The end of the church as we know it? (And is that so bad?)

“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.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

Unless you’re Nancy Pelosi, who has taken more heat from–and because of–a blow dryer than anything else in the past couple of weeks, your life has been circumscribed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And that includes your local churchgoing routine. If your hometown is anything like my home just outside of Washington, DC in northern Virginia, your church may be closed, limited in its public meeting options or becoming virtual.

Some people have found they really don’t miss going to church, others have taken it in stride, still others are adapting, and a minority are locking horns with local officials because, as they see it, “we should obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

But what most interests me is the discussion of long-term effects of the pandemic. Already, economists and analysts are ruminating about how retail restrictions may “change the way we shop forever.”

But what about the church? If you’re like me, you’ve been assuming that current conditions are temporary—maybe a-little-longer-than-we-hoped temporary since it’s been 6-8 months—but once we return to normal, so will the church.

But now I’m beginning to wonder. When humanity, or at least some segments of it, come up against immovable barriers or overwhelming circumstances over which they have little or control, something has to give.

One of the worst pandemics ever, the Black Death of roughly 1347-50, took the lives of approximately 100-150 million out of a world population of 475 million. About one-third of Europe may have perished. (COVID-19 cases worldwide as of today: 28.8 million; deaths 921,000).

One of the long-term consequences was the drastic decline in the number of peasants who, until population and relative prosperity rebounded centuries later, were able to demand and get higher wages for their labor. Obviously, there was as yet no technological solution to circumvent this. The lords of the manors didn’t have labor-saving machinery, much less robots or drones, to take their place.

The same has gone for the environment. Europe turned to coal as an energy source, in part, because they looked around and realized they had deforested the countryside. Instability in the Middle East, which has been around since Isaac and Ishmael, has prodded the United States to produce more of its own energy.

Personally, I see no reason to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is (or will be) this far-reaching, as even pessimistic observers are not that pessimistic. So maybe we won’t see sweeping changes to our way of life. But, at the same time, Americans are still so relatively well-off they can be pretty fickle about some of the choices they make.

If you see aisle after aisle of empty shelves in your grocery store (as I did the first weekend I went shopping after the state was locked down), it’s probably only a 5-10-minute drive to Aldi. You can drop Netflix with a couple of mouse clicks and sign up with a new provider by the time your pizza has cooked in the microwave.

One of the nice features of blogging is the ability to read firsthand accounts of persons who share your interests but live on the other side of the country (or world, for that matter). So I have seen some interesting posts on the ways people have done their best to “not give up meeting together” even as the definition of “together” may have to be elastic enough to include 6-foot social distancing and face masks.

Since singing has been flagged as a potential spreader of the virus, a lot of the trial-and-error has been to do with choirs or congregational singing. Some changes have been successful. Others are more like, we tried this and it was pretty awful.

But there is a silver lining in all this trial-and-error even if many pine for “the way things used to be.” It forces us to examine the elements of whatever we’re having to change.

Do we need to sit in a hardwood pew in a cavernous sanctuary while the sonorous notes of a pipe organ resonate in our ears? Or, is it possible we have more in common with “those churches” that seem totally given over to toe-tapping, handclapping emotionalism that without it they can’t worship God? (Are you sure?)

A few years back, I remember a prominent evangelical blogger showing his disdain for churches that pipe in teaching at multiple locations via large screens, like the screens you see behind rock bands on stage. “I can’t stand that,” he said.

But for heaven’s (and the church’s) sake, why? Paul wrote that the Lord gave “some to be pastors and teachers” (Eph 4:11). In the apostle’s day, “the church at Corinth” was the believers in the entire city. Though at different times perhaps, “the church” there had the benefit of ministry from Paul, Apollos and most likely Priscilla and Aquila, since they are recorded as correcting Apollos on some points of doctrine (Acts 18:24-26).

But they served the whole church in that city because the church was a single body of believers, which, of course, is why Paul jumped on the issue of divisions early in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:10-16). “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas (3:21-22), he wrote. There was no Baptist Paul, Presbyterian Apollos or Church of God Cephas.

But if you go into almost any modest-sized community in the United States—the one where I grew up in western New York was less than 6000 people—you’ll find a Catholic church and 10-20 (at least) Protestant churches.

Most of them will be under-attended and stretched (if not stressed) financially (but already used to social distancing!). And they will be led by a minister who must be a one-man-band of teaching, preaching, counseling and pastoral care. (And could you mow the church lawn if you have time?)

Has it ever occurred to anyone that “he gave some to be pastors and teachers” does not obligate God to supply at least one for each church that we seemingly can’t live without?

Is it possible that some of them may be gifted in one aspect of ministry but not another (and certainly not all of them)? Could one of the reasons for insipid preaching and teaching be simply that the best efforts of an ungifted person whose only qualification for the pastorate is a piece of paper, nicely-lettered and professionally framed, that purports to confer the gift of God on him, is not the perfect will of God?

What if God were still giving some to be teachers in a given geographical area (it needn’t be just one), and the most efficient way to employ that gift were video screens in several different sanctuaries? Couldn’t we still worship in different styles and with different instruments and dressed in different ways and still be the church? Is that modest compromise really out of the question?

Will it take the pandemic to nudge us closer to what it means to be the true church of Jesus Christ? And is that really so bad?

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