The future of the church has been the subject of much writing and more worry. What do the numbers and trends portend for the future of the body we love so much? Will the transition away from small churches to mega-churches with mega-personalities continue? Will churches with the best online products emerge from the coronavirus stronger, leaving the small, less tech-savvy congregations in the dust? The tenuous future of the church draws trust out of us like a needle draws out blood.
The future in every arena of life is murkier than ever. For the church, though, the coronavirus is providing clarity.
Two months ago, I began punching down notes for an article about the future of the church. The outline of that pre-corona article named ways the church could respond to the cultural aches and longings created by technology. Then covid-19 happened.
The pandemic has changed everything. Certainly, this moment will alter economies, politics, and technology globally. We will tell stories about how we spent our days. On the other hand, perhaps nothing has fundamentally changed at all. This C. S. Lewis quote about World War II says it well: “The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.”1 After the dust of my own life and ministry had settled, I returned to my notes about the future of the church fully expecting to scrap what I had written. I was surprised to find them relevant. This crisis provides the clarity of aggravation.
What I jotted down two months ago: “The future of the church is embodied. Nothing is in person today. All of our interactions happen over screens. Technology mediates our relationships. There is a longing for in-person connection that is missing in most of our lives.”
At the time, this was hyperbole. The present moment of the church is, of course, entirely disembodied. I am gratefully surprised by the many silver linings of Zoom worship. Alumni of our church are participating in worship for the first time in years. The last three Zoom services we hosted set “attendance” records. It is much more fun and rewarding to see people’s faces in boxes on my computer than I imagined it would be! I have a new appreciation for how God’s Spirit works across time and space.
But, as grateful as I am for the technology allowing us to worship amidst the coronavirus, I am more convinced that the future of the church depends on the church being embodied. Over the past decade, technology has afforded the church new opportunities: online sermons, livestreams, podcasts, virtual communion, social media, virtual support groups. Over the last few weeks most churches have taught themselves how to “go virtual.” It will be important to ask what technologies to leverage once the quarantine ends.
Embodied, felt worship is the core of the church. This reality will only increase in importance and value in the decades to come. Fewer and fewer events, meetings, and relationships require our physical presence. This will be exaggerated in the wake of the quarantine. With a post-corona population more fluent in video conferencing, gatherings will defer to online platforms. There are ecological and economic benefits worth celebrating. But, the church will rediscover the value of being together in person.
What I wrote two months ago: “The future of the church addresses loneliness. People have never been lonelier.”
If it was true two months ago, it is certainly true now. The past couple decades gave us the terms loneliness epidemic and crisis of disconnection to describe our age. The connectedness we experience through our phones is vapid. The interactions we have through taps and swipes can’t replace the push and pull of hard human relationship. Central to the rise in addictions is our lack of real community. “I just don’t feel like I really know anyone,” is one of the most common refrains I hear from young congregants.
I don’t have to convince you that community is central to our flourishing, or that the church should be a resource for the lonely. We are learning something about that right now. In the midst of national quarantine, churches are paying attention to loneliness, depression, and isolation in an unprecedented way. We are (hopefully!) checking in on congregants, resourcing them with therapists, and ensuring that they don’t suffer through this quarantine alone. We are aware that our neighbors are looking for connection. The aggravation of this crisis has awakened us to a reality that, months from now, when the quarantine is lifted, will continue to be true for so many Americans. The community of the church, when it is genuinely offered to the world, brings life and hope. The church needs to sustain the commitment to fighting loneliness and depression, neither of which will disappear when the virus does.
The future of the church is real.
What I wrote two months ago: “We have loved the easy fix. We live for the likes. We create content and hope that it plays well.”
In Zoom, there is a video feature that automatically touches up your appearance. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference, but I guess my wife can. You can set it as your default so that every time you hop on a video-call, you get an automatic touchup. It is easy to roll your eyes and critique a culture that seems to live life through filters. I can hear the guttural sound of disgust from the old church ladies lamenting how terrible it all is. We should remember, though, that the church wrote the book on filters. The church has culturally been the least safe place to be unfiltered. The church, in so many communities, has historically been the place where you put your best foot forward, wear your Sunday best, and where only a certain type of honesty is welcome. The church is still too often a place where filtered honesty is required. What would it look like for the church to truly require no filter?
There is an old version of inauthenticity made of polished shoes and cinched ties—the proper questions and none of the improper ones. It was a white-washed life. There wasn’t space for questions or quirks. Now, there is a new version of inauthenticity that projects vulnerability through the haze of stage lights and Instagram accounts. It rushes to say all the right things at the right times. It is modeled after start-ups and in the wake of a crisis. I, along with many people, feel swept up in it.
In the wake of church cancellations, there was a mad rush to have answers and create content. I didn’t have any clarity about what a pastor was supposed to be in the midst of a quarantine. I didn’t have any clarity about what the church was supposed to be. I spent more time worrying about creating content than I did praying—I have to confess that. Caught up in the panic of a pandemic, I felt vulnerable and inadequate, obligated to have answers and confidence like it seemed other churches did.
The dash of crisis has become the long game. We are still walking in the dark, bumping our way along, knocking things over. But, our eyes are adjusting, and in the darkness we can see where there is light. There is clarity here in the dark: Our communities of faith exist for the sake of offering an honest embodied experience to the lonely and isolated. If it ever could be, now is the time the church can be the light of the world. It just took a virus to show us that.