The church after Covid?

Boy in surgical mask

I’ve heard a few people say it. I’ve said it myself.

The world will be different after we get through this pandemic time.

And I’m thinking the church will be different too, in several ways.

Religion isn’t going away

Half a century ago, anthropologists and sociologists predicted that religion would pass away, driven into oblivion by the cold, hard, remorseless progress of science. The statistics seemed to support them. Religion was clearly in decline in enlightened Europe, especially Scandinavia.

You can still hear atheists repeat the prediction.

But it hasn’t happened. In fact, with the decline of Communism, the number of people around the world who identified as religious actually increased.

What has happened is that religion has changed, at least in the more affluent west. Even in Europe, the people who walked away from the church didn’t all end up as atheists. Many became “spiritual but not religious”, or had a more eclectic religious belief.

Anthropologists recognise this now. The church will likely change, but religion isn’t going away.

So how might the church change?

An online church?

Church services in most western countries have been cancelled for weeks now, and replaced by online content. Some churches try to provide something similar to usual for their congregations – some pre-recorded singing, a prayer or two, a Bible reading and a sermon. But others have been more creative, using more visual material suitable to the digital medium, online choirs each member singing from their home, and accompanying comments and prayer requests from members.

Home groups have also had to begin meeting online, which can be a little awkward at times. But really the content doesn’t have to change much, it is the loss of personal and physical interaction which is the most difficult.

Churches which had a justice and welfare ministry continued those ministries, within the limits of social distancing. Some ramped these ministries up to respond to the present needs.

All this is likely to be required for many weeks more.

When the pandemic has run its course, will churches snap back to the familiar, or will they continue to provide online content and new programs?

Whichever, it seems likely that some things will be different.

A more conservative church?

In anxious times, people tend to behave more conservatively. So we can expect churches and christians to tend to be more conservative at this time. Whether this trend continues after the pandemic has run its course is another matter.

But there’s another factor here. Many conservative pastors in the US have defied government and medical science to say that God is stronger than any virus and people should continue to come to church.

(It seems this is part of a trend for conservative christians to mistrust both government (concerned government wants to tax them more, push a “liberal” or socialist agenda, and, in the US at least, take away their guns) and science (think evolution or climate change).

But at least four pastors have died of Covid-19 (see here, here and here) and two of them were among those who urged their congregations to ignore the social distancing rules. Who knows how many unfortunate congregation members followed their advice and have also contracted the virus?

Perhaps Covid-19 might show up the folly of some conservative attitudes in a very obvious way. Climate change will eventually do this, but probably not for another decade.

You’d have to wonder if there might not be some small weakening of the nexus between conservatism and christian faith. Not for most, I guess , but maybe for some.

Church shopping

One of the most obvious changes in the church scene is it is now so easy to church shop. As Mike Frost points out, it used to require some commitment to check out another church, but now we can check out preachers and sometimes music with a mouse click.

The differences in what churches are offering is sometimes quite telling.

Will many people change their churches because of what they see at this time? Will larger churches with more expensive technology and more tech-savvy members attract numbers away from smaller more basic churches?

Mike Frost points out that the rise of the megachurch in the US has occurred at the same time as overall church attendances have been falling. So easier church shopping and hopping won’t necessarily grow the church overall. Likely the opposite.

A smaller church?

I expect that committed church members will most likely return to their churches when this is all over, but what about the less committed? If church attendance had become a habit, or less rewarding than it once was, will people just never return?

If people find that online religious events or teaching is as satisfying as sitting in a pew on Sunday, will they not make the obvious and easier choice?

And if churches continue to provide online content after the in-church services recommence, will some people prefer that? For some, the personal relationship aspect is most important, and online doesn’t provide that. But others find the relating difficult for a variety of reasons, and they may stay isolated.

Will church giving drop away, especially since most families and businesses will have taken a large economic hit? Will churches be able to afford the present staff and building maintenance costs?

A more superficial church?

