Covid-19 and the future of Church – Part 3

I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of comments made on my post last week that I think were significant. One was left after much of the discussion had concluded, so you may not have seen it.

Robert F. commented:

I miss congregational worship somewhat, but the practice of daily compline devotions that my wife and I have undertaken since the beginning of the church lock down has been far more spiritually formative than years of congregational worship.

When asked what that looked like he responded:

Each evening my wife and I read aloud the scriptural text suggested in a devotional, The Upper Room, and the short meditation that goes along with that day’s reading as preface to praying compline. Compline is the last evening service of daily prayer in the Western Divine Office; we use the Episcopal (USA) Book of Common Prayer as the source for that service. Compline includes confession, psalms and other scriptural readings as appointed in the daily office, the Gloria Patri, the Lord’s Prayer, collects, and space for a hymn as well as personal and corporate silence and intercession and thanksgiving; it concludes with an antiphon and the Song of Simeon. The service may be short and spare, or longer and more involved depending on how many reading are included, and whether other optional features are included or not. Much of the service is drawn from ancient devotions of the church, and provides a trellis of liturgical prayer on which personal prayer is lifted into places it might not be able to go unaided. There is space for the Spirit to breathe, and well as form and guidance so that the spirit does not get lost.

Late the next day Marcus Johnson left this thought:

I’m going back to Psalm 137 a lot over the past few months. The poet recalls the long journey from their homeland to live out the rest of their life in either slavery or exile. The temple, center of their cult, no longer exists. The priesthood apparently cannot operate. Their captors are asking them to sing songs about their God, and they say, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”…

I think we are going to have to go back to (apologies in advance for those of you who, like me, are over Matt Redman) the heart of worship. If worship cannot be congregational, physical, intimate, tactile, etc. in such a way that the institutions that perform it can survive, then what’s left? We’re not just a church without a temple; as most people have pointed out, we may be a church without a gathering. God’s still there, though, and so are we, so the basic elements of what’s needed for worship will survive.

Let me start off by saying that until there is a safe and effective vaccine, I am not planning to attend an indoor church service, indoor restaurant, or movie theatre (not a typo – Canadian and the rest of the non USA world spelling).

So in my mind, I was going to be stuck with what I considered, and I think many of you would agree, a poor substitution for the real thing.

Each of us has we appreciate most about the church gathered. For me, there are two things I miss most: The horizontal aspect of fellowship with others, and the communion with God through corporate Praise and Worship. Your own experiences and preferences may differ, and that is fine, I am not here to debate which aspects of church are most important, and which ones should we miss the most. How meeting corporately impacts me will be different to how it impacts you.

I do find that watching our worship team on YouTube, or participating in a Bible Study via Zoom, to be both very unfulfilling, and I was quite willing to tune both out.

That is why I think I found both Robert’s and Marcus’ comments very meaningful, as they drew a spotlight on to the attitude that I had. In short I was saying “Church is working for me, and so I am going to tune out.”

I realized much to my own surprise that I was guilty of treating church like a consumer good.

Don’t get me wrong. I think we all do this to some extent, whether we admit it or not. We attend the type of church that we attend, whether it is very liturgical, or very charismatic, because it meets a spiritual need.

But when I say, “I am not going to participate because my needs are not being met”, that is a far cry from saying “My needs are not being met, I am going to find a solution”, or perhaps “My needs are not being met, but I am going to be satisfied with the efforts that others are making in the midst of bad circumstances.”

Robert’s comment hit home because he and his wife have taken steps to provide for their own spiritual well being. (My prayers are with you in this difficult time.) I was also struck by Marcus’ comment that “we may be a church without a gathering. God’s still there, through, and so are we, so the basic elements of what’s needed for worship will survive.”

I have my guitar, I have my voice. I can still praise God. I can still reach out to others, even interact with them a little bit in our back yard.

In short I need to become a little less consumer and a little more participant.

What I do will not look like what Robert and his wife do, but it will certainly be a whole lot better than spiritual atrophy.

As usual, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

P.S. I have started fixing up my back yard, with one of the goals to make it a place of hospitality over the summer and fall. The picture above is of the little patio I finished creating last weekend. I just realized I had a before picture of the same spot. (I moved the canoe. It used to sit right behind where the chairs are now.)

