The COVID-19 crisis, both the real crisis and the manufactured crisis, will subside, though much too quickly for the panic-porn purveyors in our major media outlets. Consequences of the crisis will, however, persist.
No, we will not feel the effects of the crisis in our economy for 70 years, as a September 3 USA Today story suggested, an idea so palpably ridiculous that only our major media could have suggested it. But social consequences of major historical events are inevitable, and the church will not escape those consequences. The fact that some of these consequences to the church are self-inflicted doesn’t mitigate them.
We might ponder both the short- and long-term effects of the COVID drama on the church, and three avenues come immediately to mind: closure, compromise, and courage.
First, many churches will close. Church attendance was consistently declining before COVID, and, according to Barna, 20% of the temporary closures will become permanent, as reported in an August 26 Christian Post story. The study offered the entirely reasonable explanation that the longer believers remain unassembled, the less church attendance means to them. They’re discovering they can get along quite well, thank you, without church, and would need a renewed, compelling reason to resume attending.
Long-time friend and now retired New Testament scholar Ardel Caneday offered a succinct reason:
During the past 20 years by posting videos of every Lord’s Day sermon online church leaders have made it attractive for people to disobey the admonition of Hebrews 10:25 — “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 𝗻𝗼𝘁 𝗴𝗶𝘃𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘂𝗽 𝗺𝗲𝗲𝘁𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗼𝗴𝗲𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗿, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” During the past 6 months by surrendering the holding of worship services to the whims of state governors and by live-streaming worship services online church leaders have exponentially accelerated the attractiveness for people not to obey the admonition of Hebrews 10:25. The longer they continue these practices the more de-churched people will become.
In 2012 Christianity Today reported that America contained approximately 384,000 churches. Of course, there’s no way to arrive at an accurate count, but even if this number is miscalculated by several thousand, it provides a benchmark for comparison. If the 2020 number is not greatly different, this would mean about 77,000 churches will not survive COVID.
A number of these churches, of course, shouldn’t survive. Liberal churches (for example) aren’t churches at all, and the quicker they die, the better.
But the loss of remaining churches, varying in spiritual virility and theological fidelity, will further feather Satan’s cap.
Second, many churches that do survive will permanently alter their way of “doing” church. Zoom and other digital meetings widely, almost sweepingly, replaced in-person church — and will become a permanent “option.” The flagrant problem with this approach is that the expression “in-person church” is a redundancy: there’s no church that is not in person. The fact that this view is widely disputed or unknown testifies to the emaciated ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) in modern Christianity.
In the New Testament, “church” is the translation of ekklesia. This is not a unique theological word, but the common term denoting the assembly of citizens in the ancient Greek world called together to decide on important civic issues. Its defining feature is the assembly itself. No assembly or congregation, no ekklesia.
The new covenant ekklesia is the Lord’s blood-purchased citizens’ assembly. Without assembly, ekklesia is impossible. The English word “church,” by contrast, originally meant “the Lord’s house.” This is a sound, biblical metaphor for the ekklesia, but ekklesia is not identical to “church.” The ekklesia is the assembly, not the house itself, metaphorical or otherwise.
We often hear Christians declare that the church needs to get out of its Sunday building and “be the church” in the world. Whatever we may think about this idea, it fails to recognize that the church is the church precisely in its Lord’s Day meeting, whether that meeting is in a building or not.
To argue that a virtual church meeting is no less a meeting than an in-person meeting is self-contradictory. We call virtual meetings “virtual” because they are not actual. The point is not that they are universally less productive than in-person meetings. It’s simply that they are not actual meetings.
COVID ecclesial policy has, de-churched Christianity, in Dr. Caneday’s language.
Third, many faithful new churches will emerge, and many presently faithful ones will grow more robust. The abject failure of a vast majority of churches to recognize their own independent authority countering statist political edicts demanding shutdown will stimulate devout, thoughtful members to consider moving to or launching bolder, more biblical churches.
Many Christians recognizing the vital role of the church not simply in the individual Christian or family life but also the culture are suffering bitter disappointment at their present churches that cowered in the face of secular political edicts: “A righteous man who falters before the wicked [i]s like a murky spring and a polluted well” (Prov. 25:26). But this very disappointment has stimulated godly change.
None of us relishes difficult times, but they often force us into thoughts and decisions that more routine situations would not compel. If proverbial necessity is the mother of invention, hardships for Christians are the mother of holy redirection. That post-COVID redirection will translate into both new and renewed churches — uncompromising, theologically rigorous, worldview-ishly drenched, Christ-honoring churches.
We will one day ruminate on the COVID drama and not only deplore its ecclesial cravenness. We will, in addition, celebrate ecclesial revival. God has a history of birthing good out of evil: think of the Cross of Calvary …. Perhaps our children and grandchildren will mark COVID as the turning point from a sophomoric, anorexic Christianity to a mature, robust, world-conquering Faith.