“Then many will fall away…” (Matthew 24:10)
I always thought the word estrangement connoted a separation between persons due to some unresolved tension or anger in that relationship. I’ve come to find out that estrangement is possible without any evident relational tension. To be estranged from someone is to be made a stranger to them, tension or not.
We all have those people in our lives with whom we were once close, but the passage of time combined with differences in our circumstances reveals a distance between us that didn’t exist before. Although we were once close, that closeness reflects a past that no longer exists. In a sense, we have become strangers to one another.
Among my recent burning questions have been:
Are we seeing increased estrangement between God and many who once considered themselves committed Christians?
Are people who once claimed the faith becoming strangers to the One they once worshipped?
Has time and the evolution (or devolution) of perspectives and values created a chasm in which a communion once shared no longer exists?
Has God become more of a concept for consideration rather than a person with whom we have vibrant relational union”?
We’ve yet to see all of the long-term societal impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, but there is some data that suggests that pre-pandemic church attendance (which was already in decline) has dropped by roughly 30% without the expectation of recovery as a result of the gathering and masking restrictions most communities and churches implemented. A colleague recently shared research he saw that projected that drop to be around 40% for people age 40 and younger. And although most churches have reopened, the discipline of purposely being in a shared communal space with other believers has been abandoned by some.
From the time I first began thinking about this issue, the Hebrews passage (10:24-25) has been like a blinking neon sign in my mind’s eye: “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.”
Quite a few have adopted a stay-at-home and watch the service virtually mentality. I’m glad that technology is available to help people stay engaged in the message and ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but I remain concerned about the long-term impact on needed fellowship. More technological and relational creativity is needed in the Church to help people remain connected in light of this need. The Church needs people with these skillsets to help the rest of us seek connection and remain connected. This may very well be a new way of serving in the church.
Without this innovation, estrangement is inevitable because healthy Christian faith has never been vertical alone; it is also very horizontal. It is a spiritual oxymoron to claim to love God and not love our brother or sister…and it’s hard to love in a giving and sharing way if relational connections are broken. We will be strangers to one another.
If gathering in the same physical space is problematic, solutions are needed to help sustain these critical horizontal relationships among the faithful. Otherwise, virtual church participation could fall prey to the same kind of channel surfing many of us engage in because of our short attention spans and tendency to become bored with watching what is on TV. Watching a church worship service becomes just one more viewing option that is discardable. Then, increasingly, we will be strangers to God and to each other. We will have fallen away.
Even effective implementation of this kind of innovation won’t impact those who once did but no longer practice participatory engagement, in-person or virtual. The question must be asked of them, is this clear evidence that you are estranged from both the body of Christ and from Christ Himself? You don’t have to be angry at anyone; you’ve just become strangers.
A common cliché is “God forbid.” I don’t think God is going to forbid this. I think He’s going to let it play out…let us exercise our own free choice. This onus is on us. May we forbid it.
© Byron L. Hannon, 2022. All rights reserve to text content unless otherwise noted.