There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that COVID has changed our world. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently outlined several such areas, such as altered shopping habits, remote learning and big government. It’s also changed things for the church, and here I outline five of those changes and how the church might (or, in some cases, must) respond. As you will read, not all of the changes are good. Of the five shifts outlined here, I would contend that only three should be embraced. Two, on the other hand, must be forcefully resisted. But for good or ill, here are five ways COVID has changed the church:
The Change: Attending church now means either attending in person or online, and for many churches the online attenders will continue to be the larger of the two venues. Currently, in-person attendance is running at about half or less than it was pre-COVID for the vast majority of churches.
The Response: This has enormous implications for the church, not least of which is the ongoing importance and even centrality of all online offerings. It will not prove helpful to elevate in-person attendance over and against online attendance, much less shame online attenders. The better path is to embrace any and all engagement. We have fully embraced a two-campus approach – one online, one in person – in terms of both our church identity and strategy. But regardless of a church’s stance, the front door of your church is decisively digital in nature, and people will expect a robust online presence. It would be foolish to fight this, as there truly is no biblical demand to do so. We must bring our theology, when warranted, into a digital world, and you would be hard pressed to say that it is not possible to worship online in the context of digital community. We must always beware of building theological fences around personal tastes.
Note: It is common for people to point to Hebrews 10:24-25 where it speaks of not giving up on meeting together as a command to in-person corporate worship. But there the author is speaking directly about not giving up on relationships; not giving up on people. It was a clarion call to the need for strategic relationships. Corporate worship was not the context.
The Change: The basis of church unity has shifted from relationships to ideology, and the basis of that ideology has shifted from doctrine to all things politicized. A church’s doctrinal statement is less important than a church’s “cultural” statement. As a result, incongruence between personal and a church’s perceived “cultural statement” is now the grounds for not only the breakup of community but the permission to act with a lack of civility.
The Response: This is arguably the most demonic dynamic flowing from COVID, and it must be simultaneously denounced and opposed with the true nature of unity upheld. The foundation for Christian unity has always been orthodoxy (right thinking about matters of doctrine) and orthopraxy (right practice in light of that thinking), and the greatest evidence to the authenticity and integrity of both has been relational unity. For all three to be distorted or supplanted is nothing short of heresy. When the Bible talks about unity, it doesn’t mean uniformity, which is everyone looking and thinking alike; it doesn’t mean unanimity, which is complete agreement about every petty issue across the board. By unity, the Bible means unity on the essentials of faith itself and a relational unity built on love.
The Change: Remote learning, as the WSJ has reported, threatens the $670 billion college-industrial complex. It also threatens traditional approaches to discipleship, which is modeled similarly. Online learning is not only how people learn but, in most cases, how they want to learn.
The Response: As with online attendance, this is not a change I feel any need to resist, but to openly embrace and take to its fullest potential. It is pointless to argue that in-person learning is a better pedagogical model; people have voted with their feet. Either disciple them online or fail to disciple them at all. And if you do believe in-person learning is best, then at least realize you will need to stairstep them from online to in-person learning.
The Change: While the essence of effective outreach will always be relational and incarnational in nature, the dynamic of the relational invitation has changed from “come with me” to “you should check this out online.” It’s no longer a physical invitation, but a digital one. Physical attendance will now be what follows online attendance (if it follows it at all).
The Response: Again, this should not be resisted but embraced. The most potent of invitations will still run through the dynamic of a relationship, but inviting someone to church is no longer about inviting them to attend a physical campus as much as inviting them to attend an online campus or other online resource or event. As a result, facilitating online invitations to online resources, events or services will be key.
The Change: With the era of big government comes the expectation of big church. Not in terms of size, but in expectation of service. A consumer mindset, already entrenched within many churches, is now a given. It has been widely observed that the twin sister of COVID has been a mirroring pandemic of selfishness. When it comes to the church, people will expect to be served rather than to serve. The church is seen to exist as an agency that dispenses services, not enlists service.
The Response: I have written about the need to expose, resist and decry the spiritual narcissism that has invaded our thinking where the individual needs and desires of the Believer have become the center of attention. Jesus said: “I did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many”; “Whoever wants to be first must become last”; “Whoever wants to be great among you must become the slave of all”; “Not my will, but thine” (See Matthew 20:25-28; Luke 22:42). We need to respond by reminding people to be more like Jesus. The four-word mantra, “It’s not about you,” must be upheld.
James Emery White
Aaron Back, “7 Ways Covid Has Changed Our World,” The Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2021, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.