60 thoughts on “Covid-19 and the future of Church – Part 3

  1. I think wearing masks is a good idea. At work, I not only wear a face mask but a face shield as well.

    At the same time I’m leery about some of the government mandates now in effect, and not just regarding masks. While I believe some officials are sincerely trying to protect vulnerable members of the population from infection, others seem to be lording their newfound authority over their subjects. And I find it strange that mask mandates didn’t go into effect until several months into the pandemic.

    One more observation: How come it’s OK for protesters and rioters to congregate in large numbers but churches must remain severely restricted or closed? I’ve yet to hear a logical justification for that double standard.


  2. The feds are now talking about deploying 150 Department of Homeland Security officers to Chicago, like the secret police they have in Portland. The time for “nice” is completely over; if Christians don’t stand against the developing tyranny in this country, which will accelerate as the Nov election approaches, the church will not deserve to survive in America.


  3. But the collapse is not effecting only evangelical churches. Many mainlines will not survive this if it continues too long. Of course, because of its international character and vast resources, the Roman Catholic Church will survive, but that doesn’t mean many parishes in many dioceses will not end up having to shut down. They were already losing many members, this is likely to increase that trend.


  4. I agree with you. Our mainline congregation is doing fine right now doing Zoomchurch, financial support continues at a healthy level, but I’m sure that will change with time if this continues. The nightly prayer my wife and I practice is meaningful to us, but even if others in our parish find something similar to sustain them during this crisis, it is not going to sustain our congregation as an institution in the long run.


  5. One of my favorite historical Christian prayers is associated with the patterns of nature set in place by God Himself, this:

    The description is found in the prayer of Aidan of Holy Island, Lindisfarne, a ‘tidal island’ attached to the mainland only when the tide receded to form a ‘land bridge’ twice a day.
    But when the tide came in and covered the land bridge, Lindisfarne was once more an ‘island’ isolated from the busy mainland, and the monks were left to pray in peace.

    Here is Aidan’s prayer, written long ago in northern Britain
    circa 635 A.D.

    “Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
    As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
    Make me an island, set apart, alone with You, God, holy to You.

    Then, with the turning of the tide
    prepare me to carry Your Presence to the busy world beyond,
    the world that rushes in on me till the waters come again
    and fold me back to You.”

    The patterns of nature, created by God, call us to remembrance, to prayer, to ‘take notice’ of the more epic realities in our existence, just by their very permanence in our lives, the ‘rising’ and ‘setting’ of the Sun, the seasons, the harvests, the ways that these seasonal risings and fallings point us to the eternals is evocative of a response in our human DNA since time immemorial.

    An excerpt from a poem that takes note of these natural promptings:

    “They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
    Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
    They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
    They fell with their faces to the foe.

    They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning
    We will remember them.”

    (an excerpt, Robert Laurence Binyon, ‘For The Fallen’)

    With the wedding of the ‘Celtic’ and the ‘Christian’, I think we find the most wonderful examples of noticing just how much of ‘liturgy’ is prompted by the ‘hours’, the days, the seasons, the year itself . . . so much so that we ‘pray’ the liturgy in tune with the ‘Church Year’ although the days may differ between Eastern and Western Christianity, still there is a nod given to the ancient recognition in our human awareness of God’s Creation with it’s patterns and how even this points us to eternity beyond all time.


  6. > I’m curious to see how this falls out between what I think of as ‘thick’ churches

    Based only on financial data I’ve seen/read: they the crash will be pervasive.

    I’d **guess** that older congregations in older areas – old as in the age of the institution, not the congregants – will fare best. They are less likely to have taken debt, and more likely to own [outright] their buildings and property.


  7. Especially if your only idea of Worship(TM) is a constant Seven-Ring Circus Like something out of EL&P’s “Karn Evil Nine” or Paul McCartney’s “Rock Show”:

    Done too much EL&P links; here’s McCartney:


  8. …and besides that people in our culture aren’t able/don’t want to concentrate/spend time on another kind of talk – TED is much more captivating.

    What is a TED Talk other than a type of Teaching Sermon?

    Maybe preacher-men need to learn some things from TED.

