The Danger of Conspiracy Theories according to Colossians

Conspiracy theories are never far from the public imagination. In the midst of a turbulent event or changing culture, rumours and speculations emerge which attempt to offer an explanation. Conspiracy theories don’t rely on accessible knowledge, reasoned argument, and evidence, but rather, they join the hidden dots that allegedly lay behind the scenes.

What is QAnon and why is it dangerous?

Two weeks ago The Atlantic published a disturbing piece, The Prophecies of Q: American Conspiracy Theories entering a dangerous new phase. Written by Adrienne LaFrance, this is a lengthy and detailed description of the short history of QAnon. Q is an anonymous figure who began posting messages on the internet in October 2017. The messages are cryptic and relate to current socio-political dramas in the United States. These online notes suggest a world of intrigue that is taking place behind the scenes against President Trump by the so called ‘deep state’.  For those interested, in addition to LaFrance’s article, Joe Carter has written an important summary of QAnon on The Gospel Coalition. Marc-André Argentino’s piece for The Conversation is another informative article.

At the time of reading The Atlantic’s exposé, I sent out this tweet.

“In light of the growing proliferation of nutty conspiracy theories, I’m pleased that we’re currently studying Colossians at Church. Colossians presents a clear repudiation of gnosis. Christians are to be people of reason not speculation, love not fear”.

In case I had doubt as to whether QAnon was a thing, within minutes I had people replying to the tweet, espousing QAnon ideas and carrying QAnon references on the twitter bios. Somewhat ironically, they have since deleted their comments and disappeared in the dark web once more. What was interesting about the comments are these 3 points: 1. They referenced belonging to a chapter of QAnon in Australia, 2. They used Christian language/categories, 3. They obviously exist.

The connection between QAnon and ‘Christianity’ (I stress the inverted commas here) became highly visible when Joe Carter wrote his article for TGC. Many comments were made by people who identify with QAnon. It is quite astonishing and concerning.

QAnon is connected to misinformation campaigns on COVID-19, suggesting it is a hoax, and also offering miracle cures for the pandemic.

This conspiracy theory is now national security in the United States. It is important to note that some QAnon members have been identified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat, and with good reason: there have been cases of threats of violence, people arrested for making bombs, and even a case of a man storming a Washington DC restaurant with an AR-15 rifle because he believed it was a front for a child sex ring that was being run by Hilary Clinton.

Joe Carter also points to the spread of QAnon overseas,

“While most are presumably peaceful, some QAnon followers have allegedly been involved in terroristic threats against Trump and his family, an arson that destroyed 23,000 acres in California, and armed standoffs with law enforcement. The conspiracy theory has also spread to Europe with a QAnon-inspired mass murder in Germanyarson targeting cell towers, and attacks on telecom workers in Belgium, Cyprus, Ireland, and the Netherlands.”

In its short history, QAnon has morphed from a tiny political conspiracy into a religious movement. While it remains fringe and most of us had probably never heard of it until recently, its tentacles have extended into churches, taking Christians captive to its dangerous ideas.

LaFrance explains,

“it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end. The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging. The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”

One QAnon exponent has now published several books. Take note of the religious themes in the titles, Hearing God’s Voice Made SimpleDefeating Your Adversary in the Court of Heaven, and American Sniper: Lessons in Spiritual Warfare.

The theory revolves around the idea of a coming “Great Awakening”,

“It speaks of an intellectual awakening—the awareness by the public to the truth that we’ve been enslaved in a corrupt political system. But the exposure of the unimaginable depravity of the elites will lead to an increased awareness of our own depravity. Self-awareness of sin is fertile ground for spiritual revival. I believe the long-prophesied spiritual awakening lies on the other side of the storm.”

“The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement. QAnon marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained.”

There is now a gathering of QAnon members, which Argentino argues is essentially a ‘church’. It’s known as Omega Kingdom Ministry.

QAnon sounds as though it is more prevalent in the United States than here in Australia. Although as I experienced last week, there are adherents in Australia and at least one organised groups of followers (on the Gold Coast). Christians should at least be aware of its existence so that we can respond pastorally, should anyone in our congregations be drawn in. Let’s be clear, as  Joe Carter writes,

“Christians should care about QAnon because it’s a satanic movement infiltrating our churches.