Mike Frost critiques the church growth movement, which emphasised things like the service as a performance (“a certain kind of excellent preaching, as well as an inspiring contemporary worship experience delivered by positive, upbeat leaders”), programs that attracted families, even the ease of car parking.

The movement may have helped some churches grow but it didn’t help the church as a whole to grow. And it had the unfortunate side-effect of creating a consumer mentality.

Part of this consumer mentality was making the spiritual side of church and the work of the Holy Spirit somewhat secondary to the external and observable aspects. The urgency of the kingdom of God, the “as in heaven so on earth”, was too easily lost.

The consumer church is very different to the missional church.

And Mike is concerned that post-Covid, for all the reasons I’ve discussed, this superficiality, this competition for people’s attention, may return on steroids, and set the church back a generation. As he says:

If you’re winning people to a ten or fifteen minute viewing of a prepackaged worship and teaching experience, devoid of community, mission, correction, reconciliation or justice, you’re not growing the church. You’re fostering religious consumers.

Nothing really changes?

I’m betting that many churches will try to return things to exactly what they were before. It was, after all, quite a cosy set-up. Ministers provide a spiritual service for consumers who don’t have to do any more than turn up and pay. In return, staff earn a living, feel good about themselves and what they are providing. Everyone wins.

Except of course, the old Protestant idea of the priesthood of all believers.

And of course, churches which don’t change run the risk of losing people, in the ways I’ve outlined.

So should they change? Will more innovative and culture-sensitive churches tap into the zeitgeist better and so remain more relevant?

A more active church?

But there are opportunities as well as dangers, as Martin Bragger points out.

Missional communities

Martin is a proponent of missional communities, small churches which meet in public places like cafes, restaurants and pubs. He has established more than half a dozen of these groups, which have proven far more effective than conventional church in sharing the good news of Jesus with non-believers.

Martin sees opportunities to create and enlarge online communities which can effectively continue to “Connect, Gather, Disciple and Multiply”.

These communities need not be geographically limited, but can include members from anywhere. And because an inline group is less threatening to newcomers than a face-to-face group, they may find it easier to welcome visitors.

Don’t leave it to the professionals!

There is also the hope that, left more to our own devices as we stay at home, lay people may start to take more responsibility for our own faith and our part in the mission of Jesus. Many may emerge from under the controlling hand of zealous pastors and fulfil Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer 31:34):

“No longer will they teach their neighbour,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.”

Perhaps more independent missional communities will begin, to help their members mature in the faith, share the good news with others and take very specific steps to serve the community around them or the world’s disadvantaged.

We can always hope. And pray. As Martin says, quoting Rahm Emanuel:

You Should Never Waste a Good Crisis

Liquid Church?

The world Martin envisages is a little like that foreseen by Pete Ward almost 2 decades ago, and more recently by Carey Nieuwhof – a world where the church is seen less in institutional terms, christian community is more distributed and living as Jesus’ body in the world. A more “liquid church”.

But if that’s too much of a stretch

I can’t see the institutional church letting go so much as to endorse all that. But there are some steps it can take.

Recognising that …..

….. pastors could consider re-orienting their services away from sermonising and more towards motivating, training, sharing by members and especially ministry team leaders, testimonies, drama, and discussion.

The Lord’s work?

Some christians object to thinking about culture and human psychology. Surely this is the Lord’s work, they say and we just have to be faithful in preaching the gospel.

But there are clearly assumptions and omissions in this view.

  • Paul did say we should adapt out message to the times, place and hearers. “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” 1 Corinthians 9:22.
  • God didn’t choose to remain aloof from human culture, but became one of us, demonstrating incarnational mission.
  • In choosing to “preach” we are already making a cultural decision about method, and one not often used or recommended in the Bible (see Sermons- not how we learn best?).

So let’s do the Lord’s work with the best and most culturally relevant methods we can.

The future awaits us

Time will tell how these things all work out. But our decisions will also play their part.

Let’s be smart. And let’s be ready.

Photo by Janko Ferlic from Pexels

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