One of the wise practices I believe churches (in general, but not all) are taking up in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic is honoring the stay-at-home mandates issued by city mayors, state governors, and even the federal government. I do not believe this is an infringement upon our first amendment rights, nor is it persecution. Persecution would be if the stay-at-home mandate was issued only for Christians (or any religious group, for that matter). Rather, this is something being issued to as much of society as possible, all to protect from the spread of the virus and to help flatten the curve, as we await possible vaccine options to be uncovered. In a sense, we could say there is an aspect of loving our neighbors as ourselves through this practice of staying at home.
With that, churches have typically moved their services to online streaming on Sundays. Or, as in the case of my own church and others, we are recording the service and posting the videos, all in an effort to help ease technical difficulties.
Through all the streaming and videos of church services, what is interesting to note is the rise in church “attendance” over these past weeks. I put the word attendance in quotes because it is somewhat challenging to track this in the time of the Coronavirus, mainly because all one has to do is watch the video for a few minutes and he or she can be tracked as an attendee. Still, the numbers are saying attendance is up quite a bit.
Author and missiologist, Michael Frost, notes that 49% of all churches are growing right now. What’s even more intriguing is that only 10-15% of churches were growing before the pandemic. What a massive leap in these few weeks!
It would seem this is a positive point, right? Growth is great!
But is something deep and real happening here? Or might this be some initial trend or fashion, like the famed fidget spinner craze of 2017?
If you are able to read Frost’s full article, you will see that he is guarded in viewing all of this as a great positive. And I will say that I tend to agree with him. Why? Well, stay with me for a moment as I track some of the challenges this could create.
For starters, let me be very clear on something. The streaming of services in this time is not wrong. At all. I think most attest to it being a very helpful and needed option today. Nor is technology bad. Heck, I’m typing a blog post powered by modern technology. So I want to be very clear that I do not envision that the church must live out life as iF we were in the pre-modern technology days. Please understand that the challenges I will identify below have nothing to do with technology or live-streaming in and of themselves.
Ok, with that out of the way, let’s move forward.
Here is a hypothesis I currently have. It’s merely speculation at this time, but I believe it fair considering general American society and trends. I don’t believe that, in the midst of the pandemic as people face major emotional, mental, and physical struggles, people are all of a sudden searching for deep answers from a spiritual source like the church. I do very much believe mental health is a real challenge—both before Coronavirus and especially now in the time of the pandemic (there are spikes in the midst of the pandemic). Yet, I don’t believe a whole new swath of people suddenly think that the church may have the answers to what they are experiencing. Some, yes. But not as a whole.
What I think the massive upswing in attendance is primarily about is easy access. Church in our pj’s, disheveled hair, and morning breath is so much easier than getting a family of five out of bed, fed, cleaned, dressed, out the door, and to the building within a certain time frame. I know. Been there, done that. Will do that post-pandemic. If we were able to be transported to our church’s gathering with a wave of a wand, having also been properly freshened and dressed, I imagine attendance would have risen a while ago.
Again, I have no problem being in our pj’s and on our couches for our services in this time (note: house church is not essentially about participating in church in our pj’s). We are doing the best we can and I am thankful for the leaders at my own church as they look to be intentional and provide the best options available in these most unprecedented of times. I regularly reach out to them and say “thank you.” My heart is grateful.
But here is where I am concerned for the church as a whole. The question I am asking is: What kind of impact with all this generally have upon the church post-Coronavirus? And I don’t even fear for the average John and Jane, Sam and Suzy. Well, I do have concern for them. Still, my thoughts are more directed in what this might mean for pastors and leaders once we make it through to the other side.
Here is what I don’t want to see happen: Following weeks upon weeks of live streaming and recorded services, pastors then begin to see how they and their teams have “mastered” the online experience. In light of conquering all things technological, pastors could be “inspired” to continue the online venture post-Coronavirus. Not that churches won’t return to their regular gatherings on Sundays (or whatever day they meet). But they will maintain a fresh fervor to continue to offer both—physical services and live streaming via the web.
You see, as Michael Frost notes, church in our culture has tended to be measured by the three B’s: bodies, bucks, and buildings. And, whether we like it or not, this perspective primarily comes from a consumer oriented approach rather than an authentic, discipleship, and missionally oriented perspective. In general, I believe the live streaming option feeds straight into the three B’s.
Through it all, the church will have found another way to enlarge these three B’s (many megachurches have already been utilizing this resource). More bodies—not physically, but technologically. More bucks—if someone likes our live-streamed service, even if they only pop in occasionally, they may donate $50 here, $100 there, or even someone could drop a lot of Benjamin’s into our account (that’s an American euphemism for lots of money). And then we can continue to further our building campaigns. The vision of the three B’s continues. With this, our numbers are going up all across the board—with attendance, with budgeting, and with square footage. I’d offer this is how many megachurches currently operate. It’s a good business model, perhaps. However, it is thoroughly drenched in a consumerist approach that is foreign to what the church actually is.
Yes, it is true. Some won’t do this. Perhaps many won’t continue offering both physical services and live streaming. That is actually my prayer—that our hearts, our pastors’ hearts, are guarded from believing this is the breakthrough answer to reaching our world. Because it is not. Listen, technology has not been the great answer over the past 20 to 30 years. Frost reminds us that church membership has dropped from 71% in 1973 to 50% in 2018. And this with all the bells, whistles, gadgets, and technology already available to us.
So, why would all this stuff suddenly be the answer in 2020 and beyond? Why is this the key when we settle back into a normal flow, whenever that may be? I don’t believe it is.
It will further the 3-B vision, but it won’t sustain the real, tangible vision of what God really meant when he meant the church.
Matter of fact, I’d postulate that if live streaming continues for all churches for years to come, those “attendance” numbers would flatten out, if not dip like they were falling pre-Coronavirus. Again, many want a product and if the product has lost its luster, we become disinterested (e.g., fidget spinners).
Also, consider what might happen if we pulled the plug on what is currently a trend, what is presently fashionable? How might the church respond in this time and post-Coronavirus? Our knee-jerk reaction might be a possible indicator as to where true allegiance lies. Of course, pastoral wisdom says we don’t pull stuff just to pull stuff. I’m not asking that we remove video options in this time. Nor do we go on a rampage ruffling feathers with drastic measures. However, if we are committed to life together, discipleship, and mission, it may call for us to shift both our thinking and our practices.
Please hear me. I want to reiterate this very clearly. I do not believe technology is bad, nor is it wrong to offer live streaming and recorded options in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. We are doing the best we can in the midst of something we have never encountered in our lifetime. Again, I am grateful for my own church’s desire to be faithful in this time. But I am also very wary and guarded against pastors across this country, and the world, as seeing this as the answer to the church’s mission in moving forward post-Coronavirus. Jesus has always, always been about what is tangible, what makes disciples, and what moves us out into mission. He is not interested one iota in what makes us consumers of religious products, no matter how dazzling they may appear.
In all, as we all continue through this very challenging pandemic, may the Spirit be very real in leading our leaders and the church as a whole. Yet, even more, as we come out of this on the other side, whether in the summer or later in the year, may the Spirit’s voice be equally clearer, if not more. We need wise discernment in these days.