Lockdowns & Online Church: Time to Evaluate?

There are few subjects as controversial as Covid-19.  Many churches are feeling the stretch of a full spectrum of views within the congregation. It certainly feels safer to not venture into writing about this subject, but I feel it is important that we evaluate what we do in church world – whatever our view of the actual issue may be.  Obviously, each context is different.  What my church was allowed to do will be different than the rules in your country or state.  What my church decided to do may have been inappropriate for another church in the same town because of different facilities, congregational demographic or local context.

At the beginning of the global crisis in early 2020, most churches saw the situation as a no-brainer.  We were confronted with a new virus and we did not know the extent of the risk (although early predictions were anticipating hundreds of millions of deaths globally).  What we did know was the importance of everyone pulling together to save lives. To illegally meet as a church during those early weeks could easily have been the talk of the town (and it would have made Jesus look very bad).  So for us, and probably for most churches, it was time to get creative and adapt to this unforeseen and temporary lockdown.

Now, 18 months later, we are in a better position to look back and do some evaluating.  In our context we had a long first lockdown, followed by a summer of restrictions, then a shorter lockdown in October/November.  The third lockdown, for the first half of 2021, did not apply to churches (although there were plenty of restrictions). 

Our church experienced the sudden move to “meeting” online without a budget for setting up a high tech studio.  When we were allowed to meet again, we experienced meeting in different venues because our normal venue would not rent to us during the pandemic.  We met in a place where our numbers had to be limited way below our congregation size.  We met in a field, actually two different fields, a large English garden, and as guests of a very kind Anglican church in our town.

Every church will have its own story.  Every church situation is unique.  I am not writing to criticize anyone.  But we should all evaluate.  We are so thankful for the way our congregation responded with flexibility and enthusiasm to the constant changes. As leaders I am sure we made mistakes during these months.  We probably all did.  None of us ever took a seminary class in how to do lead a church during a never-before-seen global health crisis!

So as we look back at online church under various levels of lockdown, let’s take stock of both the costs and the benefits.

There have been benefits – I have spoken with many church leaders and church members who have spoken of learning to be flexible.  Having to adapt to new technology and changing circumstances is probably healthy for all but the most fragile Christians.  Many of us are now as capable of hosting a Zoom call as a business executive, or as familiar with streaming live on YouTube and “speaking to camera” as a social influencer (even if we are still not as comfortable with it!)  Perhaps the reach of your church has extended to people who would never have stepped into your building.  Perhaps, moving forward, the blessing of your live-stream will also be felt by church members at home with a sick child or travelling for work.  

And it is not just about technology and livestreaming.  We have had to think through how to shepherd people that we don’t see in person multiple times each week.  We have had to think about unity more than ever before since Covid has scattered people across a spectrum of responses and perspectives.   We have possibly been given greater clarity on the spiritual condition of many in our churches than was obvious under “the old normal” of predictable church routine.  We have hopefully been pushed to our knees to recognize that we rely on God alone for the health of the flock and not that predictable structure of church life. It is right to recognize the benefits and thank God for His faithfulness during these challenging months of change.

There have been costs – Some people will only speak positively of the impact of lockdown on their church experience.  Perhaps there is something in the air these days that makes it feel forbidden to critique any aspect of Covid response?  But we must evaluate.  Our calling is too significant to do otherwise.  What has been the cost of the loss of fellowship?  What has been the cost of loneliness for believers living alone or as the only believer in their home?  Have people grown to see church as merely watching a sermon and perhaps singing?  What value does corporate worship have in the spiritual life of the believer? What about the relational dynamic at the heart of biblical Christianity?  What about discipleship?  What about serving others?  What about unplanned conversations, warm greetings, handshakes, smiles and hugs?

Have people thrived spiritually with online church, or have they just survived?  There is a cost to not meeting for weeks, or even months on end.  Remember how we would be very concerned pastorally about people who stopped participating in the life of the church for extended periods of time before Covid-19 came along?  That concern still applies.  As churches come out of existing online to meeting in person, they discover that they have lost people.  Some are lost to “pajama church” while others are lost to no church connection at all. Sundays have taken on new rhythms for them.

And what about the loss of opportunities?  We can and should celebrate the people that found church online, but what about guests that never came to church, never experienced believers worshipping together, never experienced the love of a community of God’s people welcoming them warmly?  What about the loss of in-person communion and group prayer?  What about the loss of other opportunities: childhood friendships and life transition moments, mission trips for teens at that key stage of transition to adulthood, youth group heart-to-heart conversations after youth group adventures, and so on?

What do you think? Personally, I believe that online church and lockdown has had far more costs than benefits.  If we had to do it again, what would we do differently?  And are we now happy to switch to online church whatever reason is given for future lockdowns?  Are we really settled with the idea that the authorities can mandate what we do as a church, who we meet with, what we wear, etc.? Is the plan to do what is commanded, or what is culturally popular, whatever the reason? Or are we making different plans to handle what may still lie ahead of us?  Whatever your perspective, it is vital that we all take stock and evaluate. 

I want to recognize that it has been a challenging season to be in church leadership. Thank you for all you have done where you are. It has not been easy. Hopefully, your congregation have expressed their gratitude for all that you have done to make it work in these strange times. Hopefully, you have seen God at work despite the challenges. Jesus promised to build his church!

Our contexts are different and rules seem to be constantly changing everywhere.  How vital it is to think it through, pray it through, and learn lessons in the late summer before another winter comes (whatever that may look like where you are).