Although the movement is still fringe, it is likely that someone in your church or social media circles has either already bought into the conspiracy or thinks it’s plausible and worth exploring. We should care because many believers will or are being swayed by the demonic influences of this movement.”

photo of broken red car on grass

Photo by Dominika Kwiatkowska on Pexels.com

 

How Colossians warns us against conspiracy theories

I am writing this blog post, partly to raise awareness of this dangerous movement but also to demonstrate from Scripture (Colossians in particular) that conspiracy theories, in general, are anti-Christian.

In writing to the Church in Colosse, the Apostle Paul notes an emerging group of false teachers, which Bible scholars observe are a form of proto-Gnosticism. These teachers are spreading new ideas that spring from secret knowledges and that in contradiction to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ that had been received by the Colossians. In this letter, Paul is both calling the Church to remain firm on the Gospel of Christ and to reject these new and unChristian teachings

“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” (Colossians 2:2-9)

Firstly, God’s mystery has been revealed. In the Old Testament, the fulness of God’s purposes were not revealed and made clear. The Apostles stresses that in Christ this mystery is now made known. Indeed Christ and inclusion into Christ is the mystery.

“the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (1:26-27)

Secondly, God’s revealed mystery, which is Christ, is sufficient in every way. The fulness of God is in Christ, for he is fully and eternally God. This fulness has been given to us through faith. The exhortation is to remain in Christ, not shifting from him and onto something new and different. Why not? Because God’s promises and blessings and purposes are all wrapped up in Christ and are already ours in Him.

In chapter 1 Paul offers what is a superlative picture of the Lord Jesus Christ, detailing that he is supreme and sufficient,

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Thirdly, in contrast to the true and sufficient knowledge given us in Christ, Paul warns Christians about being attracted to new theologies. He refers to these as deceptive yet persuasive (2:3), as hollow and deceptive philosophy, and as arising from human traditions and elemental forces rather than Christ.

The origins of this new and secret knowledges is human speculation. As Paul adds in 2:15 behind these movements are devilish ‘powers and authorities’. These have been defeated by the cross, but are lingering about and trying to take God’s people ‘captive’ and uprooted from Christ.

 

Christians need to push against conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories succeed because they play into pre-existing assumptions, and they justify irrational political and religious beliefs. Conspiracy theories don’t depend on evidence but on capturing those seeds of doubt or inquisitiveness that otherwise may lay dormant in the consciousness.

Christians should avoid conspiracy theories because they depend on rumours and spreading speculations. Christians should ignore conspiracy theories because they reject well-established truth and they regularly turn to gossip and slander. There are clear examples of this in relation to QAnon.

Conspiracy theories also encourage suspicion and hatred, where the Christian ethic requires us to love our neighbours.

The issue is heightened when the conspiracy theory links itself to Christian teaching in some form. Paul insists that churches are to be on their guard and refute ideas that undermine the person and work of Christ, that suggest new and improved spirituality beyond Christ, that promote eschatological prophecies regarding the future, and that creates discouragement and division in the Church (2:2). It’s a car crash waiting to happen.

These Apostolic concerns regarding Proto-Gnosticism can be easily linked with modern day cults such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some forms of Pentecostalism and Christian liberalism would also fall under this umbrella. The reason being is that in different ways they deny the supremacy of the Lord Jesus or reject the sufficiency of the atonement. And like other those ancient heresies of Arianism and Montanism, that cause believers to doubt the clear teaching of Scripture and the fulness of God’s revelation in Christ, these contemporary storylines depend on new and secret knowledge.

We measure Christian doctrine according to the measure give to us by God, namely the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we find ourselves being pulled by extraordinary and too-good-to-be-true stories and understandings, they most probably are too good to be true. Be careful lest you step yourself away from the fullness God has already given us in Christ, and drag others with you.

A Response to ‘Coronavirus, creation and the Creator: What the Bible says about suffering and evil’

There are few people who don’t hold a view on COVID-19 and what it means for the world. Religious and irreligious people alike are espousing beliefs and theories. Two Baptist theologians from Whitley College in Melbourne, Mark Brett and Jason Goroncy, have offered a contribution to the conversation. They have written a piece for the ABC, in which they present a theological reflection on ‘Coronavirus, creation and the Creator: What the Bible says about suffering and evil’.

