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.

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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/

Help Australians to understand the Bible

It has been reported today that Raelene Castle, the Chief Executive Officer of Rugby Australia, would still have sacked Israel Folau had he only posted Bible verses stated in the hearing against Israel Folau that she would have sacked him, even if the only thing he did was to post

Miranda Devine writes,

“Raelene ­Castle effectively damned the Bible as hate speech in astonishing unreported testimony at Israel Folau’s code of conduct hearing in May.

She declared it is the Bible itself which is offensive when she testified before a panel of three judges who went on to find Folau guilty of a “high level breach” for posting a biblical quote calling on “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” to repent or face hell.

Castle told panel chairman John West, QC, that some biblical passages are unacceptable, and that even if Folau had posted a photocopy of a Bible page, he still would have been sacked.

West asked Castle: “What if Mr Folau had photocopied passages from the Bible and simply posted that on his ­social media pages, would that have caused a problem for you?”

Castle replied: “I think it depends on which ones — which pages he photocopied.”

West asked: “If he’d photocopied the passages that are referred to in the posts would that have caused a problem for you?”

Castle, “Yes it would have.” 

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Bible in the Victorian Parliamentary Library

The Bible itself is apparently offensive and to be defined as hate speech.  Today’s revelations are not the first instance of throwing the Bible onto the bonfire of popular opinion. Gregory Callaghan suggested in The Age yesterday that,

“If we continued to take every biblical injunction seriously, slavery, the subjugation of women, stoning, cutting off hands, and being barred from wearing clothes woven of two kinds of fabric would be still in force.”

We have an issue in Australia with widespread biblical illiteracy and ignorance. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the deliberate fashion in which we have turned our backs on Christianity over a period of decades.  Some people fear what they do not understand and others dislike what they do understand and cannot accept.

Is the Bible really to be considered hate speech? Are we really at the place in Australian society where quoting the Bible can be used as material evidence against an individual?

This isn’t the first in history where the broad society has misunderstood and misrepresented what Christians believe. This is an ancient problem.  Remember the good old days in the Roman Empire? Pliny the Younger, the Roman Governor of Bithynia et Pontus, assumed that the Christian practice of the Lord’s Supper consisted of Christians eating the flesh and drinking the blood of fellow human beings. He also believed that all that Christian talk about brothers and sisters involved some sexual appetite for incest. What happened to the Christians in Bithynia? Filled with a fountain of misinformation and insisting that they also adhere to the cult of the Emperor, he began to have them systematically imprisoned and executed.

Thank God that we don’t live in one of the many countries that still practice this kind of punishment on Christians (and other minorities). What is new today is that the West (including Australia) has had centuries of Christian teaching, access to the Bible, and freedom to read, study and explore the meaning of the Scriptures. We are not living in first century Rome. At yet basic Bible knowledge and grasping that the  Bible is to be understood in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ escapes the attention of many.

We have a Bible comprehension problem. Churches are not always helpful on this front, as many sell their soul for an esteemed role in the marketplace and for public congratulations. How can outsiders understand the Bible if Christian preachers carry a pair of scissors in their pocket, and cutting out any teaching that contravenes society’s dogma?  If Churches are not reading and teaching the Bible faithfully how can we expect anyone else to be getting it right?

Jesus documented a similar issue in his day,

“Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:

“Lord, who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

 For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:

“He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their hearts,
so they can neither see with their eyes,
nor understand with their hearts,
nor turn—and I would heal them.”

 Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.

 Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God.” (John 12)

 

My advice to Christians is this:

  1. Make sure that the public reading and preaching of the Bible is front and centre at all your Church services. Why wouldn’t it be?
  2. Make the reading and teaching of the Bible foundational to all your Church ministries. If it’s not, why not?
  3. Find ways to help your broader community engage with the Bible. Ask your friends, have they ever read the Bible and would they be interested to do so with you? Could you start up a group for interested people in a local school or community hall? Show people how to read and interpret the Bible. Share with people why the Bible informs and it transforms for good.

