Online Church Is A Necessary Abnormality: A Warning for Christians Post-Coronavirus

Shelter in place. Practice social distancing. These are the recommendations rightly being passed down by our government’s leaders during an unprecedented time in our nation’s history. COVID-19 has caused many institutions, businesses, and churches to rethink the way they operate in order to relieve stress on the health care system and protect those most vulnerable to the virus. My post intends to discuss the latest trend with many churches moving to online only formatting in order to “equip the saints for ministry” in a time such as this (Eph 4:12; Est 4:14). My goal is to warn all believers to not let these online experiences become the new normal of our lives (even though it makes Sunday super easy), but rather to express the biblical importance of physically attending a local church when this pandemic ends.

To be completely honest, doing church online is weird. I’m a pastor who is posting worship services on the internet in order to protect the vulnerable and honor our leaders, and yes, I think this to be a strange method in an even stranger time. Is an online only worship format a necessity during this season? Yes. Is there any other way to do a corporate worship gathering and still practice social distancing? I’m sure there are, but online seems to be one of the best options available to a majority of people. However, this form of internet worship seems to be unnatural.

Why does worshiping online feel so abnormal? Here is one reason online worship feels odd, and some incentives on why I am looking forward to getting back into the church with brothers and sisters in Christ. I pray these reasons will be a sound caution for you to do likewise in the near future as these guidelines become lifted when our government officials think it is safe for us to carry about business as normal.

We should first start with a theological presupposition: people were made for community (Gen 2:18). I have seen many posts on Facebook that discuss how this virus has caused the church to “go be the church.” In some aspects, I understand what they are trying to convey, but let’s not throw the importance of a local gathering out by only focusing on the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). Believers, we need to be active in both. We need a time to gather together as followers of Christ in order to be equipped to go be the church (Eph 4:12).

At the beginning of creation, God created man and woman in his own image (Gen 1:27). However, before he created woman, he created Adam–the first man (Gen 2:7). The only time in creation that God declared that an aspect of his creation was “not good” was when he looked and saw that the man was alone (Gen 2:18). Therefore, he brought the woman to the man, looked and saw all that he had done and declared, “It is very good” (Gen 2:21-22; Gen 1:31).

From the creation narrative, my reason for declaring online only gatherings as abnormal is that online communities are not ideal for biblical community. Yes, it allows us to see and speak with each other, but physical presence makes our relationships bud into authentic means for discipleship. Physical presence allows us to interact with one another in ways that the online format does not and cannot. Here are four incentives for going back to church when it is safe to do so.

First, we can physically bond with one another at the church. We can shake hands, give hugs (I’m a huger), and put an arm around someone struggling as a few examples. Gestures that acknowledge someone as a person and connects with their feelings, fears, concerns, and lives in a real tangible way. You can’t get that type of connection in an online only experience.

Second, physical presence at the local church allows us to sympathize and empathize with one another. Have you ever been in a situation where you could literally feel the emotions of another person pouring their heart out to you? Have you ever been in an environment where you could feel the tension? These emotions come when we are in close proximity with one another. These feelings cannot be replicated in an online only format because online is, by all intent and purposes, one way communication. Physical presences allows us to minister the presence of Christ to one another in our times of need.

Third, we can have social interaction during our worship gathering. I love to hear everyone singing. It doesn’t matter if the person behind me is off pitch, on key, or ten decibels too loud. As they are worshiping Jesus, they help me to get my heart and mind right to worship too. I love hearing a hearty “Amen” or watching light bulbs click on when a preacher (typically me) exegetes a biblical text and reveals a truth some have either never thought of before or are hearing for the first time. We were created for community, and the church is designed to worship in person as a family.

Fourth, corporate gatherings produce a sense of order for those in the congregation. Our God is a God of order. Look at creation. Everything functions in an orderly fashion (of course, our sinfulness creates chaos in Gods creation, but Christ is in the process of redeeming that). Worshiping at home can create a disordered environment because our homes are places of relaxation and comfort. I think many of us come to these online worship experiences at home with a different posture than if we were part of an ordered corporate gathering.

Therefore, I know we have to worship during this pandemic differently– for many of us that is online, but since we were created for community, I am longing for the day to worship in person with my brothers and sisters in Christ. My prayer is that after you read this post you will as well. Few things compare to the gathered community each week as we corporately praise Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior like we will for all eternity (Rev 5:11-12). So, when the doors of churches all across this land open again in the near future, I pray you and I will be there anticipating what God is going to do as we gather together as his redeemed bride (Eph 5:25-27).

What are some other incentives that you are looking forward to experiencing when it is safe to do so? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

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4 Ways to Share the Gospel During Social Distancing

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20

The Great Commission Explained

We need to remember that Jesus gave all his disciples this commission right after he paid the price for our sin, and rose again on the third day–to prove he defeated sin and death on our behalf. In this text, we see him commissioning his disciples and every disciple who puts their faith and trust in him before he ascended back to the right hand of the Father. This truth is why many theologians call this text the Great Commission.