I read the article with interest partly because of the topic and also because I’m a Melbourne Baptist who is pastoring a Baptist church in this city. Brett and Goroncy have given a number of helpful insights, and they have also presented several theological ideas that are problematic for anyone holding to Biblical and historical Christianity. If I have misunderstood Mark Brett and Jason Goroncy in some way, I’m more than happy to be corrected. Indeed, such articles can be useful for creating ongoing conversations. 

COVID-19

To begin, allow me to note some worthwhile insights offered by Brett and Goroncy.

4 Helpful Insights 

  • They suggest that one useful response to the pandemic is reviving the practice of lament. This is a great idea.
  • This statement about the Bible is true and helpful, “The Bible is honest about human suffering in this world, whether it be that of the “righteous” and the “devout” or that of the “sinful” and “unrepentant.” It is equally honest about the sheer fact of dis-ease in the world.”
  • They point to the fact that God in Christ has shared in the suffering of this world. This is one of the wonders of the Gospel.
  • They offer a historical perspective, noting that what we are experiencing with COVID-19 is not new.

Before I turn to two crucial issues that lay at the heart of their argument, I want to briefly pushback on 3 other points. These points are not central to Brett and Goroncy’s thesis, but they do reveal something of their theological biases.

3 revealing comments

First, Brett and Goroncy set up their conversation as though Christian thinking on COVID-19 is a religious version of President Trump vs Enlightened Progressives.

For example, their opening salvo is aimed at ‘a few churches in the United States’, although by the end of the paragraph it seems as though the whole church has nothing useful to say about COVID-19,

“A few churches in the United States have attracted new notoriety by meeting together against the advice of public health officials, even presenting such dissidence as a mark of true faith. But what kind of faith is this exactly? On the other hand, some pastoral leaders have become all too aware of the immediate challenges, and have left the theological questions to one side. One might be left with the impression that the church has nothing to say about some of the most pressing questions that many people continue to dare to ask…”

It seems as though these American Trump supporting churches are stuck on their minds,

“Whole churches, it seems, have never heard of the book of Job, or perhaps they ignore such unsettling Old Testament discourse because it has been trumped by some version of apocalyptic theology.” [italics my emphasis]

“If we seek inspiration from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament in this present crisis, we would not expect God to intervene like a cosmic President, to declare emergency powers and veto the freedoms of the ecological systems within which all creatures live.” 

My issue here is that Brett and Goroncy almost entirely ignore mainstream Christian belief and practice. Instead, they have set up a conversation between a straw man with a deep southern accent and their own position. I’m not saying that such individuals don’t exist, of course, they do, but they are hardly representative of Christianity across Australia let alone in the United States. Brett and Goroncy’s foible is far too simplistic, which means they rarely engage with evangelical theology that is held by the vast number of Bible believing Christians. To quote a friend of mine, “Basically they just sound like Greta Thunberg if she had a PhD in theology”, but that’s probably going too far.

Second, when referring to the Old Testament, they speak of the ‘Hebrew Bible’. For Jewish people, this is an entirely appropriate term, but these are Christian theologians, and for Christians, we do not present the Old Testament as being separate from or not part of the Christian Bible.

Jesus repeatedly made the point that the Old Testament is Christo-centric book,

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

“Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (Luke 24:44)

The Apostles also understood the Old Testament as being about Jesus Christ and for Christians,

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

“from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15)

Third, why begin a discussion about Jesus’ miracles with the conditional conjunction, ‘if’?  “If we find miraculous healings in the New Testament…” It is impossible to tell whether Brett and Goroncy accept Jesus’ miracles as a historical fact or a myth, and that alone is problematic. Is this some academic game where we pretend to speak above all those awkward beliefs that don’t conform to post-Enlightenment thinking? Do theologians gain kudos for framing statements about miracles with suspicion?

My question here is, why provoke readers to doubt the veracity of Jesus’ miracles? Are their comments giving people greater confidence in the truth of the Bible or does it create further suspicion and disbelief, and drag old Bultmann out of the grave?

I will add that I agree with their understanding of how the miracles function in the Gospels, but as a reader, I am left in the dark about whether I should believe these miracles were real or a myth.

 

2 Critical problems

There are serious problems with Brett and Goroncy’s view of God and creation, such that their proposals are at times unrecognisable with Biblical Christianity. I will comment on two particular examples: God’s Sovereignty and the cross of Christ. There are other significant issues, including their view of the goodness of creation, the Fall, and human sin, but for the sake of brevity, I won’t address these here.