Raelene Castle has launched into a world familiar to many people of faith who have escaped oppressive nations, but this is unusual for Australia. To call out in a formal disciplinary tribunal that the Bible amounts to hate speech is extraordinary. This is an extraordinary step in the latest of a series of ridiculous cultural malpractice. Don’t be fooled,  she will find substantial support among our cultural elites. But is she on to something? Does the Bible never disagree with our moral inclinations? Do the Scriptures never cause discomfort? While the Bible is never hate speech, it is a dangerous book. Entire nations have changed on account of the Bible. Cultures have shifted toward enlightenment and progress on account of the Bible. Fairer societies have been built, slavery outlawed, fair working conditions for the poor, homes for orphans and the elderly, and in fact, much of the fruit we enjoy today finds its roots in ideas stemming from Biblical revelation.

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

A sling, an arrow, and the Gospel

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And, by opposing, end them?”

Cleisthenes

From the Delphic hamlet that is The Australian, Greg Sheridan has given Australian Churches an oracle.

According to Sheridan,

Australia’s Christian churches are in crisis, on the brink of complete strategic irrelevance. It’s not clear they recognise the mortal depth of their problems.

The churches need a new approach to their interaction with politics and the public debate, and to keeping themselves relevant in a post-Christian Australian society.

The churches cannot recognise and come to grips with their strategic circumstances. They behave as though they still represent a living social consensus.

The Christian churches now need to reconceive of themselves as representing a distinct and not all that big minority (of practising Christians). They should conduct themselves as a self-confident minority, seeking to win conversion through example and persuasion and not to defend endlessly legal protections and enforcements that are increasingly untenable or meaningless.

In my opinion Greg Sheridan offers a lucid critique of many Churches who are failing to grapple with the rise of secularism, although I wonder if he adequately understands the nature of the Church’s mission and therefore how success and relevance are defined.

Sheridan is right to point out the gross sins of abuse within the Catholic Church (and other denominations as well), and the way this has greatly damaged community perceptions of Churches.

There is urgent need for Churches to practice repentance. Dressed in clerical collars and reciting liturgy, great evil has been perpetrated, especially in the area of sexual abuse. Joe Smith and Lisa Jones can see it, but there remain clergy in some institutions that still don’t get it. The fact that their deeds expose them to be frauds of faith does not diminish the impact on the community. Real, transparent, and deep repentance is required.

Sheridan is also spot on in observing the naivety of some Christians who believe they still belong to the centre of Australian life. We defer to census figures that prove the majority of Aussies believe in God and who identify as Christian, but surely we know better. The reality is, Churches have never belonged comfortably at the centre of Australian society; they have played a significant role in shaping culture, alongside many other voices, but it is more a case of Churches being tolerated rather than celebrated and embraced.

This tolerance is eroding, rapidly so. This year alone we have seen various groups slamming the foot on the accelerator, such that we are fast approaching an intersection called ‘free speech’, and the direction Australians will take remains unclear.

Several political groups have declared their hand:

The Greens have decided their way forward by calling for religious organisations to lose their exemptions for discrimination laws.

Federal Labor have made clear: “Labor believes that no faith, no religion, no set of beliefs should ever be used as an instrument of division or exclusion, and condemning anyone, discriminating against anyone, vilifying anyone is a violation of the values we all share, a violation which can never be justified by anyone’s faith or belief. Accordingly, Labor will review national anti-discrimination laws to ensure that exemptions do not place Australians in a position where they cannot access essential social services.”

Bill Shorten has since stepped back from this position, but there are no guarantees he won’t step forward again.

And the Victorian Government, singing from their autocratic hymnal, has determined to insult and silence anyone who challenges their hermeneutic of life.

Should churches fight to keep a voice in the public arena?

