“Christian community is the final apologetic.” – Francis Schaeffer
The impact of the Covid pandemic has significantly impacted church functioning in the West and I, certain, in other parts of the world. What was formerly assumed about the gathering and scattering of the local church has been changed. The model under which the church was supposed to operate included regular and routine gatherings for celebration, spiritual uplift and growth, all within a communal setting. This was always to be followed by the scattering of the church back to individual homes, local communities, jobs, schools, etc. which were the mission fields in which what was gained in the gathering could be lived out in deed and, as opportunity presented, shared by word.
Covid has created a shift that affects this model. A meaningful number of those (maybe 30% to 40% in the West, depending on age) of those who were previously gathering with the remaining 60% to 70% are no longer gathering in the same way as before the pandemic. Many of those are taking advantage of digital connections (e.g., web-based access, live streaming, and YouTube® rebroadcasts) where they are available. Some, on the other hand, have checked out altogether and are no longer participating in church life in any meaningful or measurable way.
Many years ago, I worked in the health insurance field and one of the things I learned about a person who is unable to work because of a physical disability due to illness or injury is that there is roughly a six-month window to get them well enough to return to some level of productive work. After about six months, that same person has begun to view themselves as being permanently disabled. That mental shift makes it much more difficult to transition them back to the workforce. I’ve wondered if a similar dynamic has impacted the church due to the long length of Covid restrictions and limitations: people who regularly participated in the community of faith with their physical presence experienced a mental shift that rewired their attitudes and behavior. Being physically a part of the church gathered lost its place of priority. For some, being associated with the church in any way has lost its place of priority.
This has become a major discussion topic for church leaders all over the country because of the very real implications. Is this a major component of the restructuring of the church that happens roughly every 500 years? If so, what are we supposed to do while we wait for things to shake out? How do we teach and disciple people so that the functioning of the church continues unabated? What kind of investment should we make in digital discipleship? How do we help people stay connected to the mission and vision of the church if they don’t come to centralized gatherings? What about the underutilized building space we now have? And hey, what about this: should we interpret these events through an eschatological (end-times) lens? Is this a manifestation of the “great falling away” alluded to in Scripture? None of these are deer-in-the-headlights questions, but they are real nonetheless.
One issue I’m particularly concerned about is the impact of a loss community on individual piety. Those who are regular recipients of my emails are familiar with the quote from Swiss theologian, Francis Schaeffer, that I use as a footer. It’s his paraphrasing of something Jesus said, “By this, everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another”(John 13:35). In other words, the community of love within the body of Christ is the proof of who we belong to and is the strongest argument we have about our faith commitment. It is not talk; it is 100% walk. How is this mutual love given to and received from the body of Christ if its members choose to remove themselves physically and emotionally?
I was at a conference last weekend at which one of the speakers said something that caught my attention. He said, “The Holy Spirit only moves in community.” He then related his comment to the Trinity being the holy community of three persons in one into which all believers are called and which we are to model on earth in the unity of mutual love. I know that is a mouthful, but it really just reflects the vertical and horizontal nature of the cross.
Is he right? And if he is, what does being in community really mean? Is isolation from the body of Christ necessarily an impediment to healthy Christian spirituality? If so, does that mean the desert fathers and mothers of the post-apostolic age and more contemporary people like Thomas Merton were in error? I don’t think they were. They may have been extreme examples of those who sought solitude for deep dives into their spiritual selves, but they always came back into the community of faith with something valuable to offer. That’s a lot different from those who self-isolate because the church and its mission is no longer a priority for them. It’s a lot different from those whose view of Christian faith is vertical only without regard to how their absence affects the body in terms of the removal of the gifts God gave them for the express purpose of kingdom building. It’s a lot different from those who have checked-out because they’ve decided that they no longer need the church.
I won’t say that the Holy Spirit can’t or won’t work in these lives; I believe He can and will. His principal work, however, is to call and draw them back into the Christ-centered relationships that mark the church. As in all things, it’s up to them to listen and respond. Being in Christian community means being committed to the well-being (spiritual, emotional, and material) of those who form the body of Christ.
There’s no question, as far as I’m concerned, that the church needs to creatively respond to the changed environment, something it has always managed to do. Time and circumstances have a way of rendering well-accepted models obsolete. There was a time when blacksmiths had to learn to be auto mechanics or perish. Perhaps in a few years electric charging stations will fully replace gas stations. In both examples, wheeled transportation morphed in response to the changing environment and adaptation that was or will be needed. What is not obsolete is God, the good news of Jesus Christ, and the call on the church to demonstrate godliness in the world He so loves.
Whether the answer is renting flexible space rather than building large facilities which must be maintained at significant financial expense, a greater emphasis on house gatherings, or having a strong digital presence for worship, instruction and discipleship or some combination of these and other options, the church must adapt. Nothing is accomplished by being rigid and inflexible. But “the church” is not the building and it is not the leadership. The church is the whole body of Christ and when members of the body start removing themselves as if they didn’t need the rest of the body and the rest of the body doesn’t need them (1 Corinthians 12:1-27), they are moving away from solid spiritual ground onto sinking sand. Theirs is anti-biblical thinking and ultimately anti-Christian because it is inconsistent with the teachings of Christ.
© Byron L. Hannon, 2022. All rights reserved unless otherwise noted.
Amen! Our present experience fascinates me, and also drives me to the dialogue you invite. There are those who stay connected with our church, via social media and live-streaming, whom I am quite certain, despite intentional connection, will not return in person (the Holy Spirit may gladly change my perspective). On the other hand, there is an influx of whole families who are done with isolationism (it is noteworthy that many who isolate from church still make excursions to multiple non-church establishments). The predominant motivation for the influx is community (communion). I am grateful for a local congregation that is striving to embrace community. As John Wesley reminds us, there is no such thing as a ‘solitary’ believer, and no holiness without ‘social’ holiness. Thanks for the timely challenge! May God help us understand the times and know what to do about them.