(I have sought to gently provoke with questions in this post. I am not looking to stir a political debate, but prayerful reflection. Please do share in the comments anything that could be helpful for others.)

10 thoughts on “Lockdowns & Online Church: Time to Evaluate?

  1. Spot on Peter! Thx for sharing this honest thought provoking reflection.
    There is a thin line when weeks of not gathering, to be a good witness, slowly turn into months and even years, and obeying the government actually means disobeying God ( Hebrew 10:25)
    I wonder if we as a church are prepared to pay the cost of choosing to obey God no matter what, like our brothers in persecuted world right now do everyday.

    Christ paid too high of a price for our freedom, we shouldn’t give up our God given liberties so easily.

    Hebrews 10:25 “ Let us not give up Meeting Together, as Some are in The Habit of Doing, but let us Encourage one Another and All The More as You See The Day Approaching.“

  2. The thing that I have been thinking about with all of this is unity. In my context, I have known of churches and even families and friends, who have been torn apart by differing views about masks, vaccinations, meeting/not meeting, etc. My heart keeps going back to John 17:22-23 “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Whatever our views, we must fight for unity and not fight against one another. I don’t think that necessarily means agreeing all the time, but it DOES mean treating others as more important than ourselves, caring for those whom we might view (accurately or not) as “weaker brothers,” and above all, putting on love, as in Colossians 3:12-14 “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” May the Lord give us all His heart and His wisdom as we navigate the challenges!

    • Hi Gretchen – thanks for your comment. I agree that unity among God’s people is probably taking more effort now than it has needed in the past. Covid is a real and visible divider. I’ve heard several references to the “weaker brother” language recently. I am not clear how this concept relates to the division. However, I totally agree that Christians need to be known for how we love each other – and perhaps this is a great opportunity to stand out from the increasingly divided culture around us!

  3. Thanks Peter, well done. To me one of the main questions is our perspective on the authority of God’s Word in our lives…is it truly our authority, or do we just give it lip service? I’ve heard (and have expressed myself) that the new mask mandate we have in Illinois can be ignored because our Governor is using the right legislative process…to me that type of thinking is a slippery slope. I’ve only found one reason why we would disobey our leaders, and that’s when they contradict the gospel (or the sharing of the gospel). Submission to authority is written of extensively in the New Testament, and it’s critical that we are allowing God’s Word to dictate how we reply…especially in cases like this where it has so much to say about respecting authority.

    • Thanks Glen – it is absolutely vital that we think through biblical teaching before we even consider rebelling against authorities. That we are to submit to them is easy to see biblically. Is disobedience only possible when they contradict the gospel or the sharing of it? What about when authorities ask you to sin? What about when authorities mandate something that harms? It is a complicated question that most of us have probably never had to wrestle with before. I think it is important to know the avenues of influence that are open to us in our society and use those whenever we feel that there is a need. This legitimate influence is how the governing authorities are held accountable in a democracy. We are not called to be compliant (and in a democracy, that can easily become indirectly complicit with injustice). But we also need to know where the line is. Crossing into civil disobedience must never be done lightly, or because of personal comfort / preferences. It is critical that we have solid biblical justification for crossing that line. It seems right to be asking ourselves, and God, what are the best choices I can make to further the gospel, represent Jesus, promote truth, advocate against injustice, and serve the good of others?

    • Social distancing and public mask wearing are a violation of Biblical principle and unhealthy for people and society. Public mask wearing was generally banned until about a year ago for practical reasons as well. We aren’t part of a moslem’s harem, we shouldn’t dress like we belong to one.

  4. I see your point, Peter, that the biblical context of “weaker brother” doesn’t really apply to this situation. What I was meaning to express was that we need to have kind and compassionate hearts towards others in the midst of differing opinions or differences of conscience. I appreciate you and others in church leadership who have had to navigate ministry in the midst of the constantly-changing restrictions and differences of opinion within a congregation. I can only imagine how wearying it has been at times. May I say very sincerely, thank you. And thanks for your thought-provoking post.

  5. This opinion piece is unfortunate. It questions the government’s authority to “tell us what to wear.”

    Come on. Just come out with it. The author is questioning the rightness of the civil authority to mandate masks which we know, as a matter of fact, impedes the viral spread.

    I thought we Christians are supposed to be pro-life. Instead, this silly piece pretends that life begins at conception and ends at birth.

    Here’s a question the author doesn’t ask and should: How many will now never set foot in a church because of the horrible witness some churches have been by denying science as if to do so we’re an act of faith.

    • Hi Jack, thank you for engaging with the blog. I reread my post after reading your comment. Perhaps you might do the same.

      Even though it was not the point of the article, I would very much suggest that we should question government authority to mandate in areas they have never mandated before – not to do so would be utterly naive and failing in our duty as citizens to hold our governments accountable.

      As I suggested in the post, we have to evaluate all aspects of church, and it wouldn’t hurt to actually evaluate the evidence for the science we choose to put our faith in too. Too many, on both sides, are accepting scientific facts without evaluating the science behind them. Christians should be committed to evaluating facts rather than simply accepting what they are told (by preachers, influencers or by the media.)

      You lost me with your third paragraph. I do agree that it is important for churches to evaluate their witness to the world. In fact, I think I wrote that in the post. Our tone really does matter in decisions we make as a church, or in comments we write on social media, including this blog.

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