I’ve been speaking and writing about the need for us to “awaken from apostolic amnesia” for about a decade. For me, this means recovering a sense of mission or sentness in the inherited church.
Is this the time we’ve been waiting for? Christians are breaking the internet with church live streams, engaging more new people than ever before.
We’ve all heard this, and some of us have said it ourselves “we now have thousands of new church visitors joining us digitally on Sundays.” It’s as if our worship attendance has increased 100 times in a couple of weeks!
This is wildly hopeful and true in many ways. Easter Sunday, perhaps more people heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the first time than any other day in history! Churches are figuring it out as we go along, experimenting with new technologies, taking risks, failing, and learning. This is indeed cause for a celebration.
Yet, I want to offer a word of caution. We also need to be prudent here.
I referenced in an earlier post the importance of Holy Saturday and Easter as an extended season of hopeful disorientation, and my caution with the “overnight experts” telling us how to be the church on a pandemic frontier where no one has ever been before.
The flood of content is causing a sense of fatigue among already overwhelmed church leaders.
Also, there is quite a bit of either/or thinking around what we should be doing in the tomb time of quarantine. Either we should be resting, praying, taking Sabbath, or we should be involved in massive levels of creativity and production.
Only God can tell you what to do with your quarantine time. Personally, I see it as a both/and scenario: a time for rest/reflection/cessation of work AND a time of unbridled unlearning, iteration, creativity and innovation.
The biggest danger I see is a lack of integrity regarding how we count growth and a false sense of success that will lead us back down the long road of decline and apostolic slumber.
Here are four reasons why we should be hopefully cautious:
- The church has no competition: Of course, there is an increase in people viewing our worship live feeds. There is no sports to watch, no fitness events to attend (weekend marathons, mud runs, bowling tournaments and so on). There are no youth sports leagues (soccer, softball, baseball, and so on) and no community gatherings, farmers markets, or town festivals. There are no recreational activities, Disney World, Movie Theaters, and even beaches are closed. For now, the church is the only game in town.
- “Viewers” does not necessarily equal “church visitors”: Staying on a Facebook Live video for more than three seconds counts as a “view.” Many poor souls are scrolling through their social media feeds and suddenly finding themselves trapped in a church service they never agreed to walk into. There’s no question that more new people are visiting our church than ever, but we need to understand this phenomenon more deeply.
- Fewer churches to choose from: There are many smaller churches who are not having worship services. They don’t have the technological capacity to offer online worship, so they are waiting it out. So, these new “attendees” are not necessarily new people exploring the faith, but already-Christians desperately looking for some way to worship in the absence of this possibility with their home church.
- Digital church-hopping: The growth in viewers is also from people worshiping digitally at their own church, and who now have the freedom (and time) to check out other churches they were always interested in. Many of our new viewers at Wildwood fall into this category.
So, we should celebrate these wildly hopeful trends. COVID-19 is awakening an awareness of and longing for a relationship with God. Yes, new people are hearing the Gospel for the first time. For the love of God let us share it well! And by that I don’t mean slick stage presentations, lighting, and professional-grade production quality.
Rather, I mean sharing the Gospel in simple meaningful ways. God loves us so much, he put on flesh to get to us and save us from ourselves in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. A God whose name is Immanuel (God With Us) is certainly good news for us all amidst a global pandemic. But how can we invite explorers to have conversations about this earth-shattering truth and share their struggles?
Also, we should invite others to stay engaged in the life of their own church and visit ours. This is not about “sheep stealing” or growing by attracting already-Christians playing digital church musical chairs.
We should also find ways to connect with those truly new people visiting for the first time. For example, Jill and I are offering our contact info to first-time visitors, asking them to connect with us so we can set up digital “home visits” by Zoom. This gives us a chance to hear their stories and get to know them, opening up the possibility of a real relationship.
We have known for quite some time that “membership” is a dying concept among emerging generations. Millennials and younger will participate in multiple organizations that bring meaning and purpose, without committing to one. I’m convinced membership, (belonging to an organization, usually in exchange for benefits), was not quite what Jesus had in mind for his church.
Perhaps younger folks are giving a gift to the world: breaking free of the benefits, but conversely, also the confinement of belonging to a single institutional entity. The side effect of this is a siloed society, division, and denominationalism.
If the concept of membership survives this time of massive shifts, we will need to explore different forms. For instance, will the people in Georgia and Pennsylvania who have found life in our Florida based congregation become “members”? If they now worship regularly online each week, are tithing, and want to “join,” how can we reimagine this? Can we have local members, global members, digital members of our congregations? Or is it better to speak of levels of relationship instead? These are questions online churches and fresh expressions pioneers have been grappling with for years, but now so must every church.
The future will most certainly be a blended ecology of digital and analog, collected and distributed, gathered and scattered forms of church.
Perhaps the most profound opportunity of our time is the new relationships being formed, enabled by micro-electronics-based information and communications technologies. For me, and many of my generation, virtuality is reality, and some of our most significant relationships are sustained online.
COVID-19 is helping us acknowledge our great need for God and each other. We Christians can offer the world the greatest gift of all in this crisis… relationship. Relationship is the balm that heals our isolation. Relationship is Gospel, a God who is “with us” in our fragmentation and solitude.
We can utilize the flows and digital spaces of a network society to connect in analog ways across space and time. These are means to the end of relationships, not the ends themselves.
Yes, let’s celebrate the great wave of re-evangelization of the world, but go deeper with how we make the potential for relationship real. Let’s applaud the creativity and risk-taking of churches sent out into the space of flows in a network society.
Yet we also need to maintain a posture of prudence. These are great developments, but is it enough that a visitor watched our live feed? What do we need to do now, to turn these exciting new connections into real relationships in the future? What adjustments need to be made so that we can sustain these interactions over time?
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.