How does the Coronavirus impact the way current disciples carry out the Great Commission? After all, many of us are confined to our homes in order to prevent the spread of the virus and to restrain overloading the health care system. Therefore, I will argue that it doesn’t impact our mission, but does impact our methods.

To begin, we should be comforted to know two truths Jesus tells us in his commission: 1) Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, and 2) Jesus promises to be with us “always.” As believers, the Coronavirus should not scare us because as the text asserts: 1) Jesus has dominion over this virus, and 2) when we continue to advance the gospel during this global pandemic, we do so knowing he is with us wherever we are and go.

Notice in this text that our gospel witness is sandwiched between Christ’s power and his presence. His power and his presence give each believer confidence to share the gospel with our neighbors, community, and the globe–even in times of a viral crisis.

Carrying out the Great Commission During the Coronavirus

Once we understand that the Great Commission is sandwiched between Christ’s power and presence, we are in a better position to share the gospel during this season of uncertainty. Believer, just because we are in a global pandemic does not mean that our witness must be put on hold nor does it mean that we should not use biblical wisdom in how to go about sharing Christ with others. Our church history helps us to think through both aspects of being a biblically discerning gospel witness.

Our church history reveals that believers still took care of the sick and vulnerable even to the detriment of their own health. However, our history shows us that they didn’t engage in foolish activity to bring about an early death. I think we need to have a balance between both extremes in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. We can help people in their time of need by dropping things off at their doorsteps, giving them some toilet paper, or mowing their grass. These activities allow us to help the sick and vulnerable while simultaneously practicing social distancing.

While the church can take care of the needs of others in some of the ways listed above, one question we should be asking is “How can we continue to share the gospel with our families, and neighbors in obedience to the Great Commission?” Here are four ways to share the gospel during social distancing to help us think through an answer to that question:

  1. Call them on the phone. This form of communication seems to be nearly archaic in a world of texting, emailing, and Facebook messaging. Nevertheless, a phone call allows you to connect with others on a more personal level. Call people in your neighborhood to check in on them, and ask them how you can pray for them or if you can share a message of hope with them. Then, openly share the good news of Jesus Christ.
  2. Setup an online face-to-face meeting. We live in a technologically advanced society. We have the ability to use platforms like Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangout to connect with people in an online community forum. This allows you some time to see each other and to build relationships without being in close proximity. During this session, make a point to either pray with or share the good news of Jesus Christ with the person on the other end of your computer.
  3. Write and email. Email is another great way to communicate with others quickly and efficiently and still practice social distancing. Write an email to your neighbor, family member, or friend. Tell them about how this social distancing is impacting your life in a positive way. Maybe you can attach a picture of what you and your family have been up to these last few days. At some point in your email, share your testimony or just share the good news outright. Be sure to include at the end of your testimony or gospel presentation a sentence that says something like, “If you would like to know more about how you can put your faith in Jesus Christ, email me back and we can setup a time to talk via phone or on an online face-to-face platform” (see points 1 and 2 above).
  4. Publish a testimonial. The internet is filled with people giving their thoughts and advice about what is taking place in our country during this global pandemic. Why not join the growing online movement by posting a video of your testimony for people to see? The internet has distanced us, but in this season of viral pandemic, pretty much everyone is online. Two great advantages to an online testimonial is that while you are not online your video can still be viewed, and this means, number two, you can reach more people for Christ. Be sure to add something at the end of your testimonial about how you would be willing to talk more about you testimony and what Christ has done for you if they desire or that you can help them find a local church in their area to connect them with if they live far away.

Concluding Thoughts

Just because we have been advised not to leave our homes to help flatten the viral curve, does not mean that we have been advised to stop obeying the Great Commission. In fact, we can still fulfill the mission God has given us by thinking of creative ways to share the gospel where we are and by using the technology God has given to us. In all reality, now is one of the best times to share the gospel because many people are worried and afraid. What better time to share the only hope this world has, God’s one and only Son–Jesus Christ? As Jesus’s words started this blog, I think it only appropriate that his Great Commission should also end it.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20

What are some other creative ways we can share the gospel during this time of social distancing? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

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Rethinking Pastoral Ministry in America: How Pastors Should Start Thinking About the Future

Ken Myers, the founder of Mars Hill Audio, once said in his Epiphany Lectures that he does not like to be prophetic. By prophetic, he does not mean that he has been given some special word from God similar to that of the Old Testament prophets. He is not claiming a “Thus says the Lord,” type of truth. Rather, he is arguing that he sees a problem in the area of music, and presents a seemingly unpopular theological view about this topic to his audience. I can relate to Myers’s sentiment about being prophetic, and yet, I seek to be prophetic in this blog post. My article seeks to look at the current trends about the church in America, and propose that pastors need to think about and discuss this topic more deliberately in order to prepare for the future.

Current Decline in Attendance

The church in America is declining. Statistics are indicating–like those at the Pew Research Center–a downward spiral of both professing believers and church attendees. People are less committed to a local church, and those who are committed are attending less and less. The reasons for such a decrease are numerous, and in some ways, unknowable. One factor for the decrease in numbers is due to the increase in people who are identified as “Religious ‘Nones.'” “Religious Nones” are people unaffiliated with any form of religion or religious organization. The rise of this group reveals a telling truth: the impact of the church in our American society is weak at best, and non-existent at worst, therefore, we are not reaching people with the gospel.

