One of the potential positive effects of COVID-19 on Christianity is that the epidemic is likely to kill off consumer Christianity, at least in the short term.
And while there is certainly plenty to lament about how this crisis is wrecking lives, economies, and unraveling all the world’s plans in stunningly rapid fashion, the virus’s attack on comfortable Christianity could be something we eventually celebrate.
Here are three ways COVID-19 is killing consumer Christianity.
1. Stripping Church of Excess
There will be no Insta-friendly photo booths, polished musical programs, or pastel-colored bounce houses at churches this Easter. Cadbury egg giveaways and “He Is Risen!” latte art will be absent. Lavish children’s ministry playgrounds, bespoke Vineyard Vines–clad greeters, fair trade pour-over coffee—none of it will be there to entice seekers or twice-annual churchgoers. Months of planning for the most creative, attractive Easter service in town have been thwarted. Pastors everywhere are likely depressed at this turn of events, but they shouldn’t be.
Why? Because coronavirus has rapidly taken away the excesses of church, all the bells and whistles, all the nice-to-haves we’ve come to see as must-haves. What remains are bare essentials: Jesus, the Word, community, prayer, singing. What remains is the reality that the church can never be vanquished: we are Christ’s body and will live eternally with him. Things are suddenly spartan in how we do church—but what we are remains as vibrant as ever.
Coronavirus has rapidly taken away the excesses of church, all the bells and whistles, all the nice-to-haves we’ve come to see as must-haves.
In a tweet earlier this month, Duke Kwon pondered: “What if God, in his strange providence, is downshifting the American church into a mode of simplicity, stripped of non-essentials, renewed in its fundamental identity as the people of God?”
Among other things, this “downshifting” will rid many people—including many pastors—of the notion that church must be comfortable and consumer-friendly in the crowded marketplace of entertainment options. In the COVID-19 quarantine, the clunky, unpolished computer-church experience will decidedly not be the easiest or most comfortable option for how people spend their Sundays. It will be a countercultural choice. And that’s a good thing.
2. Blowing Up the Notion of Sunday-Only Faith
For Sunday-only or Sunday-mostly Christians, whose faith is largely defined by a few hours on Sunday mornings, COVID-19 is a game-changer. In a season when the Sunday experience has become drastically reduced to essentially a YouTube video or Zoom meeting (an absolutely temporary and less-than-ideal compromise), Christians are forced to consider what faith looks like when “going to church” isn’t part of it.
This crisis is a great opportunity for believers to think afresh about what it means to be distinctly Christian every day of the week, in every aspect of life. What does it look like to be noticeably Christian in a world where the previously most conspicuous thing about faith identity—going to church—is gone? Further, demand has never been greater for Christians to be Christian in more than just Sunday ways.
Demand has never been greater for Christians to be Christian in more than just Sunday ways.
The good news is there are lots of creative ways Christians are already stepping up to live out their faith in the midst of this crisis. But in the weeks and months ahead—as more people in our relational networks get the disease and fear in our communities grows—the need for Christians to step up in service will be exponentially greater.
We can all pray that one of the long-term results of this crisis will be renewed passion for Christ’s followers to live and love like him in their neighborhoods, workplaces, and quarantined communities everywhere—seven days a week.
3. Challenging Christians to Give Without Getting
One of the major concerns for churches and pastors in this unexpected season is a decrease of congregational giving. For consumer Christians especially, giving might become hard to stomach when there’s nothing they’re “getting” in return. No polished worship service and top-notch youth group for the kids. No donuts, coffee, or uplifting music. Only a makeshift service on a computer screen.
But if churchgoers stop giving because of this transactional expectation, it will simply expose them to be consumer Christians—giving only because they get. But that’s not how it should go, is it? No, this less-than-ideal new normal for church shouldn’t be an excuse to stop giving, just because you’re not being served as well as you might’ve been a few months ago. Church is not about consumers being served; it’s about Christians serving one another, and sacrificially building up the body even when it is costly, inconvenient, and uncomfortable.
This less-than-ideal new normal for church should not be an excuse to stop giving.
This moment is an opportunity for true, faithful generosity to be tested. Christians should keep giving, even as economic conditions worsen, job losses rise, and hoarding instincts kick in. They should step up in service, too, finding creative, if costly, ways to meet the mounting needs of those around them—especially the most vulnerable. The generosity of God’s people for one another will be even more crucial in the days ahead.
Gift of Discomfort
I wrote my book Uncomfortable a few years ago to challenge believers to resist the allure of comfortable, consumer Christianity and instead commit to a faith that is costly, inconvenient, and uncomfortable. Discomfort is painful, to be sure, but it is a clarifying gift. The truth is, following Jesus was never meant to be easy (Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 14:27). Discipleship was never meant to be consumer-friendly. Church was never meant to be comfortable.
The COVID-19 epidemic is forcing us to remember this truth. It’s shaking us swiftly out of our complacency and consumer-driven addition to comfort, and driving us to cling to the God of Jacob who is our fortress (Ps. 46:7).
In the wake of this crisis, I pray, will be a more resilient and durable church—strengthened in the fires of discomfort and fortified by renewed dependence on Jesus Christ, our only comfort in life and death.