What Christians Might Learn from the Scourge of COVID-19?

By David Oldham

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August 19, 2020

Likely the first things a reader might think of from the above title is the suddenness of church closings, the innovative decisions of many to have virtual, on-line services or even worship outdoors, and possibly what some church leaders are saying back to governors or local officials who have banned either all services or have limited the size to fifty or more: “Do we obey God or man?”

But that is not the focus of this essay. Rather, it is to ask the question: “Is there anything Christians can learn about “Church” from the pandemic now international in scope?” I think so. COVID-19 has forced every Christian—and church leaders—to think about the nature of the church and role it plays—or should play—in their lives. Because most churches have not been able to hold services in their sanctuaries beginning last March in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus, many pastors and church leaders hastily worked on making available to their congregation videos of the worship team leading in worship and the pastor preaching so that what had normally occurred in worship services in the past—with the exception of the offering and communion services—could be experienced remotely through the internet. Many church attendees have returned to attend churches again, but some Christians have become content to continue watching the services on-line. In fact, they and others have found other sites they enjoy and have continued doing church in their own homes.

Rethinking Church

This confronts Christians with the question: “What difference does it make to worship in a sanctuary when the very same elements of the service can be enjoyed at home? Parents with children certainly have so much fewer distractions; the kids can play while they as parents can watch and participate in the worship.” For church leaders this has led to doing some rethinking about what has been happening on Sunday morning prior to the pandemic: In many churches, parents have dropped off their children—nursery aged to teens—for Sunday school, while they attend the worship service. After the service, they all go home together. This means that some of the family rarely is in a worship service. This is also exacerbated by the fact that few churches have adult Sunday school, and those which do have only a fraction of their constituency (10-15%) who are attending. Many churches have “small groups,” but typically surveys show that less than 50% participate (many less than 25%). The fact: For most Christians—even in the most conservative churches—the one-hour service is the “shot for the week.”

If this is the case—to use the question raised in the song Peggy Lee made unforgettable—Is That All There Is? Is that all that church is? Is Church health, effectiveness to be measured by how big the crowd is on Sunday morning? Maybe even more telling are the answers people give why they attend church: “We go to this church because of the music.” Or, “We go to this church because we like the pastor.” Are those okay answers? Of course, they are! But all of the questions and ramblings of this essay come to focus on one issue: What is the mission of the church? Has COVID-19 made us think about that and made us reflect on whether “Church” has become the Sunday morning (and perhaps a Saturday evening) worship experience? Is this what Jesus intended when he said he would build his church?

The Church without Walls

When I was a missionary in Honduras, the Spanish language church we were attending was vibrant, and I was asked to speak the Sunday the people first conducted a service in the partially built, new building. My message was entitled: The Church without Walls, because the walls were only partly up, and it was to remind my brothers and sisters that the Church was not the building but the people living for Jesus, reaching the unreached, discipling their families and serving one another.

Coming back home, we have been introduced to a new approach to finding a pastor: a professionally done congregational survey of what people in the church felt were their priorities for going into the future. This is the executive summary of what one congregation concluded:

  • Develop ministries that work toward healing those broken by life circumstances.
  • Create more opportunities for people to form meaningful relationships (for example, small groups, nurtured friendships, shared meals, etc.).
  • Strengthen the process by which members are called and equipped for ministry and leadership.
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to reach new people and incorporate them into the life of the church.
  • Provide more opportunities for Christian education and spiritual formation at every age and stage of life.

Fascinating! Yet, none can be achieved in the morning worship service alone. People can be challenged there. And this church has a very gifted pastor and teacher, who is loved and will be missed. These stated priorities drive us back to the chief question: What is the mission of the church and what should we be doing?

Perhaps a follow-up article is called for to do more than “curse the darkness.” But I have always found myself fascinated and challenged by C. S. Lewis’s words in Mere Christianity:

It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects—education, building, missions, holding services. Just as it is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects—military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.

Thank you, COVID-19, for making me think!

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About the Author

By David Oldham

David Oldham graduated from the University of Illinois (BA), received a M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity school, and D.Min. from Fuller Seminary (2000). He has done post doctoral with Dallas Willard (Course: “Spiritual Formation”). For 42 years Oldham was a pastor in the Evangelical Free Church of America and then spent 3 years as a missionary in Honduras.