If you will permit me, I would like to make a brief observation about what has been called “Cultural Christianity.” Many believers think America used to exist as a Christian culture. I have argued that America has never been truly Christian, but rather existed as a culture that attempted to live out Judeo-Christian values on a societal level. The church used to be the social construction of society, but many people attended church to “save face,” or build on their relational connections. Therefore, many people in these eras seemed to be “Cultural Christians,” Christians out of cultural obligation, instead of actual Christians. When new ideologies started to pop up in culture like the Sexual Revolution, a new way of thinking was introduced and “Cultural Christianity” began to wane because a new way of life was being not only permitted, but also adopted. Today, Cultural Christianity is nearly obsolete, and a new way of life has been adopted by American society so that people can identify as a “Religious None” without fear of societal degradation.

The rise of the “Religious None,” and I don’t mean that to sound negative, indicates that it will take the church longer to reach this group with the gospel. As Mike Breen once said to me in his huddle, “Christians will have to disciple people before reaching them with the gospel.” To put it another way, many Americans do not have a foundation of biblical knowledge in which a witness can draw on in order to point them to Christ. Believers living in a post-Cultural Christianity will have to explain terms, the biblical narrative, and other truths about Christianity in order to point people to Christ as the only means to be forgiven and saved. The consequences of this cultural reality portray that it will take longer to see people come to Christ, and the time needed to reverse the decline will not necessarily be a quick fix.

Current Decline in Finances

Have you ever played the game “Wack-A-Mole?” When you play this game, you hit a mole with a padded hammer and another one or sometimes two moles raise their silly heads to be hammered down quickly by the gamer. This same concept applies to the church. The decline in attendance and the rise of people who are growing away from any form of religion means that the local church will take a financial hit. If it takes longer to reach people with the gospel, it will take longer to disciple people towards biblical giving as well. Plus, many pastors are already experiencing a decline in giving according to this article in the Christian Post. Smaller churches, which make up the majority of my denomination, are also currently burdened by financial crises. In other words, the current financial decline already exists in many local churches.

Many factors seem to be contributing to the financial decline. Of course, attendance is down and this reciprocates into a decline in tithing. People are not giving to charitable organizations including religious entities like in the years past. Some generations who were faithful tithers are beginning to pass away, and the generations replacing them are so steeped in various forms of debt they couldn’t give even if they had a desire towards Christian generosity. While Christians struggle to influence the American culture, the church in America is increasingly struggling to maintain the massive overhead that “Culture Christianity” produced.

A Possible Way Forward

Pastors should be noting these current trends, and possibly rethinking ministry for the future of the church in America. At a minimum, this post should encourage discussion, but also cause us to think of ways to influence an increasingly anti-Christian culture with the gospel in the days to come. I would like to provide you with two possible ways forward:

First, think of ways to reduce the church’s overhead now. Every church is different so this thought will have many implications. Pastors should think about leading their churches towards being debt free in order to reduce the budget overhead and free up money for missional purposes. While finances may be strong, get rid of debt fast. Also, churches that are growing or running out of space should consider only building or renovating in a debt-free mentality. A church may be growing, but one decision or economic disaster could take a church of 200 down to 100 almost instantly. Just because the attendance or tithes decrease does not mean the bank will decrease the loan amount each pay period as an extension of economic grace. In fact, they won’t. Therefore, the loan amount gets spread to less people, and will financially hurt the church and their outreach in the long run. Churches should consider some of the thoughts outlined by Francis Chan in his book, Letters to the Church. Maybe one way to reduce overhead is to get rid of the church buildings all together and look more like the church in the book of Acts–meeting together in homes and reaching people in closer proximity.

Second, and here is me being prophetic, maybe pastors should prepare to become “tent-makers” in the future (cf. Acts 18:3). Tent-makers are pastors who work a full-time job and are either part-time or volunteers at a local church. When I type those sentences it really hurts as a pastor who gave up a stable career and earned two (almost three) theological degrees in order to think about getting out of “full time vocational ministry.” If you are church member, it might bother you to think that your pastor might have to give up full time ministry in order to support his family, the church, and reach more people with the gospel. However, the reality of the declining numbers may demand this possible future for pastoral ministry. Therefore, maybe pastors should start thinking about what type of careers they can work in order to embrace this consistent downward trend and create more time to spend with unbelievers.

Conclusion

One truth we should walk away with is that God is still sovereign. Yes, we may note the trends and think about how these declining numbers may impact the future of the church in America. Pastors, church leaders, and church members should think about and discuss what measures need to be taken in order to sustain a gospel presence in the American culture. However, our planning should never circumvent our need for prayer. May we pray that God would open the pathway to another spiritual awakening in America, and the Holy Spirit will bring people to Christ in droves. May the church be ready to disciple them faithfully according to God’s Word in order to strengthen the church’s resources to reach more people for the glory of God.