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.
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:
- God remains Sovereign over the world today.
- Human nature doesn’t change. The Bible’s doctrine of total depravity remains the status quo.
- 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. 3 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. 4 Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. 5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 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/