Is the Church Still the Church?
- Mel Walker Contributing Writer
- 2020 12 May
The COVID-19 crisis may prove to be a great blessing for the church. Not being able to gather in church buildings for services or programs may turn out to be a long-term benefit for God’s work.
Pastors and other church leaders have had to utilize creativity and initiative to effectively teach God’s Word and to make meaningful connections with their people.
Plus, ministers have responded to the current stay-at-home order by going back to low-tech methods such as phone calls, personal letters or notes, and simple care packages to stay in touch with needy members.
The church has risen to the occasion — and can emphatically say, “Yes, the church is still the church!”
Priorities of Church Programming
In recent years, it seems as if many churches have been focused on spectators who show up for weekend services, and not necessarily the participation of people in avenues of ministry.
Members and seekers have gathered for weekend celebration services that feature programming from the stage as the main priority of the church.
Next in importance has probably been the development and implementation of small groups for people to gather in smaller communities as a part of the larger church.
Again, the current quarantine has driven small groups to also use technology, such as Zoom, to meet in online forums. Of course, peer ministries, such as youth groups and children’s ministries, have also had to scramble to make connections on the web with kids and their families.
Now that all of those ministries (worship services, small groups, and age-group programming) have moved online, church leaders have had to learn to use internet-based technology, like Facebook Live, Google, and Zoom, to fulfill those aspects of their ministries.
Positive Results of COVID-19
The current stay-at-home instructions from governmental leaders have had a huge impact on the church. In many ways, the church has left the building — and that has had many positive outcomes.
1. The church can communicate effectively online. Several churches have recently posted a new slogan or emphasis on a variety of social media sites, “Don’t just go to church — be the church.”
Perhaps that is one of the positive results of this coronavirus. People attending services in person have morphed into a new practice of watching church services, instead, on the internet.
Church members and potential visitors, especially younger generations, are already online and churches have now realized that weekend programming will need to stay online.
Pastors have also accepted the new reality that social distancing may have a significant impact on the near future regarding how churches gather. Coffee stations, greeting teams or greeters, ministries (like Sunday school and ushering for instance), even church seating practices will need to be adjusted and changed.
2. Churches can connect with their people online. Small groups and peer ministries alike have also moved their programming to technological platforms.
Ministry organizations and new industries have emerged to assist youth and children’s workers in how to use internet-based programs (like Zoom and Go-To-Meeting) to creatively connect with emerging generations.
New Zoom games have been created, web-based curriculum has been written, and church members of all ages have learned to use newer technological means to stay in touch with each other. Utilizing social media for these purposes has also opened a new world of contacts for churches.
The very nature of platforms such as Facebook and Instagram allows people to share their church’s feeds for worship and messages with their own personal networks of friends and neighbors.
Not only does this practice give churches the opportunity to share the gospel online, but it may also open a new door of evangelistic contacts for the church once the COVID-19 stay-at-home directive has been lifted.
3. Churches can meet needs in their communities through low-tech, but high-impact methods. Another significant outreach opportunity for the church has emerged from the pattern of social distancing.
The church has reverted to ministries that can be accomplished through low-tech, but high impact ways to meet the needs of people in their communities.
Churches have distributed groceries and meals to needy households, have helped elderly people with errands, have mailed out care packages to people in their neighborhoods, have asked church people to call other church members, and have offered counseling and other forms of aid for hurting people online.
The current emphasis on using technology to communicate also helped fuel the occasion for churches to use other, more personal means to connect with people.
Characteristics of The Church Being the Church
There are some essential characteristics of the church that are quite difficult to accomplish effectively online, especially long term. Despite whatever circumstances are going on in culture, the church must still demonstrate these vital features in order to truly be the church.
The Bible is clear that the following functions can only truly be accomplished by the church gathering together in community.
1. Teaching. The teaching ministry of the church has probably been the easiest function to accomplish online.
Pastors moved to vacant auditoriums or empty offices to record or to live stream their weekend messages for a waiting audience of church members and others who watch on social media platforms or web sites.
