We are soon to be on the other side of a world-changing crisis—a post-pandemic era, and we wonder what ministry will look like in this new world. Few pastors expect a bounce back to pre-pandemic conditions. Most church leaders wonder if people who were on the periphery of their fellowship have now “fallen away” from church, or they worry that people closer to the center of their congregations may take advantage of a perceived “reset” to find another church.
As someone who analyzes research about current trends in the church (see this week’s new research on pastors and Covid), I recognize the value in helping people understand the context for mission. But I don’t want to give the impression that certain trends are inevitable. We should also not assume that just because a certain practice or ministry philosophy is growing that it is necessarily good. It’s wrong to think that just “because the church is moving in this direction, you should get with the program,” especially if there are biblical reasons to be concerned about the church’s direction.
There’s no shortage of blogs, columns, and articles talking about the future of the church in this era, how “everything has changed!,” warning pastors to jump on the bandwagon of the latest developments out of fear of being left behind. And while it’s certainly the case that reading our times means we can’t be content to serve a post-pandemic world as if we were still in a pre-pandemic era, we should also take care not to adopt ministry philosophies that upend our understanding of ecclesiology—the doctrine of the church.
For example, I’ve read some articles here and there that claim “online attendance” is just as valid now as “in-person gatherings.” Covid has changed everything, they say. Just as the business world is pivoting to remote work, so also the church needs to understand that online worship is the way of the future. We need to recognize that people won’t prioritize in-person worship like they did before, and we need to consider online attendees from now on to be just as much a part of our gatherings as those who come in person.
To be clear, the ability to receive spiritual sustenance through watching your church service online, or joining your small group via Zoom has been a blessing during this strange season. Churches do well to step up the professionalism of their digital presence, and as I’ve written before, we can and should lean on technology to keep people connected during a season of isolation.
But we shouldn’t assume that the trend of moving everything “online” when it comes to church is positive and healthy, or that “online” and “in-person” are just two different but equally valid ways of “doing church.” They are not the same.
The word ekklesia literally means “gathering” or “assembly,” and the New Testament’s predominant use of the word refers to the local church gathering. To stretch the word “gathering” to the point it encompasses online attendees (except perhaps with an asterisk) is to take it beyond the breaking point. To dismiss the embodied nature of reality and say we can “gather” virtually in the same way as we do “in person” fails to grapple with a key aspect of our humanity. Online connection may be a supplement to in-person gathering, but it doesn’t qualify as a substitute.
Several months ago, I wrote about how Covid was upending some of the traditional metrics we’ve relied on as measures of a church’s numeric “success,” and I still believe we have an opportunity to rethink some of our measures related to discipleship and ask new questions about what constitutes faithfulness.
But other articles go a step further, implying that a focus on the church’s in-person gathering is just a crutch we fall back on. We should instead celebrate and embrace the church’s scattered identity in the present and the future, since it frees us from the outdated notion that the church building is where people must engage with God. Isn’t it better for the church to be outside the walls in ministry?
Well, yes and no. It’s vital that God’s people engage the lost outside the church walls. That’s the heart of the Great Commission. But it’s overly optimistic to assume that the energy and sustenance for missional engagement will happen apart from regular and intentional gatherings in person with the community of faith.
Mark Sayers, an Australian leader, once believed wholeheartedly in the need for the church to be more outside the walls than inside. He now says that the movement he was part of missed just how formative outside influence can be. In other words, the noble attempt focus on ministry outside rather than give attention to the gathering inside led to a situation in which people were unequipped and unprepared for significant evangelism and discipleship. It was too easy to be “discipled” by the world. The “missionaries” sent out from the local church weren’t strong enough to maintain a consistent identity over time, and many burned out or drifted away.
Make no mistake: the church is God’s called-out and sent people. But the effectiveness of the church scattered does not happen apart from the energy of the church gathered.
Connection and Content
Another idea floating around is that feeling connected to community matters more than the content of the sermon. There’s a sense in which that is true, as connection and community matter more than if your pastor is the most stellar preacher. But content still matters, and it will continue to matter. So why set up a dichotomy in the first place? Connection and community that is grounded in solid content—that’s the bullseye for everyone, or at least should be.
Let’s do what it takes to consider our current cultural context and to adapt to this missionary moment. But don’t assume that all trends are inevitable or that ministry philosophies that focus on in-person gatherings will fade. The church has been through pandemics before, and we’ll likely see the plague again. And while the landscape will certainly be different, and while we can learn a lot from ministry during this season, the truths of God’s Word proclaimed and the formative power of God’s people gathered will endure.
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