1. Is God Sovereign?

The Bible presents God as being Sovereign over all things. God’s Sovereignty includes his control, authority, and presence. There is nothing outside his knowledge and permission, nothing beyond his control and will.

“Our God is in heaven;

    he does whatever pleases him.” (Ps 115:3)

“ The Lord Almighty has sworn,

“Surely, as I have planned, so it will be,
and as I have purposed, so it will happen.

25 I will crush the Assyrian in my land;
on my mountains I will trample him down.
His yoke will be taken from my people,
and his burden removed from their shoulders.”

26 This is the plan determined for the whole world;
this is the hand stretched out over all nations.

27 For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him?
His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?”
(Is 14:24-27)

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col 1:15-20)

 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”  (Acts 17:24-25)

For Brett and Goroncy, God is powerful but not Sovereign. By relying on some rather inventive exegesis, they suggest God’s power and goodness has competition before the creation of the world and even in the new creation.

When it comes to the beginning of the universe, they reject creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) and instead propose “creatio ex profundis (creation out of the deep waters, creation as the germinating abyss”.

creatio ex profundis is an obscure idea that has almost zero support in Christian theology, and even less in the history of the Christian Church. It seems to have its roots in process theology, which is a small 20th Century movement in theology which rejected many key Christian beliefs, including that God is Sovereign.

The notable systematic theologian Louis Berkhof rightly notes, “the Christian church from the very beginning taught the doctrine of creation ex nihilo and as a free act of God”

As Michael Horton explains, the language in Genesis 1:2 of formless and empty, and darkness, “is itself the unformed matter that God had already brought into existence from nothing, the created stuff out of which he fashions the world.”

Not only does Genesis 1:1-2 not support the idea of creatio ex profundis, places like John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:15-17 make is abundantly make the case clearly,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made”.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Brett and Goroncy favour creatio ex profundis, because it opens the possibility of “natural evil” existing before creation. This is their proposal:

“we might think of creation as God’s protest against chaos — against the “churning, complicating” and “interstitial darkness” that “refuses to disappear” and which ceaselessly threatens to undo God’s “good” work by dragging creation back into the discord against which it was formed.”

God’s Sovereignty over creation is therefore denied, or least it is defined in a very narrow sense, for evil existed outside of and before God creating. God’s Sovereignty over the new creation is also disputed as they contend that death is part of the new creation,

“We would do well to remember that death was not wholly removed from the picture of a “new heavens and new earth” in Isaiah 65:17–24. There, the prophetic vision sets out a minimum life expectancy of a hundred years, so that children will not be “born into calamity.” In short, this text does not promote a heavenly immortality; the new earth still very much means the renewing of our own.”

Does Isaiah 65:20 suggest that death will be part of the new creation?

“Never again will there be in it

    an infant who lives but a few days,

    or an old man who does not live out his years;

the one who dies at a hundred

    will be thought a mere child;

the one who fails to reach a hundred

    will be considered accursed.”

In his commentary on the book of Isaiah, Alec Motyer explains, “it is not meant to suggest that death will still be present. This would contradict forever (18), no more (19), and the death of death in 25:17-18. It simply affirms that, over the whole of life, the power of death will be gone.” In other words, Isaiah is using metaphor and hyperbole to make the point that there will not be death in the new creation. 

If we’re going quote Isaiah ch.65, why not permit readers to be aware of those Scriptures toward which Isaiah is pointing and which make clear that there will be no more death? For example, Revelation ch.21,

 “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

By relying on obscure exegesis and leaping over large swathes of relevant texts, Brett and Goroncy have painted a God who is not totally in control over the world. They are not saying God is absent or completely powerless, however. They do point to Jesus and to the cross as an example of God sharing in our suffering. However, their explanation of the cross is extraordinarily reductionist and leaves the cross and God empty of saving power.

2. Don’t empty the cross of its power.

For an article that is wanting to offer hope in the midst of this terrible pandemic, I found it strange that both Jesus Christ and his cross are rarely mentioned. They write,

“Even death on a Roman cross, in this impatient theology, is simply a means to an end. It could not be an enduring revelation of the character of God. As if perhaps, in the crucifixion of Jesus, God was just faking weakness, was not really thirsty and abandoned at all.”

