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.)

Preaching in Troubled Times

“The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” (Psalm 9:9)

Troubled times can be caused by global pandemics, national disasters, or more local challenges on a city or church level. In this world we will have trouble. And when trouble comes, the preacher gets to point people to God’s Word to find the comfort and to stir the response of faith that is needed. The problem is, we don’t do ministry in a case study. People don’t tend to respond in a textbook fashion when problems come. Just a few verses after the one above comes Psalm 10:1 – “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” By definition, these seasons of ministry are not easy, but here are five important things to keep in mind:

1. The Preacher’s Relationship with God – Be Healthy. Maybe it is obvious, but it bears stating. You need to be in a healthy place to have the reserves to serve others effectively. Remember Martha. She was trying to do the right thing, but somehow she had gotten the two great commandments out of order. She was doing the classic evangelical mistake – “loving God by loving others.” It is unsustainable. Be sure to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him minister to you before you continue to minister to others. (And remember that being healthy is not just spiritual . . . what about sleep, exercise, diet? What about emotionally and relationally?)

2. The Preacher’s Relationship with Listeners – Be Sensitive. Remember that different people react in different ways to the same crisis. Listening to our culture it would be easy to only address the fear of dying in the current pandemic. But for some their concern is finance, employment, other vulnerable people, loneliness, mental health, etc. We need to know what is really going on with the people we preach to, and they need to know that we are real too. Be appropriately transparent. A crisis is a time to offer strength and stability, but don’t come across as Superman. You are allowed to struggle too, just invite others into a faithful response and share the journey together. When troubles hit, people tend to pull back. Be sure to pursue connections with people in your church. You may not see them on Sunday (or may not be allowed to meet in some strange circumstances), but you still have a phone. There are ways to stay connected. We need to do that if we are to preach effectively.

3. The Listener’s Relationship with Circumstances – Be Hopeful. In the midst of crisis people need to have perspective. It is not helpful to dismiss a crisis. I remember a lecturer on 9/11 being dismissive of the situation (it didn’t help!) But do offer perspective with gentleness. Remember also that people have troubles that are not “the trouble” too. I am waiting for someone to fix our hot water boiler right now . . . that is not a Covid-19 issue, but it is today’s issue in our house! People still have other health concerns during a pandemic, people still have marital struggles during a war, people still struggle with parenting during a natural disaster. In the midst of it all, cast a vision. Could God be teaching us to pray like we have never prayed before? Is God growing greater depth and dependence on him in our church? Maybe God is shaking the culture to wake it up to spiritual realities? (Don’t make prophetic pronouncements, just help people to look on their circumstances in light of Scripture.)

4. The Listener’s Relationship with God – Be “Evangelistic.” There will be people who are not yet believers and the crisis might be the perfect moment . . . point them to Jesus. There will be people who have been believers for years and they too need to be pointed to Jesus. Help people to know that God is who they need and he can be accessed through the Bible. That is, be biblical. Don’t jettison your biblical preaching in order to offer personal wisdom, or to drift into political proclamation, or to distract people with empty entertainment. You may need to preach from somewhere else in the Bible, but do preach the Bible.

5. The Preacher and Preaching – Be Adaptable. Your eight month series in Ezekiel may not be appropriate when a crisis hits. It is ok to suspend a series and be a bit more targeted when necessary. After 9/11 a significant proportion of preachers just continued their series. That was a big missed opportunity to show love, care and a word from God in a key moment. So you may need to adapt your content, and you may also need to adapt your approach. In the last year many of us have learned to use new technology, to preach to camera, to shift to a mixed setting with some people present and others watching at home. Crises, big and small, tend to invite adaptability. By all means do things differently, just don’t disappear.

What would you add? What things are helpful to ponder during challenging times?

God’s Great Story and You – Part 2…What Does Jesus’ Death Have To Do With Me?

God’s Great Story and You! is a 4-part series I wrote for LookForHope.org – a website for people looking for hope in the midst of this CoronaVirus crisis.  Please take a look at the site and spread the word so that others can find it.  Click here for part 1.  Here is part 2 of the series:

What Does Jesus’ Death Have To Do With Me?

The symbol of Christianity is a cross. It may look shiny and perfectly shaped on a necklace today, but two thousand years ago it was a symbol of execution, agony and shame. Nobody would ever choose to die exposed and humiliated on a Roman cross. But Jesus did. Why?

The simple answer to that question would be that Jesus knew it was the mission given to him by his Father in heaven. But still the question remains, why did Jesus have to die?

If Jesus’ death was somehow significant, let’s begin by asking why is there death at all? Death was not part of God’s perfect design for this world. In the beginning God created everything as an overflow of that generous love and kindness that exists within the relationship of the Trinity. He created a world that was both diverse and unified, a world of abundance and colour and vibrant life. And the pinnacle of God’s creation was the creature made in his relational image—the humans. Male and female, diverse but unified, ruling everything as God’s representatives. It was so so good, but sadly that didn’t last long.

God did not force his creatures to love him. So when opportunity came, they desired to pull away from God’s good rule and try living as independent mini-gods, setting their own rules and living for their own desires. In that moment, as God had warned them, they discovered only the inadequacy of their own nakedness. Turns out humans separated from God are not the super-beings we would like to be. Curved in on ourselves we become black holes of selfishness, draining the life from everything around us as we ourselves have lost God’s life within us.

What did God do in the face of this rebellion and mess? He promised to send a human to rescue us and defeat the enemy who had led humanity into this living death. For centuries the Old Testament unfolds the story of God’s anticipated deliverer who finally arrived that first Christmas just over 2000 years ago.

Jesus was God’s rescuer, sent to stand in the gap between a good God and a rebellious humanity. He came to reveal God’s goodness to us, but more than that, he came to do what we could not do for ourselves and make a way for us to come back into relationship with God.

One time Jesus told the story of two men: a righteous religious man and a nasty traitorous tax collector for the occupying forces. Both of them went to pray. The righteous religious man prayed a prayer full of pride, describing how good he was in comparison to others. The traitor stood off at a distance, beat his breast in desperation and pleaded with God for mercy. Literally, he asked God to provide the kind of sacrifice that would cover for his sin, the kind of sacrifice that took place inside that temple every day. Jesus shocked his listeners by declaring that only one of these men went home justified, or declared righteous, in God’s eyes. And it wasn’t the “good” guy—it was the desperate sinner. (See Luke 18:9-14)

Fast forward a few stories and we find another tax collector (See Luke 19:1-10). This one is called Zacchaeus and he wanted to see Jesus, but couldn’t because he was short. He ended up climbing into a tree for a secret vantage point. To his shock Jesus stopped and spoke to him. The crowd hated Zac. But Jesus rescued him from their anger by showing kindness to him. Zac was blown away by Jesus’ kindness and his life was changed at the tree.

Later in Luke’s gospel we find that Jesus travelled to another tree, the cross outside Jerusalem. There he voluntarily died, taking the anger not only of the crowd, but also of God in heaven, against the sins of humanity. Jesus died hanging on a tree to set us all free from the righteous judgment of God against sin, to buy us out of our slavery to sin, to win a decisive victory over sin and death, and to reconcile us back to God.

Jesus offers us all a great exchange. He wants to give us all of his righteousness, goodness and life, in exchange for all our sin, wrong, death, shame and brokenness. He is willing to take our great debt on himself and die—in fact, he already did.