Yesterday, I caught the edges of a Twitter discussion on what the church will look like after lockdown/social-isolating/whatever-you-call-it ends. The problem with any discussion like this is that “the church” doesn’t actually exist. That is, there is a theological reality of the church – the people of God through time and geography – but in practical terms, the church exists as a myriad of local communities who will respond to lockdown in very different ways. Equally, and perhaps more importantly, the societies in which these local communities are embedded will react to them in different ways. Because of this, it is difficult to say what the church will look like one the other side of things. However, we can make a few general observations which will hold true in different places. So here goes…
The Church Will Lose Credibility
Let’s start with the negative one. I can see two significant ways in which the church will lose credibility through the coronavirus episode; both of which are already evident.
The first is when churches insist on holding large gatherings which turn into viral transmission hotspots. The outbreak of Covid-19 in South Korea can mostly be traced back to a religious gathering and other more localised outbreaks can be traced to Christian services. It seems likely that lockdown will be extended/reimposed in some form for a significant period of time. As the public’s patience begins to fray, those who are considered to have acted irresponsibly by holding large meetings which allowed the spread of the virus will be held to account. Exercising “freedom to worship”, is likely to come with a huge reputational cost (not to mention a toll of illness and death).
The second reputational issue lies with those who either minimise the danger of the virus altogether or who claim some sort of spiritual authority over it. It is, of course, a tragedy that a number of Christian leaders have died having previously said that the virus is not a serious problem (one example here). However, to the watching world, it reflects badly on the church as a whole. Likewise, the fact that the virus is still there and is still spreading worldwide shows up those who claimed to have defeated it with a word of power, or to have a miracle cure to be the snake-oil merchants that they are. Conrad Mbewe shows the folly of the prosperity gospel preachers in the face of Covid-19 here.
Now, you might say that your church is a responsible group who don’t do any of these things, so they aren’t a problem for you. However, most people don’t know and don’t care about the differences between church streams. Whether we like it or not, we all suffer reputational fallout from this stuff.
The Church Will Gain Credibility
A good deal has been written about the way in which more people are engaging with church online these days. Evi Rodeman sums up some of the material in this article. I’ll return to this below, however, although anything digital is sexy and newsworthy, I’m not convinced that it is the most important way that the church is engaging with the world. In the end, most mission is about the gritty day-to-day reality of dealing with needy people. In the West, governments do most of the care for people who are poor and suffering, but even here there are people who slip between the cracks. As the lockdown continues and the impact of unemployment and poverty grows, there will be increasing opportunities for churches to serve their communities. Projects such as Love Southampton will increase in importance as time goes on and the church will grow. In passing, it will be very hard for churches who do not have systems in place to serve their communities to develop anything physical in the current situation.
However, it is outside of the safety nets of the developed world, where the church will truly come into its own. In many places, the Covid lockdown is primarily a hunger and poverty problem, not one of disease and churches are doing what they can to serve those who have nothing. If history teaches us anything about the church and pandemics, it is that the church will grow, as believers selflessly serve those who are ill and suffering – sometimes at the cost of their own lives. These stories won’t hit social media or the big news websites, but they are no less real for that.If history teaches us anything about the church and pandemics, it is that the church will grow, as believers selflessly serve those who are ill and suffering – sometimes at the cost of their own lives. Click To Tweet
The Church Online
In some countries, many more people are engaging with church online than ever did so face-to-face (see the link above). This presents a whole new set of challenges for churches who are serious about growing disciples. Helping these folks to move from being visitors to being followers of Jesus will require an additional degree of flexibility. Those churches whose online presence only consists of broadcast and has no interactive facility will struggle to engage people in any depth.
However, while there are growing opportunities in the West, I believe that the church will have its most significant online impact in the wider world, particularly amongst Muslims. I’ll admit, I have no hard facts to back this up, just a hope based on the way that I’ve seen God at work around the world over the last couple of decades. I believe that Christian broadcasts and social media will reach into the Muslim world in an unprecedented fashion over the next year or so. There are lots of people asking big questions and their old certainties aren’t providing the answers. Again, we might not see the results of this on this side of eternity.While there are growing opportunities in the West, I believe that the church will have its most significant online impact in the wider world, particularly amongst Muslims. Click To Tweet
The Church Will Suffer
I started with a negative point and I’ll (almost) close with another one. In a sense, Coronavirus will only serve to hasten trends which are already in place. The growing authoritarianism in China has been accelerated by recent events, but it was already a reality. In China, as in other places, the church will be increasingly persecuted. Partly this is because governments perceive the Church as a threat to the order they wish to impose and partly because they identify the church as an agent or sympathiser of a foreign power. Life was already very difficult for many of our brothers and sisters around the world and, with the insecurity brought about by the pandemic, things are likely to get worse.
These are broad brush strokes, but with a body as big and diverse as the Christian church, one could never do any more than this. Anyway, with these in place, let me make a few final bullet point observations.
- Jesus will build his church and neither the gates of hell nor a virus will stand against it. In any discussion of mission or the future of the church, we have to return to this simple principle. It is about Jesus and about his work in the power of the Spirit to the glory of the Father. When we lose sight of that and think that it’s all about us and our responses and strategy, we make a big error.
- The church will continue to be diverse, multicultural and messy – praise God!
- The church worldwide will continue to be a church of the young and the impoverished. Responses to Covid may mean that even in the West, the church grows more among the poor and dispossessed than among its middle-class heartland.
- It will become increasingly obvious that those (individuals and churches) who are materially and financially wealthy are not necessarily spiritually prosperous.
There is much more that could (and should) be said on this question, but I like to keep my blog posts short. I may well return to some of these themes in more detail later.