Listen: LifeWords Q&A Podcast, Episode 89
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the church has been vast, large scale, and a mixture of both good and bad. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? How will this change church as we know it? And how can I revive my faith when I’ve lost interest in just tuning into live-streamed services? In this episode of theLifeWords Q&A podcast, Clare and David delve into some answers.
CB: Today we’re going to talk about the impact of COVID on the church. So the question on the table is, is this pandemic good for the church? Or is it bad? David, over to you!
DR: Yeah. Is it good? Or is it bad? Bit of both, actually, to be perfectly honest. You can go to extremes, you can say “It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing that God has allowed to happen and it’s going to be a great new season for the church,” or the other extreme is, “it’s basically the end of the church as we know it”. I don’t think either of those extremes is quite the way to go. First of all, we have to remind ourselves, is that COVID’s not a good thing. God didn’t send it, God didn’t cause it, but he’s allowed it to happen, and in allowing it to happen, we must presume according to the Scriptures, that he can work good out of it.
So we avoid extremes, and one extreme is to see the COVID pandemic as spelling some sort of catastrophic end of church life. Some people will say, Well, that’s it, that’s the end of church, we can’t really see it recovering. Because they look at some of the negatives. For example, if we do gather together, there’s no close meetings, no hugging, no singing, none of the usual social things, no cups of tea, no sharing of cake, that sort of thing. Nothing like that.
And of course, other people who are not able to meet, are saying, “Well, I’m sick and tired of just looking at something that’s pre recorded on camera, I’m sick and tired of just meeting digitally. This is no help in relationship at all. I need other people around me. I don’t have the supportive fellowship and the celebration and the prayer from others that I would like, ideally.” And so therefore, it’s not good news, from that point of view.
But on the other hand, so this is where this is where it’s like life in general. You can look at life in two ways. You can look at life and say “what terrible things are happening”. But wait a minute, let’s If we can see the light beyond the clouds. And some people are seeing real advances. In the church that I lead at the moment, we are meeting personally, but we’re also live streaming. And we know that there’s people tuning in, we would never meet them, we’d never reach. And so we’re meeting new people. And we’re also adopting this technology, which I’m sure will go right on into the future. I mean, once the pandemic is over, I think we’ll still be live streaming, we’ll still be using Zoom from time to time and yes, I think this is a challenge for us to rethink the way we do church.
There are what we call threats and opportunities. In this pandemic, I don’t think we should downplay the threat or downplay the opportunity sort of thing. I think we’ve got to have that balance to say “yes, this has struck real disorder into the church. This has really been a setback – and yet at the same time, it can be the doorway to some new opportunities.
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CB: Yeah, I’ve heard an interesting mixture of responses. The organisation Open Doors, which is one of those great organisations that supports the persecuted church around the world. They have taken this opportunity to go, “Well, wow, this is what our people have been doing for decades. We know how to do church in a sort of oppressed society where we’re not allowed to gather. And so we know how to do home church.” And they’ve been equipping and resourcing the church at large in the West with, “This is how you do this. We can do this, the church is fine, we can still be very much alive”, which I think has been a really interesting response.
On the other hand, I’ve seen where some people are so focused on the live stream, the Sunday service, the 90 minutes in my ugg boots with my cup of coffee on the lounge with the cat. You know, that church for some people has been reduced to that. And I think that is an indicator, perhaps, of – “What was the quality of your Faith before this? What was it that you were seeking in church on Sunday? Is it about more than just listening to a 20 minutes sermon?” Because faith and community in the Christian life is about so much more than that, isn’t it?
DR: Oh, it is. And I think you put your finger on the issues there. When it comes to the persecuted church that you were mentioning, I honestly believe the, Scriptures say, that “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church”. That’s true. Question is, what do we mean by ‘church’?
See, I’m in the Anglican system. And I have to ask myself, and I’m sure people in the Pentecostal, Baptist in any other tradition, will be asking the same questions: “Will our systems survive?” “Will our structure survive?” “Will the way we do things survive?” Because remember, Jesus says “The gates of hell will not prevail against the church” – the pandemic’s not gonna destroy the church – but – what church?
It might actually undercut and undermine and seriously challenged the way we do church now. And In this case, it could be God’s pointing us to a new way of doing church. But what we have to be careful of that other, almost, extreme you’re talking about – sitting on the lounge with your ugg boots and your cat and your coffee. Some people might become content with “Oh, well, I’ll just tune into whatever church is broadcasting live-stream this morning”. And you do miss out on that gathering together.
I’m sure when the Bible says we’re all to gather together, it’s not saying we simply check in via computer. Short term, you might have to do that with a pandemic, of course, but I’m talking here medium to long term. I would be very saddened if people’s experience of church was simply reduced to staying at home watching something on your computer or on your iPad
CB: Taking your church pill!
DR: That’s right. But at the same time, I think church leaders must guard against this feeling of “When the pandemic’s over, whatever sees the end of it, oh, we’ll just get back to normal.” I’ve been telling our church “There is no normal anymore”. We’ve got to redefine normal, what the new normal will be, it might be very different from what it has been in the past decades, and of course what it is right this very minute.
So a post-pandemic church, oh, it’ll survive. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. But the church that you presently belong to, the system in which you worship, might be quite different. And I hope it won’t be (and I would trust in the Lord it won’t be) simply a matter of, we all become isolated in our little units, just tuning in, flicking a button to get a live stream or something. I would hope it’s more than that.
As we rethink church, let’s not rethink the gathering together and encouragement of one another, the support of one another, out of existence – by resorting to some substitute digital fellowship
CB: For each individual, our faith really is up to us. Like, no matter how great your church is, nobody can make you choose to fellowship, nobody can make you want to have personal times of prayer and worship, nobody can make you get up and watch the sermon video and take notes and adopt it into your life. I think regardless of whether we’re in this crisis or not, you can go to church on Sunday, week after week, and still not have true fellowship, by sitting up the back and not really connecting with anyone and not engaging in any community. Just the same as you can do that during this scenario as well.
It’s up to the individual. I might be able to get four friends together on Sunday morning, and we can all sit with the cat and have a really great time of fellowship after we’ve watched the sermon perhaps, you know.
DR: I think it’ll sort out. I think the people who will, as it were, meet together in whatever new model of church we have, they’ll be the people who are really fair dinkum about it. And I think some of the people the church might lose as a result of this, are people who, yes, might come to church as it was, but it’s had no really impact on them. And getting out of the habit of coming to the church in that way [means] they’ll just develop new habits. So I think you might see a falling away, in some respect, of these people who have that superficial notion of church.
“If all I want from church is a sermon, I don’t need to go… But [you also need] the relational dimension, the visible community… that is only really ideally realised, when we all meet together.”
But I think the people who really do long for fellowship, teaching, encouragement, prayer, all these sorts of things, who long for community, I think you’ll find them gathering together again when they can. I think it’s in human nature. I think it’s the way we’re wired. But the format in which we do it might be very, very different. And that’s what’s the challenge for the church.
I totally agree with that view that says the church is more than our Sunday gatherings. It’s definitely much more than that. But we can’t ignore our Sunday gatherings. It really does get to the heart of what we want from church. You see if all I want from church is a sermon, I don’t need to go. Because there’s stacks of Ted Talks, YouTubes, whatever. But I think you do need to go – not only for the teaching, but also it’s the relational dimension, the visible community that, yes is sometimes possible with something like Zoom, but only really ideally realised, when we all meet together.
So yes, the pandemic is forcing us to do things differently, and that could be good. At the same time we are not really in an ideal situation. Church, medium to long term? Certainly the gates of hell will not prevail against it. But at the same time, we’ve got to ask ourselves very honestly, what sort of church is it going to be? It will prevail – no question about that. But will what we experience of church, specifically now, prevail? I don’t think we’ll go on having Zoom groups, decades and decades into the future. But then again, I don’t think we’ll necessarily revert to what we have been doing in the decades before.
CB: I heard something interesting last night, I was watching an Alpha course training video. A lot of people listening to this will be familiar with Alpha, it’s a 10 week course that people go to in churches, people who are seeking the faith all around the world, millions of people who have come to faith through this. And they’ve actually found in this season during the lockdown in the pandemic, they’ve had lots of small groups starting online. And that’s actually been very, very effective because people have been craving community. And even though it’s been only by a screen, still, it’s been some real live community, and people are coming to faith through that. So I love that.
But at the same time, I think you’re right, like, we all probably need to look inward and go, “Okay, am I growing in my faith? And if not, what do I do about that?”
So, can you leave us just maybe with a final tip, for maybe someone who’s listening – who’s feeling a bit lost. You know, they’ve kind of given up on the Sunday morning livestream because it really isn’t connecting them with anything. And maybe they weren’t in a small group before. So they’ve kind of just dropped out of their habit. And they’re feeling lost and lonely. And they still love God, you know – what can they do to revive or regrow their faith?
DR: Yes, in the short term. I mean, obviously they can always connect with God. God is not limited by Zoom or by social distancing or anything like that. But we only grow in our relationship with God in community. And that community may well, for those people you mentioned, be digital. Particularly in a more severe lockdown situation, what a wonderful gift something like Zoom or WhatsApp or FaceTime might be.
I think people need to at this stage, really make a priority of seeking out other people with whom they can meet. If you can do that physically, I think that’s wonderful. But if you can’t – find another way, whether it’s a Zoom group, whether it’s personal networking, through phone calls, whether it’s a chat around the letterbox of the block of units, you live in. Whatever it is, maintain community, because your relationship with God, and your relationship with others, are absolutely critical.