Certainly, the teaching ministry of the church is of the utmost importance. Ephesians 4:11-16 is clear that God’s goal for His people is growth toward spiritual maturity. In fact, helping believers grow in Christ is at the very core of what the scriptures are all about (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Perhaps other teaching ministries of the church (like children’s classes and adult Bible fellowships) have suffered somewhat during the days of social distancing. Pastors and other church leaders will need to strategize about how to ramp up these programs again once the coronavirus days of isolation are over.
2. Worship. One of the things many believers have missed immensely during the pandemic has been the practice of joining with others in musical worship. Many churches have purchased the licensing necessary to legally allow their worship teams to play some music on the internet.
However, that is not the same as joining voices with others in vibrant and meaningful worship. Verses like Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 teach that a musical ministry between believers (“speaking to one another”) with Christ as the focus of worship (“making melody in your heart to the Lord”) was and is truly imperative for the church.
3. Fellowship. Meeting together with other believers has always been one of the major characteristics of the church (Hebrews 10:25; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). God designed His followers to need fellowship with other believers in the community of a local church.
This has been a major dilemma in a shelter-in-pace world when churches have not met physically in one location for several weeks. God’s people need to connect with each other. Both peer ministry and intergenerational relationships are crucial for the church. These human connections are nearly impossible to execute on the internet.
4. Service. COVID-19 has practically shut down a wide variety of local church ministries. Some programming has continued online to be sure, but other service opportunities have literally ceased. Churches can provide virtual Bible studies, but it’s much harder to mobilize people to serve the Lord and minister to others unless there is a physical connection.
Passages such as Romans 12:3-8 and 1 Corinthians 12 emphasize the importance of God’s people using their God-given spiritual gifts in specific areas of ministry, most of which are very difficult to accomplish without getting together with others.
5. Evangelism. Several churches have figured out how to use social media to reach out to their communities during the days of isolation from others. These sites have given many believers ways to share the gospel electronically during times when they cannot have personal conversations with their neighbors, coworkers, and friends.
Numerous churches have also organized innovative ways to meet some physical needs in their communities which has opened the door for other evangelistic contacts. These churches should be applauded for their initiative and creativity during a difficult cultural adversity, but effective evangelism requires personal contact with other people.
Today’s church can follow the example of the Apostle Peter following Pentecost in Acts 2:14-47, Phillip’s evangelistic efforts with the Ethiopian in Acts 8:26-40, and Paul and Silas’ method of sharing Christ with the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:16-34. All these opportunities demanded personal contacts with the recipients of the gospel message.
6. Stewardship. The importance of giving to the Lord through the local church seemed to be a significant characteristic of the early church.
This was true in 2 Corinthians 8 and Philippians 4:10-20 where giving through the local church is taught as a major emphasis in the New Testament church. Patterns of giving have fluctuated much already during the short duration of this pandemic.
Initial reports indicated that giving to the local church was higher during the first few weeks of social distancing. However, recent statistics reveal that giving trends have turned down significantly over recent weeks.
As things return to a sense of normalcy following the pandemic, the church is likely to face a new normal of giving and stewardship that will need to be evaluated then.
7. Leadership. God designed a leadership structure for His church, with clear roles for pastors or elders. Pastors can “feed the flock” (1 Peter 5:2) over the internet; but without personal connections and relationships, an online message is, in a sense, just a lecture.
Pastors must also be about “equipping the saints for works of ministry” (Ephesians 4:14), and that too is difficult to achieve via social media.
What Does This Mean?
Incredibly positive things happened for the church during this coronavirus emergency, and the church is still the church. But, in many ways, it is time for the church to reconvene in person and as a community so that these grand and biblical functions can truly happen.
An online church seems to be an artificial version of the real thing. Churches are to be commended for their effort and innovation during a very difficult time. However, God’s church is designed for His people to gather as He allows (Hebrews 10:25; Ephesians 4:16) to accomplish His purpose.
Mel Walker is the president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, and he is currently in the process of raising financial support to serve with VFY on a full-time basis. Mel has been actively involved in various aspects of youth ministry for over 45 years. He is also an author, speaker, and consultant with churches. Mel has written 13 books on various subjects relating to youth ministry. More information about his speaking and writing ministry can be found at www.YouthMinistryQuestions.com. Mel & Peggy Walker are the parents of 3 adult children—all of whom are in vocational ministry. You can follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth.