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How the Coronavirus Might Change the Local Church, Forever

04-19-2020

Four thoughtful predictions for how the Coronavirus might alter the way our churches gather, operate, & plan.

IS YOUR CHURCH PREPARED FOR WHAT MAY BE COMING?

Forever is a strong word. But the truth is, nothing really stays the same. Everything is always changing, growing, declining, moving, and shifting, forever. But then there are moments that accelerate and magnify change—a cancer diagnosis, a declaration of war, the death of a loved one, a global pandemic. The Coronavirus, if it’s not clear by now, is one of those moments. It’s a time that will change the way our modern world operates, forever. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either.

The Washington Post released an article titled How the Coronavirus Will Change Our Lives Forever—From Music to Politics to Medicine. Politico released a fascinating write-up hosting 34 industries with their respective experts titled Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently—34 Big Thinkers’ Predictions for What’s to Come.

Bloomberg, ESPN, Foreign Policy, LA Times, CNN and everyone in between has released at least one article discussing the permanent and lasting changes that will occur due to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. The idea that an event like this would create long-standing emotional change shouldn’t surprise us, either. There are hundreds of articles covering the post-traumatic stress from 9/11, the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, and Hurricane Katrina. Moments like these are thunderous and alter humanity and their societies, forever.

Now, it’s more obvious how industries like medicine, healthcare, politics, H.R. departments, and grocery store supply chains will experience these permanent changes, but what about the local church? How will the Coronavirus change how Christians assemble? And of these changes, which of them will be shocking, disruptive, and lasting?

Before I divulge with my opinions, I would like to prime the conversation with some theological and historical clarity that will provide the lens by which I am making these statements.

GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY

I believe that God is sovereign over the Coronavirus. In fact, I believe that God ordained it and every single effect that has come because of it (Amos 3:6). I believe that when Jesus said in Mathew 28:18, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” that He meant those words. Namely, nothing in our world has come to pass without His permission. The synoptic Gospels demonstrate that even nature is not free of God’s rule. In Matthew 8:27 the disciples expressed that, “Even the winds and seas obey him.” In Isaiah 45:7, God shocks us with words that offer most modern Christians a puzzling perspective of His grandeur, “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.” I believe that God is big and good and just and sovereign. I believe He is working all things together according to His perfect will (Ephesians 1:11). Furthermore, I believe, by His sovereignty that He will work all these things together for the good of the Church (Romans 8:28).

But most of all, I believe God will be glorified through the Coronavirus. I believe, as J.C. Ryle so beautifully stated, “Health is a good thing, but sickness is far better if it leads us to God.” This season may not look like the most effective path toward a Christian awakening in our world but history confirms that the most fertile soil for church revival is found in the beds of suffering and uncertainty. Though it may seem bleak, many are coming back to the Bible. Though it may seem confusing, many are on their knees in prayer. Though it may feel broken, many are seeing their need for the Gospel. I think of C.S. Lewis’ grand thought on the matter, “We can even ignore pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” The Lord knows what He’s doing and we can have joy in the midst of this pandemic, for He is with us until the very end.

PANDEMICS AND CHURCH HISTORY

It would be easy to dismiss my thesis by saying “forever” is too strong of a word, or an overreaction. That is, some might say, “The church has experienced plagues before and she will experience plagues again” or “Things will change for a time but eventually, she will return to business as usual.” Historically, this sentiment was actually quite true. But unlike the Bubonic Plague of the 14th Century and the Great Plague of London which were both localized to certain cities and countries, the Coronavirus is global.

The increase of international travel and the frequency of human movement has raised the stakes. Furthermore, this pandemic is not only about a disease but also about societal fear and pandemonium. Simply put, we are not merely dealing with the matters of physical health but an entire complex sociopolitical whirlwind that’s fueled by our modern access to social media and news. Ultimately, the Coronavirus is transforming human culture and, when human culture shifts, things change.

I say all this because self-preservation is blinding. Our innocent hope for things to “remain as they are” is often a not-so-innocent front for what’s lurking behind—the protection of self. As a pastor, any desire for the church to remain as she is cannot be in alignment with God’s plan for an ever-growing, ever-developing, and ever-moving bride.

What am I getting at? The Coronavirus is going to change your local church. As elders and seminarians and shepherds and teachers, we must be willing to embrace that reality with a yielded and ready heart before the Lord.

But as we all know, unexpected change is not our friend. In fact, if our livelihood or security or safety is dependent upon the consistency of something other than God, any change in it will be violently opposed. In some cases, our own self-preservation may even cause complete ignorance to imminent change.

Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Pastors, it’s my opinion that God is using the Coronavirus to do much more than teach us how to live stream sermons to the internet for a few weeks. I believe God is purifying His church, growing His church, and possibly initiating a new cultural era for His church.

Let me explain. When we think of the word “disruptive” it generates visions of disorderly interjection by some foreign party or person. It makes you think of the untrained child repeatedly interrupting your dinner conversation. But the Lord has been using divine disruption as a tool to cleanse and reorient His people throughout the Scriptures. In fact, every single divine intervention in the life of a prophet, priest, king, judge, or apostle disrupted and reoriented their lives in a magnificent way. Paul, for example, had no plan to meet Christ on his way to Damascus and David had no expectation of his pasture-side anointing to kingship by Samuel.

Ultimately, the Scriptures are a convincing example that God’s will is disruptive to human plans.

In light of God’s sovereignty over both the Church and the Coronavirus—and in light of the very true reality that our churches have been disrupted, how might this historic pandemic change the local church? Better yet, how might it change your local church? As pastors and clergymen, what should we expect to not remain the same as the viral floodwaters dissipate? What should we expect to see that we have not seen in this current generation? Furthermore, how should we be viewing these changes through the lens of Scripture and what adaptations should be made to ensure we are wisely shepherding the flock among us? But most of all, how do we grasp all of this and translate it into a fruitful and biblical expression of the local church?

While I wish I had all the answers to these vital questions, I don’t. However, I do have some predictions that may prove helpful for those in church leadership. As a house church planter and pastor, this entire experience has offered me a unique vantage point distinct from my brothers serving in the traditional church. I do not expect my words to be any more meaningful than the other more experienced and wise shepherds within the church today. Nevertheless, I do hope my forecast of what’s to come is not only humble but sober. May the Lord use it to build His Kingdom.

PREDICTION #1: SOME WILL NOT RETURN FOR MONTHS OR EVEN YEARS

By now, it’s obvious that we, as pastors, have a real problem to deal with. First, we have experts affirming the Coronavirus is a valid threat. Second, we have the media driving both rational concern and irrational fear deep into the hearts and minds of Western Culture. The extent of this concern and fear will be far-reaching in the way we operate as humans moving forward. We’ve been compelled to distrust crowds, handshakes, public spaces, and hugs. Each and every contact might be a death sentence, so we’ve been told, for those over the age of 60 or who have pre-existing conditions. Unfortunately, the local church is filled with these exact human touchpoints. In fact, the structure of a local assembly is the epitome of what the media has spent the past several weeks telling us to avoid.

As a result, my prediction is that many of the elderly and compromised do not return to the local church for months or even years. That is to say, I don’t personally expect to see this group rushing back in large numbers to submerge themselves in high capacity social environments over the next 6-18 months. As some experts are saying, this could only be the beginning of the Coronavirus era and a reintroduction of the epidemic is possible in the Fall if we are too relaxed on our nation’s human health policies. Ultimately, this virus won’t truly lose steam until we have a highly accessible and safe vaccination or until millions upon millions have contracted it and created the antibodies to fight its further transmission.

When you combine the very real need for these groups to protect their lives with the comfort and security of watching church from home you create a recipe for abandoned attendance.

As church leaders, we may think to ourselves, “Well we could still conduct the church gathering without the elderly and compromised present…” I think we may underestimate the size of this group. Let’s start with the compromised. Clinically speaking, this includes pregnant and nursing mothers, infants, the 8.4% of the population who has asthma and the millions of immune-compromised in all age brackets. This is no small number. Then, you have the Boomers. As of today, Boomers make up about 70 million Americans. That’s about 22% of the population. But this isn’t simply a numbers game. It’s also a behavior game. That is, the number one giving group in the church today is… you guessed it… the Boomers. Blackbaud, a social-good research company found that Boomers make up 41.6% of all church giving. In 2016, they made this statement, “The Greatest Generation (1900–1927), the Silent Generation (1928–1945), and Boomers make up 78.8 percent of total church giving.”

For the institutional church operator, the immediate question is likely, “How can we convert Boomers to leverage technology for online giving?” Again, this poses a very obvious dilemma as the Boomer generation is the same generation with the least comfort and the highest amount of rejection of technology. So, what does all this mean? The local church is likely going to experience a major shift. While some churches may be able to survive on the backs of the younger generations, we cannot deny that there are thousands of small to medium churches with high populations of Boomers, low thresholds for technology, and limited financial reserves that, in an institutional sense, could be eliminated.

But more than that, the loss, or at least the decrease, of the compromised and Boomer population, is more than a financial dilemma, it’s a pastoral dilemma. Not only are we potentially losing a serious chunk of wisdom and life experience from our physical congregations, but how are we to spiritually care for these individuals from afar? As you will see in my second and third prediction, virtual church is not likely a reliable long-term solution—especially for this demographic. My fourth prediction, however, may offer some insight into solving the crisis of distance shepherding. But only you can make that decision.  

While these are simply speculations dependent upon time to reveal their accuracy, it should cause pastors and elders to be sober-minded about this future possibility. While the local church may, by God’s grace, bounce back better than I think, I believe it’s safe to say that it will not be the same after this. As shepherds, our number one responsibility is not to keep the lights on and the salaries paid, it’s to spiritually nourish the sheep. For that reason, it’s time to examine and prepare options to provide biblical and fruitful paths for pastoring those in your local church who may not return in the near future. 

PREDICTION #2: VIRTUAL CHURCH WILL NOT SUSTAIN LONG-TERM SPIRITUAL HEALTH

Recently, I made a statement on social media that implied watching a sermon on Sunday was not church. One woman, who was obviously offended by my claim, replied, “Don’t tell me that watching a sermon on Sunday isn’t church! God has worked deeply in my life through these online messages!”

I would like to break down the latter portion of this woman’s argument for a moment and then return to the former. To be clear, I’m not implying you hold her position, but I am sure that you have friends or parishioners who do. First, let’s be sure that we understand that just because God uses something to edify His people does not mean that we should replace His instructional process with anything that can produce a similar result. For example, a neighbor might offer the fatherly love that your biological father failed to give. This, however, does not mean that we should allow the neighborly-father-relationship to dominate or replace God’s instructed process for fatherhood. No. The neighbor was, by God’s mercy, the exception to the rule, not the rule. The same is true with a virtual church experience. While it may produce, for some, an edifying outcome it should be treated as the exception, not as an equal alternative to the local church.

Secondly, in regards to her opening words, “Don’t tell me that watching a sermon on Sunday isn’t church!” I would like to draw a comparison. Let’s imagine someone said, “Don’t tell me that loving affection isn’t marriage.” My response would be something like, “Well… loving affection is a really important part of marriage but affection is not marriage. In fact, marriage is much more complex than affection. It requires a commitment before God, it calls for divinely appointed gender-roles, and it requires love and sacrifice and pursuit. It also involves romance and fidelity and spiritual leadership as well as a host of other vital aspects. Furthermore, God designed marriage not only for what it is but for what it produces. That is, a God-centered family and home that has its own interwoven role in the furthering of God’s Kingdom.”

So to say that affection is marriage is a very superficial and almost silly statement. The same is true when someone says that watching a sermon online is church. Now, affection in a marriage is critical just like a sermon in the local church is critical. But likewise, just as affection does not equal marriage nor does a sermon online equal church.

As you know, both marriage and the church are complex and robust. As an example, the local church requires regularity, commitment, membership, communion, baptism, corporate worship, church government by way of elders and deacons, church discipline, gender-roles, the exercising of spiritual gifts, corporate prayer, biblical order, accountability to Scripture, fellowship with one another, mutual ministering through relationship, giving and receiving, meeting the needs of the saints, and yes, the preaching of a sermon.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Ultimately, to diminish the church gathering to merely watching a sermon online (and maybe singing some songs from your couch) is a great insult to the comprehensive church doctrine found in Scripture. In fact, validation of virtual church in equivalence with the historic church assembly would likely offend the thousands of martyrs who gave up their lives so that Christians could meet, in-person, without religious persecution.

Mark Dever cuttingly affirms this need for a physical appearance by arguing that, “Nonattendance, in the early years of our church, was considered one of the most sinister of sins, because it usually veiled all the other sins. When someone began to be in sin, you would expect them to stop attending.”

Now, I understand the difference between the current need to participate in virtual church due to the pandemic and someone who opts out of church attendance due to sin. But I want to look at this idea in principle. Today, the modern church not only accepts absentee culture it actually promotes it. The virtual church is not simply a result of the Coronavirus. It’s been growing in the back of the garden for years—and it’s going to continue to grow. As you likely understand, virtual church fits nicely into the pragmatism of today’s pastoral CEO’s who seem to be more concerned with the width of their flock than it’s depth. But as Mr. Dever points out, isolation, autonomy, and independence regardless of their cause, are not generally fruitful virtues seen throughout church history.

In short, there are a lot of things we can do on the internet—we can work with colleagues, play games, watch movies, listen to worship music, and interact with friends across the globe. But just like you can’t ride a horse or sleep under the stars online, you can’t experience church either. Just like you cannot father your son full-time from the internet or maintain a thriving marriage over Zoom, you also cannot sustain a healthy flock of God’s people without the tangible, relational, and physical local church.

The church, as you know, is a living organism made up of social creatures who thrive on the interpersonal relationships found within the Body of Christ. The mega-churches will likely pounce on the virtual church concept as their solution to their institutional problems but it will not solve their spiritual problems. The Internet, as effective as it may be as a bridge and tool during this Coronavirus pandemic, is not and cannot be heralded as a legitimate substitute for the local church going forward.

PREDICTION #3: THE BIRTH OF CONGREGATIONAL GLOBALISM

During the first few Sundays of the United States quarantine, I noticed a few telling trends emerge in church culture. First, I saw hundreds of Christians spontaneously embark on church shopping voyages for the best online service they could find. In a quick and liberating fashion, those who may have attended smaller churches for years seemed to have abandoned their local congregations to find the institutions that could best quench their consumer needs. In fact, I saw several Christian influencers post lists of “Great Churches to Check Out During your Quarantine” as if remaining loyal to your local church (through their virtual means) was not ideal or recommended. As you know, the winner of this shopping contest is not earned by accurate doctrine or by relational loyalty to other church members but by the church with the most persuasive and captivating communication, music, and marketing.

What this tells me is, in a time of virtual church fueled by fear of disease and self-preservation, local loyalty will no longer be native to the average church-goer. In fact, I believe we will see the seeds of the globalist DNA that surrounds us manifest itself in a new way in the church. Now, while many of you have likely heard the term globalism, I expect some of you might not understand what it means. Let me offer you a basic definition.

Globalism is the convergence of political, cultural, and technological systems that offer an increased connection between people and as a result, distribute the controlling power from one location across many locations. 

At the center, globalism is an antonym of nationalism. Think local church versus internet church. It disseminates content and control from a national or local perspective to a global or online perspective. Now, if you’re not seeing that definition being played out in principle before your eyes in the church today, it’s time to pinch yourself and wake up. Congregational globalism will be alluring and captivating. Why? Because it is a good friend of our flesh. Namely, when the local expression of the church is removed and replaced with the virtual expression of church congregational accountability disappears and personal independence goes through the roof—a perfect recipe for our self-centered culture. Now, was this caused by the Coronavirus? Of course not. However, it was absolutely amplified by it. Six weeks ago this was a small fire burning at the base of a mountain. The Coronavirus was the gust of wind that propelled the flames deep into the woods. In other words, those who were slow to virtual church and were held by their local convictions have now been forced to taste the self-coddling goodness and convenience of the personalized, sanitized, and private virtual church.

This shouldn’t shock anyone, either. The Western Church has primed us for this moment for many years. By building congregations around consumer-centric events instead of a contributor-centric gathering, “me” has become king and “we” fall to the backdrop.

Photo by Chad Kirchoff on Unsplash

Allow me to illustrate. For the past several decades the Western Church has increasingly built the Sunday assembly around a theatrical and entertaining musical performance and a highly applicable TedTalk-style sermon. This is why modern church-goers look for a church based on criteria like:

  • Do I like their worship music?
  • Do I like the pastor?
  • Do they offer good kids programs?
  • Do they have a coffee shop?
  • Do they have a clean and safe campus?

As you can see, we have nurtured a strong consumer appetite. Few Christians look for churches based on the orthodoxy preached or doctrinal accuracy observed. The church at large is not hungering for deep accountable relationships or the spiritual safety of biblical eldership. Instead, they are looking for infotainment and self-help. Consequently, this has taught us that church is not about corporate life, it’s about a time for me to individually focus on God. When you combine these two realities together (good consumer content and personal worship) you quickly learn that your disinfected living room (free of coughing strangers) offers a far more effective environment for both content consumption and intimate time for worship.

For that reason, my prediction is that virtual church variety will be king. In fact, it already is. How many podcasts and books and sermons do you consume each month? Why not extend that practice to Sunday? If you listen to the worship music of this church and the sermons from that church throughout the week, what’s stopping you from doing that for your Sunday worship? That is, why would you only listen to the Sunday message online from your church in Smallville when you can listen to a rotation of the greatest musicians on earth paired with messages from highly gifted pastors who speak to your current needs? Do you see where I’m going? 

Congregational globalism has been coming for us since the internet boom in the early 2,000’s; but now, in great credit to the Coronavirus, it’s here in tall order. Pastors must start teaching on the necessity of congregational loyalty and the vital need for local, biblical relationships with those in your church community. 

PREDICTION #4: SMALLER WILL BE VIEWED AS SAFER

I think local churches can learn something from the current trends seen in education. The homeschooling revival (even prior to the Coronavirus) has been built upon a variety of factors but in recent years it’s been driven by safety and personalization. First and foremost, with the rise of school shootings and viral infections, parents are more intentional with placing their children in safer and less hygienically vulnerable public environments. Secondly, parents are looking for a more personalized and intimate education experience for their children. Why? Because the evidence is everywhere, students produce better results in smaller learning environments than they do in classes of 30-45 children. Don Ernst, the Director of Government Relations with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) even says, “Smaller class size enhances learning for a basic common sense reason—it helps teachers in getting to know the kids. You can get to know 15 kids better than you can get to know 35 kids.”

This logic, however, isn’t specific to education, it’s universal. People thrive in smaller groups. Actually, the human brain is only designed to be close to 5-15 people. Homeschooling, especially homeschooling co-ops like Classical Conversations are booming because they offer a strong solution to these parent’s important desires. But as I said in the opening line of this section, local churches can learn much from these trends in education. As the President of a home church planting ministry and school, you may think I’m biased in what I’m about to say. Nevertheless, I do believe it’s true. From my vantage point, the home church trends, while smaller, seem to be in lockstep with the home school trends. What do I mean by this? Just like those parents who are seeking out a smaller and more intimate expression of learning, I’m also seeing Christians who are seeking out a smaller and more intimate expression of church.

While this may seem in conflict with my previous point regarding a boom in congregational globalism, it’s not. I still predict that, while we retain religious freedom, the majority of Christians will indulge in virtual church. That said, I believe there is a strong sub-group of thousands upon thousands of Christians who are and will seek out both small and safe expressions of local church. In other words, just as we’re watching the homeschool community become a solution to the weaknesses and threats of the current education system, my prediction is that home churching will become a solution to the weaknesses and threats of the current church system.

As a matter of fact, we’re seeing this prediction unfold before our eyes. Whether we liked it or not, the Coronavirus has caused millions upon millions of people to begin both homeschooling and home churching. But herein lies the problem. What is a home church? Is it simply a glorified small group Bible study? Is it just you and your family members watching church online? Is it family worship combined with reading and prayer? Actually, it’s none of these. A home church is exactly what it says it is, “Church in the home.” As I explained in my second prediction, the church is complex and far more robust than a sermon and some songs. The biblical church is deeply entrenched in doctrinal positions, processes, and responsibilities.

Interestingly, the hesitancy and skepticism of both homeschooling and home churching have been driven by a lack of complexity and structure. People imagine that both home school and home church folks are odd, unaccountable hippies finding independent expression with no structure or rules. While that may be true for some, it is certainly not true of our ministry and the home churches we help plant.

A local church is not an organization it’s an organism but every organism must have organization.

It’s my prediction that the Coronavirus may act like a thunderbolt that ignites a fire for house churching. Especially for those who see the bankruptcy of long-term virtual church and are concerned about the health risks of larger crowds. A home church offers the ecclesiastical structure of a traditional church without the coughing and sense of disconnection often experienced in larger churches. While I don’t expect this fire of house churches to dominate in any way (at least not for now), I do believe the conditions are strongly supportive of initiating a house church revival in the West. 

Lastly, I want to offer a small but compelling thought for those pastoring larger local churches. Because traditional church gatherings are categorized as one of those activities that promote transmission, I expect, for a time, the secular world may persecute those congregations who decide to gather together even when it’s legally permitted. That is, due to the concern for a resurgence of the virus as a result of rapid societal reintroduction, their logic will derive from a “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” mentality. I expect that their argument because they lack understanding of the importance of physical gathering, will state that large church gatherings are basically putting public health at risk. While I may be incorrect in this prediction, it does seem to be a viable possibility and pastors must be prepared for it if it comes.

All that to say, it’s our hope to serve those who feel called to gather in a smaller expression of church. We feel the Lord has specifically prepared us to support Christians in moments like these. For that reason, our ministry has created a variety of resources to help those who feel that call. First, we offer a PDF titled “The Basics of Biblical House Church” that you can download free. Second, I recently wrote a new 100-page book titled House Church: The Doctrines, Convictions, and Liturgy of a Biblical House Church that offers a more comprehensive look at how the traditional church doctrines are carried out in a home. Lastly, for those interested in planting and pastoring a biblical house church, we offer a one-year, seminary-grade, online Diploma of Ecclesiology program for menWhile pastoring a house church may seem financially unsustainable for those accustomed to a consistent salary, I want to assure you that healthy house churches with mature believers often provide a supplemental income. We understand this is a whole new world for those used to traditional church and we want you to know we are here to support your journey.

A NOTE AND ENCOURAGEMENT TO PASTORS

All around us the world is being decentralized, delocalized, and democratized. Big hotel chains now compete with the 23-year-old who has an extra room for rent on Airbnb. Yellow Taxi now shares the market with the student who has a Prius and is looking for side cash. The public school system is losing students to homeschool co-ops. For the traditional church to experience this same type of diversification with the virtual church and house church movements, it should be of no surprise. The Coronavirus magnified the moment and sped up the timing but as I said early in this article, God is sovereign over it all. In fact, in Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Lord is building His Bride and we can rest in that reality. In 1 Corinthians 12:18, Paul tells us, “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” As shepherds, we can stop worrying about how to persuade and keep men with gimmicks and programs and beauty.

I’ve learned that what you win people with is what you win people to. As pastors, it’s our job to win people to the Gospel, the Bible, and the local church. That’s it.

In the end, I want to remind you that it’s not your responsibility to maintain an institution. It’s your responsibility to oversee the spiritual health of the sheep the Lord has entrusted to you. Part of that requires a clear understanding of the external realities, threats, and temptations facing those in your congregation. If the Coronavirus leaves you with a smaller flock than what you had, praise God! If the Coronavirus leaves you without a building, consider distributing your sheep into small biblical house churches (I’m happy to help—contact me here).

My central goal in this article was simply to serve pastors by helping them be aware and be prepared for what might come over the next few months to years. God is in control and we can trust in His plan. My predictions may be right or completely wrong. In truth, the only thing that really matters is that we continue to be faithful ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

To Him be the Glory!

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