We must concede that Churches no longer occupy a position in the middle, but we don’t want to evacuate the public space altogether. I want to argue that it is worth fighting for a voice in public discourse, but we do so with the belief that the Gospel does not depend upon it. So why should we defend notions of ‘freedom of speech’.

First of all, we have something to say. We have good news to speak and show our neighbours, and so why would we walk away from secular principles that give us freedom for speaking and contributing?

Secondly, we should defend the right to speak for the sake of those who speak against us. Is this not a way in which we love our neighbour?  Is it also not a sign of a mature society, one that is big enough to allow a plurality of voices, and to say ‘I disagree with you, but let’s hear you out and then talk it through’.

A great example of this happened last week when Christians came to the support of Roz Ward, a professing Marxist and co-founder of the controversial curriculum, Safe Schools. Ward was forced to resign from a Government role and was suspended from La Trobe University after a comment she made in regard to the Australian flag. While her views may be disagreeable to many, she has the right to express them, and to find herself being ousted from an academic institution on account them was extreme. Subsequently, a number of Christian leaders noted this hypocrisy and sided with those who called for her reinstatement.

Thirdly, we are members of a democratic society, which in principle gives permission for Christians and atheists alike to speak and offer their opinion.

As a liberal democracy, Australia is governed by these 4 principles:

“A belief in the individual: since the individual is believed to be both moral and rational;

A belief in reason and progress: based on the belief that growth and development is the natural condition of mankind and politics the art of compromise;

A belief in a society that is consensual: based on a desire for order and co-operation not disorder and conflict;

A belief in shared power: based on a suspicion of concentrated power (whether by individuals, groups or governments).”

If we accept these principles, surely Christians have freedom to articulate their views in public discourse? This doesn’t mean people have to like or affirm these beliefs (nor those of any worldview), but it does mean there is freedom to speak. Unfortunately though, it seems as though these values are becoming museum pieces, relics from a golden age of democracy when the Cleisthenes’ of Australia stood tall. After all, no fair democracy has ever endured the ages. And yet, while Australia formally holds to these democratic convictions, there is a place for Christians to speak without fear of law or litigation.

Our democratic liberties give Christians a platform and context for doing public ministry, and we are thankful for this, but the Gospel is not curtailed by the limitations or freedoms of liberal democracy. Indeed, history demonstrates that Churches have often flourished where they have been most resented. More importantly, Jesus Christ taught a theology of the world which lives in opposition to God and which hates those who follow Jesus. Why should we assume Australia is any different?

How should Churches view ‘success’?

Are, as Greg Sheridan suggests, ‘churches in crisis now on all fronts’? It depends on how one defines the mission and role of the church.

Our aim is to love others, whether our convictions are affirmed by others or not.

Our goal is not relevance, for the Gospel we believe is not defined by a popularist epistemological current, but by the word of the cross, which is foolishness to the wise and powerful of this world. Instead, our purpose is to preach this foolishness for through it God works to redeem and heal.

Our mission is not to set up power structures at the centre of society, but to speak the Gospel and to love others no matter where we find ourselves situated in relation to broader society.

Freedom of speech has become the gordian knot of our day. Politicians, lawyers, and academics will ponder and debate and try to find a way to navigate through the many layers of twisted and knotted rope, and while their answers will have implications for Christian speech and life in public, our hope does not lay with them, but in the Gospel, a word that is sharper than a two edged sword. Our hope rests in the Christ who has promised that he will build his church and not even Hades can stand against it.

Sadly many Christians have sold their soul in order to buy a place at the centre of public life, and they are now being marshalled into following the lead of the social progressives, and others are instead holding tight to their conservative neuroses. There are however exceptions; across the land there are churches growing and people are becoming Christians, and there are Bible colleges in Australian cites who are training more men and women than in the previous generation. There are Christians serving in Parliament, teaching in universities, and working in a thousand different jobs. And to these men and women, keep preaching and living the Gospel, loudly from the centre or whispering it from the edge, and through it God will keep working his grace and growing his Kingdom.