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/

New Podcast now available

During the global crisis, I am planning to post regular and short messages to encourage people and to stimulate theological reflection.

 

To subscribe follow this link,

https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/murray-campbell/id1504044662

Hope during uncertain times

We all need hope during uncertain times.  As a way of giving encouragement and stimulating thought on important topics, I’m starting a youtube channel (and podcast to come). The aim is to upload 1-2 short messages each week.

Feel free to subscribe

MurrayCampbell

You can also subscribe to the podcast on itunes:

https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/murray-campbell/id1504044662

Hope for a generation without hope

During the course of 2019, I have observed a growing sense of hopelessness being felt and expressed by people across the globe, especially among teenagers. Climate change, political agendas and social uncertainties are compounding and amplifying a disillusionment about the future.

There is an audible disquiet and growing despair spilling over from social media and into our schools and onto our streets. My children’s school was so concerned about this that they wrote a letter to parents, urging us to address these matters in a calm and constructive manner.

This year we have heard young people declaring that they will never have because of threats facing the globe. Members of the British Royal family have also joined the chorus, announcing that they will have fewer children because of the perils posed by climate change. 

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It is not only Climate Change that is of concern. Western societies are experiencing a rise in anti-Semitism, stories of sexual abuse rarely leave the headlines, and the question of religious freedom is no longer limited to the theoretical. The oft forgotten issues of alcohol, drugs, and gambling continue to destroy homes and lives across our suburbs and towns. There is also the situation facing Hong Kong, the forced internment of over one million Uyghurs in China, and a 1000 who have been killed in Iran recently protesting in support of freedoms in that land.

There is much to see in our world today that can overwhelm young and vibrant hearts. Indeed, has there been another year in living memory that has exuded so much negativity and sense of despair?

Our city streets are regularly clogged with protests. Once upon a time, we might see 3 or 4 such marches during the course of a year, but now it is almost every week. And the people protesting have also changed. There are fewer industry unions standing for the rights of the working class. The demonstrations are about sexual rights and the environment: save the planet, save animals, and kill the unborn. If that final inclusion sounds a little distasteful, that’s because it is. Children are now joining in these rallies in their thousands, skipping school to express dread and discouragement as they consider their future.

These conditions are a dangerous recipe. Passionate citizens and concerned people can be exploited by vociferous ideologues. History is littered with such examples and even some current movements have also been used and turned by less than helpful campaigners. How quickly we forget. For example, when Safe Schools was launched, its chief architect, Roz Ward, explained that the curriculum was designed to introduce Marxist thinking into our schools. Far from assisting youth who are wrestling with their sexual identity, they became pawns in a political subversion game being played among academics and social activists.

There is something particularly disconsolating in watching a generation lose hope. Sure, some of it is virtual signalling. Of course, adults need to take responsibility for the over the top rhetoric they sometimes apply to public issues. And yet, we should recognise that many young Australians are feeling the weight of a less than certain future.

When we looked back we remember that ours isn’t the first generation of young people to experience despondency. The generation of 1914-18 was marked by the trauma of world war. The following generation grew up during the Great Depression and was soon struck down by a global war more terrifying and bloody than the one their parents survived. Children of the 1950s learned to duck and cover, in the event of a nuclear attack that many believed was inevitable.

We could dig further back into history and look to the time of the Exodus or to the age of exile in Babylon. What were those people living through?  How did they feel? And where did they place their hope?

Of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, 

“During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.  God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.”

Of the people living in exile for 70 years, 

“They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’” (Ezekiel 37:11)

Millennials are not the first generation to face enormous life changing obstacles and they won’t be last. This is not to dismiss Climate Change. My purpose here is not to contest the science for I am no expert in this area. I have no reason to doubt the research being conducted by so many and where there is broad consensus. Indeed the issue fits neatly with a biblical understanding of the world and of the human capacity to care for and to abuse the creation in which we live. 

Are we reaping the fruit of generations of greed and selfishness? Probably. We are also reaping the benefits of generations of ingenuity and progress. I can almost hear Charles Dickens penning those famous words, 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”

In some respects, we are living in the best of days. Our standard of living has never been higher. Our children have more opportunities and experiences open to them than could have been imagined 20 years ago. In many areas, life has never been better, but the rhetoric of doom is drowning out much else.

Call me a heretic but Climate change isn’t the existential threat facing the planet and humanity. It is a symptom of an ancient problem that we have afforded to ignore for far too long. If there is no God, why should we ultimately concern ourselves with altruism? Why bother with protecting the environment for future generations if purpose is found in the individual and defined by personal satisfaction? The fact that we understand that there are moral boundaries and that the future does matter, is not an argument against Divine purpose but the only rational explanation for having such concerns. How we behave toward one another and how we use the planet is important because this isn’t a meaningless existence. 

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

 There has been a cosmological battle taking place for millennia, and it is ultimately against the Creator, not the creation. The ancient mandate to care for the world remains, but the growing call to save and redeem the world is not one within our purview. Those who believe we can save the planet have far too high regard for human capability and moral will. I’m not saying, don’t bother reducing carbon omissions and forget about investing in renewable energy; far from it. The house I live in won’t stand forever but it doesn’t mean I neglect the building. I neither wreck the house nor place all my energy and hopes in the house. I’m just pointing out the fact that people putting their ultimate hope in other people will always disappoint in the end. The role of global saviour is too big a job. You see, I don’t believe things are as bad as we suggest they are; despite even the good around us the reality is far more perilous. 

At least in the West, millennials are following their parents lead and ditching Christianity in favour of either vague and undefinable spirituality or choosing a-theism and an irrational universe. I reckon this pursuit is partly responsible for hopelessness that is weaving itself through our communities. It is time to revisit the person of Jesus Christ. Indeed, for most Australians, it is to visit Him for the very first time. The Gospel of Matthew declares, 

“In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matt 12:21)

And this, 

 “And again, Isaiah says,

“The Root of Jesse will spring up,
one who will arise to rule over the nations;
in him the Gentiles will hope.”

” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:12-13)

Here are words of profound hope. Here is a person in whom we can rest our hope. Jesus wasn’t a virtual signaller. He came into a hostile world and to a people without hope. He demonstrated his Divinity in the most powerful and loving ways. He chose to take a road to crucifixion. He was raised to life on the third day. He has ascended to heaven. He will hold the nations to account. He will hold all of us to account. He brings hope and healing, peace and reconciliation. Some Churches have done a great job at confusing and even betraying these things, but the message stands the test of time. Indeed there are millions of millennials turning to the Gospel all over the world today and discover the kind of hope they need and cannot find in anything else.

We can’t survive without hope. Hope in the world or hope in humanity is an age-long route to despair. Human responsibility is noble and right, but the hope of the world cannot rest on the shoulders of our children. You may doubt what I suggest, but at the very least, why not open a Bible to the Gospel of Luke or the Gospel of John, read and consider this hope before you discount him?

“And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Romans 5:5)