Nothing has so disrupted the communal life of Christians in the West in the last one hundred years than the COVID pandemic (I specify “in the West” because Christians in the East have suffered far more devastating disruption of their communal and individual lives for a much longer period under Communism). Opinions vary as to the long-term consequences of this disruption. Some suggest it has sown the seeds for the church’s revival. Others fear it has sown the seeds of its destruction. The jury is still out.
Pastors have struggled to meet many new challenges and opportunities. Many have learned how to apply technology to solve problems. Others have learned the limits of technology. Some say, “We’ve been able to reach more people.” Others say, “It’s been like flying blind.” Many congregations have come out of this crisis surprisingly well, financially. Others have not. Yet as much as many have missed in-person fellowship, the big question that looms for most pastors is: “Will the people come back?”
Sunny extroverts are often oblivious to the attraction, but being a cyber or TV Christian has many advantages. It is so much easier than living the Christian life concretely in community. “Online worship is a safer, more convenient, and efficient use of my time. I can work, exercise, go to the game or go fishing, and still participate in worship, plus I can mute what I don’t like.” Let’s not kid ourselves: Getting such folk back to church is not going to be easy.
New patterns of life have developed in this past year for many families, couples, and individuals. More relaxing and entertaining routines have been established, replacing the hard-won habit in many homes of getting up and going to church.
Maintaining the priority of corporate worship and a commitment to Christian education, of course, isn’t a new problem. It’s one of our deepest systemic problems, and not so easily solvable. If Johnny or Susie is not put to bed or woken up on time, fed, dressed, and brought to church, the best facilities or programs we offer won’t help.
Yet perhaps herein lies our opportunity. Many during this crisis have amused themselves to death. Many know as never before that money or technology cannot solve their deepest problems or feed their deepest hunger. Many want more than Zoom meetings. What an opportunity for us to re-discover and be the church, the body of Christ, to look each other in the eye, to listen and speak to each other, and to invite others to participate in this rich, deep, real, albeit flawed, fellowship led by our Incarnate Lord.
Pastors face many challenges today. One of the great privileges I have as editor of this journal is talking with pastors from across this country. I must say I have never known a time when more pastors were more exhausted than in this past year. Many challenges and the inability to meet them have taken their toll, as the following pages show. But amid these challenges, Jesus Christ has been much at work, burning away “the wood, hay, and straw,” teaching us what the “gold, silver, and precious stones” of his church are, and showing us afresh that he alone is the church’s one true and firm foundation (I Cor. 3:11ff).