The church going remote changed the way believers have connected in this season, but what kinds of long-term effects will this have?
Few migrations are more famous in North America than the Monarch butterfly’s majestic, 3,000-mile, multigenerational journey from Canada to Mexico.
National Geographic scientists who study the phenomenon have noted, “…the population cycles through three to five generations to reach their destination. Along the way, females lay eggs on milkweed plants, which the caterpillars use for food after hatching. This new generation of butterflies complete the journey their great-great-great-grandparents started.”
How do these descendants know which way to go? Scientists are still mystified, but it’s almost as if all these little butterflies were being guided along by a power quite beyond them on their tremendous life-long voyage.
In many ways, our Christian life and the church are the same. We forge forward toward Jesus’ kingdom on earth, but we probably won’t witness it on this side of life (unless we’re all so lucky as to have Christ come again in the next few years). We must trust that we are directed by God along this way, and yet we also have responsibility for the choices we make.
The decisions we make today will shape the church of tomorrow.
God willing, our children and grandchildren will be the beneficiaries of that church. In the wake of COVID-19, though, how will the landscape of the church and our ways of interacting with it change?
The Accelerated Online Migration
The changes worked upon the church during the season of the coronavirus pandemic were a matter of necessity. Government laws forbade gatherings of people, so the traditional ways of meeting for church were put on hiatus, and churches around the world had to find innovative methods of continuing to meet.
For a season, everything changed. The question quickly became, “How will this affect us down the road?” for all walks of life but especially as church members and staff tried to project the future of the church.
One major concern has been whether or not people will come back after the shelter-in-place orders have been lifted.
Jay Kim, who serves on staff at a California church and also on the leadership team of The ReGeneration Project, cogently pointed out, “As we temporarily direct our congregations to these online spaces, it is of utmost importance that we clarify this digital reality as a temporary compromise rather than an ongoing convenience.
“Our clarity along these lines, or lack thereof, will be formative one way or the other. Make no mistake, sitting in the comfort and safety of our homes to watch a sermon on our television or computer will be convenient. And convenience has a way of quickly undoing the work of long-held disciplines.
“If we believe gathering as the church in real time and space fundamentally matters (and it does), then our temporary online reality must be viewed as a circumstantial compromise, until we can get back to the necessity of gathering in the flesh.”
Before all of this began, many churches in the Western world were already seeing decreasing numbers of physical attendees.
As more churches offered online services, a growing number of those tuning in only occasionally also walked through the doors of the actual building. Others moved entirely to remote ‘participation’ in church, pulling from a mosaic of recorded services from their favorite pastors, some thousands of miles away.
The pandemic’s shove into the online world proved much smoother for churches and congregants already operating there, but some are starting to ask what the cost of digital attendance may be in the future.
Behind the Choice of Online or In-Person
Is attending church online even an issue to begin with? It’s ensured that churches are still able to have services and people are able to stay connected despite the coronavirus, at least to some degree.
Gary Wilkerson explored this tension in his Lighthouse devotions, “Colossians says that Christ must have first place in all things (Colossians 1:18). We have the opportunity to make this happen right now in the church, to go beyond the newest and latest fads, to even go beyond the online presence and how many people are downloading this or that. It’s easy to say, ‘You know what? Maybe this is an opportunity for me. Okay, I can't go to my church service. So now, I'll just keep getting fed by videos like this.’
“Nothing wrong with them [online services]. I'm glad churches are having an online presence, but we need to be careful we don't just replace the ability to go to services because now I'm being spoon-fed by videos and sermons online.”
Making church happen when we want it, from the comfort of our couch, without any difficult human interactions is addictive to our inherent selfish, sin nature.
Masking our real struggles or only half-heartedly engaging with others is much too easy on the other side of a message board or in video chats where we can simply mute our microphone and turn off our camera. The temptation to hide our real feelings or avoid the drain of real engagement can be titanic when literally all we have to do is click a button.
Gary noted, “It’s important to get into this season and say, ‘God, you've given me some time right now. What will you have me do with this? Will I set my heart like flint or seek your face? Will you become my all in all? Will I allow you to crush every idol?’”
As we consider whether to rejoin church in a physical location or stay remote, we must seriously ask ourselves what’s motivating our choice.
A New World, a New Church?
The other side of the debate is that nothing will change, that the shelter-in-place orders will lift and everyone will flock back into the church buildings like nothing has happened.
While God will definitely preserve his church, this doesn’t mean that we have no responsibility for how we decide to honor our own community.
Assistant Director of the Billy Graham Center Josh Laxton noted, “Recently, I read The Spanish Flu Epidemic and its Influence on History by Jaime Breitnauer. Towards the end of the book, Breitnauer writes, ‘Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Spanish flu is that it barely left a legacy at all. While it has continued to be studied and analysed in niche virology circles, the collective memory seemed to stub it out and hurry to move on.’
“Barely left a legacy? I found that extremely interesting as the Spanish Flu has been labeled the deadliest pandemic in modern history as it claimed the lives of at least 50 million people across the globe and 700,000 Americans.”
Laxton concluded, however, that this view might be overly optimistic. The church will almost undoubtedly have residual effects to deal with. “In the long-term, the church will have to sensitively, winsomely, and discernibly navigate a politically toxic, highly divisive, vociferously opinionated, and deeply distrusting culture.”
We have dealt with short-term effects for sure, and we are almost certainly going to face long-term consequences of all migrating online.
The decisions of where and when and how to return to church in-person must be one we pray about while carefully examining our own hearts and considering where our choices will lead the church for the next generation.
The choice is in our hands.