We live in a world which is, at this moment, seemingly unconcerned about God. It was an epiphany to realize that in all the reporting I have observed during the pandemic not a single person has stated that this virus outbreak is “an act of God.” Maybe that is an improvement, for He seems to be completely absent from the modern narrative until there is an earthquake, tsunami, hurricane or lightning strike. Then it is His fault. He suddenly exists!
So the churches shutdown. Christians become invisible. The only place you can find them is in the Zoom archives hidden within the bowels of the Chinese intelligence service. What happened to the Christians during the COVID-19 pandemic? Taking away their churches, will they ever return? Have thousands left their ranks? Has their faith become lifeless, irrelevant?
What did happen was this rapid-fire adaptive response. My church, it turns out, responded in much the same way as countless others. They rolled up their sleeves and started to use the Internet! Juneau, Alaska is not much different than the rest of the country when it comes to churches. Most had little presence on the Internet prior to March 2020. If they are still in operation during the pandemic, they have demonstrated that they are fast learners. Our church started with a service over Facebook streaming service. That evolved into a live YouTube service. Production improvements made it possible to follow the course of the service. And, lo’ and behold, we even returned to radio services!
Wow. Talk about the “emerging church!” We could pause the service at any time! Have a cup of coffee. Add comments while the pastor was talking! The pastor event responds to comments during his sermon. We could be late to church without being late to church! We had communion as a family. We sang songs in our living room.
As a corporate assembly, we had to make changes to how the worship service was performed. Fundamentally, we had to realize that our services were now broadcasted. Our cozy, somewhat private, services were a thing of the past. The loose-ended contemporary worship service was replaced with a structured sixty minute block, accounting for the fact that there is a radio service. This required planning and changes to certain aspects of the worship service.
What happened to the Christians? Christianity is, at its historical roots, a small-church religion. For the first 300 years of its existence it did not have large sanctuaries. Archaeologists have long known that “churches” were often in caves and small alcoves. Scanning through the New Testament you will find that the believers assembled in small synagogues, houses and parks. What applied then applies now. A functioning church does not depend on a building, or even a Sunday service. What it is based on are relationships. It can be your immediate family. But it is also a circle of “brothers and sisters in Christ” that are a part of your life. With modern technology, you are never apart from them.
So why all this anxiety about Christians needing to assemble? After all, it is our constitutional right! Worship is a constitutional right – as is the right to assembly. The lockdowns addressed assembly – all assembly. The lockdown did not affect my freedom to worship. My faith is not dependent on proximity to a sanctuary. It is helped, but it is not contingent.
Hate to be the cynic, but the next time you see a pastor advocating for assembly, check their loan with the bank. That is a concern. Churches, just like tatoo parlors, are business operations. They have buildings, they have maintenance and utility costs, and staff to pay. While it is true that my faith does not need a church building to be meaningful, the church building needs the faithful to support it. Unfortunately, the facts don’t lie. Giving does go down when people are not in attendance. Add to that the economic impact of the shutdown, there is less money to give.
American Christianity is highly church-centric. It will be interesting to see how Christianity will be affected by the pandemic. My guess is that people will be cautious about assembling together. So expect attendance to be down. We should not be surprised to see churches cut budgets, reduce staff and possibly slide into bankruptcy. The longer the effects of the pandemic extend, the greater the impact.
But will this pandemic bankrupt our faith? When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he responded with two major tenets of the Jewish faith – to love God with all your heart, mind and soul; and to love your neighbor as yourself. Faith has two vectors. One is between you and God. The other is between you and your neighbor. Millions have faced death, debilitating illness, lost loved ones, lost employment. Has God been present? That is for each person to discover, their own journey of faith. I know He is there. But you also see faith demonstrated when people reach out to others to provide help, assistance and encouragement. When New York City was in its darkest days, Samaritan’s Purse set up temporary hospitals in Central Park. But most of this extended faith has been hidden from public view, a connection between two to four people, socially distanced, sitting around a fire, wearing masks. Sometimes it was simply a phone call or text message.
Don’t be surprised if faith makes a comeback. The definition of faith is “the confidence of things unseen, the assurance of all things hoped for.” It is ironic that faith is tested and strengthened when it encounters that which is unknowable or uncontrollable, whether it be an approaching tornado, a rising flood, cancer or a pandemic. You would think it would be the opposite. The apostle Paul said that faith was a gift, to be able to replace that which is unknowable and uncontrollable with confidence and assurance. It is that moment when all things are dark, that deep within you see this burning ember of hope, that there is a God and you have a relationship with Him, and you can be at peace knowing that.
By Eric Niewoehner
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