In the single time where they do mention Christ and the cross, it is to criticise a straw man version of a Sovereign God. The death of Christ is reduced to that of God sharing in our suffering. The idea of God understanding suffering is true enough. This is a beautiful Christian teaching, that God in Christ Jesus has participated in the world and suffered.  Hebrews ch. 2 expresses this wonder,

“In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered…14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death… 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

Brett and Goroncy have reduced the cross to an image of God joining in our suffering. But he lacks the power to defeat suffering and evil and death.

The good news is that the real cross of Christ that took place in history and is faithfully recorded in the Scriptures is the means by which God will accomplish the end of death and evil. The cross is not only about God with us or for us in some representative way, but Christ dying in our place. Jesus’ death was sacrificial, it is an atoning death whereby God satisfied his righteous anger and where sinful beings are forgiven and set free from sin and from judgment to come.

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

At the end of the day, according to Brett and Goroncy, the world’s Saviour is us. This is something we can accomplish collectively as a human race if we follow God’s lead,

“We cannot say that this world simply appears by divine imposition. According to Isaiah, human participation in the justice of God is still required, as already pointed out. What we can say, however, is that God stands firstly with the less-abled among us, and with the poor, inviting them to participate — indeed, to offer leadership — in a new society. The Spirit of God calls the rest of us, the privileged, to new practices of solidarity…”

“we would look to the God who always chooses to act in solidarity, who quietly calls us to act freely as better human beings — fellow creatures with the earth — and to embody the justice of God in every area of our lives together.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled once again the inequalities of our world. This is not the fulfilment of apocalyptic prophecies — like those in the Book of Revelation, for example — but it is certainly a new unveiling of what has been termed “slow violence.” Our planet continues to burn, and our seas continue to acidify. Patterns of production and consumption continue to despoil the resources needed by future generations. A new world is calling, for which we need a fuller understanding of creation.”

There is no real hope in those words, just more misery and despair. We have had thousands of years to put things right, it is a ridiculous notion that somewhere we are now capable of change. At the end of the day, there is no difference between their solution and that being offered by the most politically energised climate change activists. I’m not a climate change sceptic, far from it. But I reject the notion that we can create a ‘new world’. Instead of proclaiming God’s  ‘good news’ that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished by his atoning death and resurrection the dead, Brett and Goroncy offer just another zealous religion, high on sentiment and free from Divine power.

COVID-19 may not be a direct result of specific human sins, but it is an expression and timely reminder of a world in turmoil because of human sin and because God has cursed this creation in response. There is hope, a wonderful and undeserved hope. The hope of Christianity lies in a Sovereign God in whom nothing is beyond his care and control. The hope in Christianity is that God has done what is required: the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This single event has dealt with the heart of the problem, and one day, in God’s timing, will remove all the presence and stain of sin, suffering, and death.  And the new creation that has already begun in the hearts and lives of those in Christ Jesus, will be consummated and universal

John Frame puts it this way,

“The point is not that the stars and planets have sinned and need atonement as human beings do. But rather, the sin of human beings has led to a twisting of the whole universe that only redemption of human sin can set right.”

Far from this forgiveness of sins making Churches complicit with environmental vandalism, it should change the way we view other human beings and the world, but we do not pretend that we can drag some less than perfect new creation into the world tomorrow. Rather, as the Apostle Paul expresses our hope in Romans ch.8,

“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”

7 (possible) Church trends emerging from COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting almost all parts of society. The impact is minimal in some areas of life, and in others, the change is significant and life altering. Churches are not immune from the broader tremors that are shaking core social and economic foundations.

Today is our seventh Sunday without Church. Each week I am preaching a sermon which is then posted online for our congregation. On Sunday mornings many of our people join on zoom to listen to the sermon and then spend time catching up and prayer together. But it’s not church. During the week small groups once again meet on zoom for Bible study and prayer, and there are numerous other interactions taking place every day.

While the current arrangements are far from ideal, we understand them. Life has required Australians to make adjustments, some which cause grief and uncertainty. Most Churches I suspect are still adapting and finding a rhythm to manage society’s new pace, let alone thinking of what the status quo will be like in six or twelve months time.

