’ve been saving money without a weekly rental bill. We donated our first month of saved rent to the local food bank.) So, maybe it’s time to rethink the big corporate gathering being “the main thing” the church does.
The amount of time alone a pastor spends in any given week preparing a sermon to — in many cases — deliver it once and never use it again is telling of the amount of time that is put into Sunday service. Now, with this, consider the amount of time spent preparing the worship set, recruiting and organizing volunteers, and making sure the technology is behaving so the “production” goes smoothly. To be clear, I think it’s essential for pastors, worship leaders, and others to take Sunday morning seriously — teaching from God’s Word and worshipping God should not be taken lightly — but my point is that maybe when Sunday morning is the main focus, it’s taking time, energy, and resources away from other important things the church should also be doing.
So much about our consumer culture has made “church” about a Sunday event. People come, see a show, and go home. It’s not all that different than going to Broadway. Most of the congregation are spectators. They can come and go without developing a relationship with anyone. Now, compare that to Acts 2:42-47, where we see the church living as a community where everyone participates. They learn, pray, and worship together, and they also care for each other, making sure no one is in need among them. We also see them eating meals together in their homes — and this was a daily thing.
SPOTLIGHT CIRCLE 3: The Church as Family
If nothing else, the quarantine has spotlighted how we’re made for relationships. After all, we’re made in God’s image and God is a Trinity. By His very nature, God has been in relationship for eternity.
Not only does this church-as-a-weekly-event thinking lead to much of the congregation being spectators, but it also fails to address one of the biggest pandemics of our time other than Coronavirus: loneliness. Despite us being more connected to more people than at any other time in history, people are also reporting more feelings of isolation than ever before. Our mental and spiritual health is suffering severely because we have bought into the radical autonomy of Western culture. Where the biblical worldview gives us philosophical grounds for valuing individuals, the radical individualism of our day is absent from the biblical worldview. When the New Testament writers used “brothers and sisters” to address fellow Christians, they weren’t using those terms lightly, as a lot of us do today since many of us didn’t even have a sense of unity within the biological families we grew up in.
Joseph H. Hellerman writes in his important book When the Church Was a Family, Western autonomy is “diametrically opposed to the outlook of the early Christians and to the teachings of Scripture,” but it has influenced an individualistic American evangelicalism that creates “an unfortunate antithesis between commitment to God and commitment to the people of God.” In other words, following Jesus isn’t just about you and your “personal relationship” with God; following Jesus is about you, God, and God’s people.
So, all of this brings to mind a question: Why come to church? If being part of a church is just about going to a Sunday event, and that Sunday event can be found online, why get out of the comfort of your home and gather with other Christ-followers? With so many churches online now, why would I even go to a live church service after the dangers of Coronavirus have subsided?
Church planter Peyton Jones in his book Church Zero cites a statistic from Ed Stetzer that 86 percent of unchurched people believe they don’t have to go to church to have a good relationship with God. Jones goes on to draw the connection to the growing number of young Christians who see no reason to participate in a local church. Hey, I can listen to a podcast, watch a Youtube video, and read a study Bible on my own; what else can the church offer me? And that’s a legit question. If a person is not finding true community with sisters and brothers in Christ, why not just watch service on Facebook Live? If someone is not being invited to live for the Christ-ordained purpose of missions and service, why not just listen to a podcast? Jones writes, “As long as the church is set up as an audience on a Sunday morning, there’s little to say to the departing youth. There’s nowhere for them to get involved.”
Let’s say, for the sake of a thought experiment, we’re all vaccinated next week; Coronavirus is no longer a threat, and the church can go back to normal the following Sunday. The question is: Should we?