It is now 3rd May 2020. No one knows how long the pandemic will continue and what the long term repercussions will be. Most States across Australia are beginning to relax restrictions. Although in  Victoria, Stage 3 restrictions remain, but even here I anticipate that small groups will be allowed to start meeting again from later this month. Large gatherings, however (including church services) are probably months away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

As we approach two months of COVID-19 restrictions, I have noticed a number of trends beginning to emerge among Australian Churches. These indications are based on my own experience and the many conversations I am having with pastors across the country. Also, standing behind the observations are these 3 theological premises:

  1. God remains Sovereign over the world today.
  2. Human nature doesn’t change. The Bible’s doctrine of total depravity remains the status quo.
  3. The Gospel of Jesus Christ remains good, true, and powerful today.

 

1. A godly hunger.

Not only at Mentone, but as I speak with pastors and Christians from around the country, I am seeing and hearing countless stories of service and kindness. People are making an effort to serve others practically, in prayer, and in word. This eagerness to love the body of Christ is accompanied by a growing hunger for being together again as a church. Praise God!

At Mentone, we are not trying to replicate church on Sundays or to pretend that what we’re doing is church. We consciously avoid using the language of ‘church’ or ‘service’, and we have made deliberate choices not to include every element that would be present on a Sunday service. For example, we are not commemorating the Lord’s Supper while we are apart. Doing this, being clear about what we are and are not doing during this season, is not only theologically responsible but it is creating a godly hunger among our people to be together again in person, to see one another face to face, and to worship God as church, and to partake of the Lord’s Supper again.

If these weeks of isolation create a hunger in God’s people to love the church and long to be together as a church, then that is a sign of God’s grace.

“Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.” (2 Timothy 1:4)

“But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy”. (1 Thess 2:17-19)

2. An ungodly separation

While many members of our churches are using this season to draw closer to Christ and to his church, others will sadly use the situation to create distance.

Without regular face to face church, it is easier for people to walk away. Churches will lose people during this pandemic. These people were probably already drifting prior to the restrictions, but without the accountability of regular and public gatherings, the cover of forced separation is their justification for leaving your church and perhaps Christ also.

I shared these verses from 1 Peter with Mentone during the week, to help us combat this temptation,

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”

 

3. The shift from fast to fatigue and then to rest

Adapting to the new environment has required an immense amount of time and energy. The ministry and mission of a local church don’t fundamentally change, but the immediate and drastic constraints forced upon us have necessitated rapid learning, quick responses, high energy mixed with headaches and new anxieties. It’s a classic recipe for fatigue.

Speaking personally, after running at a sprint for the first 5 weeks, I needed to take 3 days rest last week; I was toasted, baked, and grilled, all in one. Rest is important. Indeed, our doctrine of God becomes real to us. If he remains Sovereign over the world and if Christ is still Lord of his church, then we can rest in Him and trust that he has everything under his loving care. It’s okay to turn off the laptop. It’s okay to produce a sermon that’s not quite finished. It’s okay for online presentations to be a little rough. It’s okay if you didn’t manage to call everyone you had on your list for that week.

Government restrictions are likely to continue for some months, even if the tightest limitations begin to loosen during May. Therefore pace ourselves, set realistic goals for each week, be content with less efficiency and lower productivity. In this, we can rediscover the grace of resting in Christ and practising our doctrine of God.

 

4. Breaking the back of Christian consumerism?

My expectation is that apart from the grace of God our bad habits will continue on the other side of COVID-19.  This fourth observation is, however, a call for change. The example I have in mind here is the consumerism and obstinate individualism that is deeply ingrained in Australian culture and which is also pervasive in Christian attitudes toward the Church. Consumerism works against discipleship and long term committed members and instead creates short term attendees and parasitic Christians. The Church’s manual becomes some poor religious version of Vogue or Netflix when it should be the word of God and church covenants.

The pandemic is a great opportunity to go simple and return to Bible basics. Do we need a professional band in order to worship God acceptably and to lift our hearts? Do we really need stand up comics in our pulpits? Are academy award winning visuals necessary for weekly announcements? 

I’m not saying that aiming low is somehow more sanctified. Let’s be clear, the quality of production is not a measure of faithfulness, whether it is created by a television crew or by a 6-year-old helping out Dad to press record on his iPhone.

A likely scenario is that Churches with high production value online will most likely attract the greater number of visitors once the crisis ends. This is great news if it is the Gospel drawing people. My question is, are our online ‘services’ reinforcing the consumer mindset or can we break the culture by doing things differently? By different, again I’m not arguing for anti-excellence, but rather I’m calling for simple faithfulness that is driven by core Gospel principles. These include making disciples, the centrality of reading and preaching the Word, preaching the whole counsel of God, permeating everything with prayer, and letting the congregation be heard when singing.

5. Churches may become more local and smaller

This point may seem to contradict the above suggestion, but not necessarily. Culture normally shifts in multiple directions and so it’s quite possible for two different paths to be true at the same time.

Are the days of mega-churches over? I doubt it (and this isn’t a criticism of large churches), but the longer restrictions remain in place for large gatherings there may be a turning toward people joining local and smaller churches. For example, the ABC last week reported that large crowds may not be permitted to meet until a vaccine is available; that means 2021 or even beyond.

With restrictions on large gatherings and with people driving less and staying closer to their own community, we may see a transition toward local church. I do think such a shift will benefit Gospel work. Of course there is is no ‘right’ size for a church. Every size and location has peculiar strengths, but there is something compelling about belonging to a church that’s found in your local community. It enables closer and deeper Gospel community and it created more evangelistic opportunities. Is it easier to invite a friend living 5 minutes drive away or 50 minutes?

6. Financial loss and ministry recalibration 

Churches are very much part of society. When the community is hurt or impacted, so are Churches, and that is not a bad thing. Many Australians have lost jobs in the past month, and many more are now working reduced hours with less income. Given that most churches rely solely upon the generosity of God’s people, it’s inevitable that churches will face financial reduced giving.

There are options available for assistance from both Federal and State Governments, which may alleviate some of the financial pressures (there are pros and cons for churches joining these programs). The reality is, as a result of long term restrictions and economic downturn, some churches will close permanently, others will need to reduce staff, and the way churches conduct ministry may need to change.

To repeat my earlier contention, what we believed prior to this crisis is what we will carry with us through to the other side. Hence, for many declining churches the fundamental problem is not the pandemic but years of poor teaching and bad theology that has left congregations destitute and spiritually dry. Churches who sold their soul to the culture will simply advertise the fact when they put the ‘for sale’ sign outside their front doors. There is also grief for small and faithful churches who will struggle to remain open into 2021. We can do without faithless churches but Australia doesn’t need fewer faithful churches.

Given the huge numbers of people who are losing jobs, the extraordinary debts now being accumulated by Governments and businesses, economic constraints are likely to continue for a very long time. This acute situation may also serve as grace to force churches to reconfigure their mission and ministry priorities. It is a time to be asking, what is the church? What is the mission? How can be best arrange Gospel priorities in our budget?

 

7. People looking for hope

“now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2)

I think it is true to say that many Australians are nervous and even fearful of the future. There is an audible note of despair and reassessing life values. Whether this results in people turning to Christ or not, we’ll learn over the coming months.

Time will tell whether this pandemic is the watershed moment that’ll bring about revival or further wash Christianity into the culture’s sewers. My sense is that we are unlikely to witness either. History shows that significant social events rarely create the ground for revival or great influx of people returning to church. If two World Wars, the Great Depression, the threat of nuclear war, September 11, and the 2008 Stockmarket crash, didn’t cause societal attitudes toward Christianity to improve, why do we think this most current crisis will be any different? 

Jesus teaches that such things have always been and will continue to be experienced,

“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.”

Accompanying world events, Jesus also explains,

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”.

While I’m reticent to place confidence in a ‘changing’ world, the Bible tells us that “today is the day of salvation”.  God remains Sovereign and the Gospel remains good, true and powerful. Therefore God is perfectly able to grow his Kingdom beyond our expectations and prayers. God is not bound by my glass half empty views.

If people are asking questions, let’s offer the good news of Jesus Christ. If people are fearful, let’s offer His comfort. If people are looking for hope, let’s present the secure hope of Christ.

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossians 4)

 


I’ve written (May 17) a follow up piece, but this time examining potential changes to the culture at large – https://murraycampbell.net/2020/05/17/how-will-covid-19-change-the-world/

Andrea Bocelli sings ‘Amazing Grace’

The world famous operatic tenor, Andrea Bocelli, performed a live concert over Easter at Milan’s Cathedral. The performance was given the apt name, “music for hope.” Many millions of people have already watched the stunning combination performance.

What grabbed my attention was the final song, ‘Amazing Grace’.  This Christian hymn offers great encouragement & hope, more than we perhaps realise at first. 

What is the message of Amazing Grace?

Who wrote this most popular hymn and why?

I offer an explanation here in this short podcast.