    Quite the opposite of becoming “rote” or unthinking or “not from the heart”, even when my motivation is not great fixed prayer has become the anchor of my life as a Christian.

    It gives you STRUCTURE.
    Problem with spontaneous “Every Man For Himself” prayer/devotions is the lack of structure becomes a lack of staying power. No structure in place to take you over the down times. And the amount of structure needed can vary.


  9. Personality Cults rarely survive the death/departure of the Founding Personality.

    Few Joseph Smiths are succeeded by a Brigham Young who can change them into a self-perpetuating organization with staying power.

    The Augustus/Tiberias/Caligula rags-to-riches-to-rags succession is far more common. If there is a succession at all, like when Bo of Bo & Peep (AKA Heaven’s Gate) convinced himself he was dying of cancer and decided to take all the Bo-Peepers with him.


  10. My neighbours across the road can’t keep hostas in their backyard. They are on a ravine. I often see deer on the other side of the road (they walk by nightly). But they rarely venture onto my side of the road, and my hostas in the front have only been nipped a couple of times in 20 years and I have only seen them twice in my back yard.


  11. We’re not so much looking for liturgy, so much as a church willing to speak out and stand up on all the BS these days. There are plenty of “nice” churches. We don’t want “nice”.


  12. There are certainly some very “thin” Catholic parishes. The ones I experienced as the ‘thinnest’ were the 70’s style Peace and Justice ones, which were not well-attended. Note that “thinness” is not a bad thing given the current environment. I think the Plymouth Brethren are extremely “thin” and thus should be very portable.

    When you have to support the whole panoply of the Sacraments and have a special caste to work the mojo, you’re more vulnerable. Nevertheless, the Orthodox have recent experience in enforced thinness in the Communist bloc.


  13. +1 – For me Liturgy of the hours, and the stuff the Eastern Church brings – helps me to stay connected when Eucharist is not available.


  14. To expand on the part about the size of the church, small congregations have the attraction of close community, which is why many people stay in them long past the congregation being viable. Mainline churches are affected by the existence of automobiles just as the Evangelicals are. The effect is to marginalize the very small congregations, as most people tend to like somewhat larger churches, if only for a Sunday School program for their kids. The effect is that those small churches are closed groups waiting for the last one standing to turn out the lights. But the medium sized ones are viable church communities.


  15. Nice job on the patio… this is the kind of stuff I like to do… gives me a sense of accomplishment. Be careful though – after 10 years of growing the deer have taken a liking to my Hostas and within the last two weeks have eaten them down to almost the root level.


  16. Rather than Clay’s advise, I would suggest a large, or at least medium-sized, Episcopal church. Also, you mentioned in another comment the DC suburbs. Consider making the trip into the city. The traffic is not bad on a Sunday. I attend a Lutheran church in downtown Baltimore. It is a forty-five minute drive on a Sunday morning, rather longer during the week.


  17. I am in Maryland, but a bit far north to count as DC suburbs, though I know of a few hardy souls who make the commute. But seriously, what sorts of churches are you looking at? I would be astonished if I couldn’t find a Lutheran or Episcopal church doing a traditional liturgy sans rock band. Sadly, I would also expect that some Lutheran and Episcopal churches go the rock band route, but I would just check those off the list and move on to the next one. Back in my last round of church shopping, I found I could eliminate many churches just based on looking in the door. What is front and center: a cross or a projection screen? Are there hymnals in the pews?


  18. The small Episcopal parishes nearby are all essentially spiritual retirement homes. Shrinking, aging congregations who just want to quietly fade away without changing too much to accomodate the times.


  19. Ever tried to tell a choir director/praise leafer/whatever that you’d like to try something different and would you pretty please let us have some air time? Odds are you won’t get far.


  20. I don’t suppose you are in/near the DC suburbs? Because we are not having an easy time finding these mythical places…


  21. The “Sunday morning production” only arose in the 1970s as some of the Baby Boomers became “Jesus Freaks” and most of them brought their guitars to church. And most of those churches had sermon-based worship. I’ve reached a point where I think that whatever form of music comes before the sermon, if the service is sermon-based people are going to drop off the radar, as they have been doing; the sermon is too much “in the head”, and besides that people in our culture aren’t able/don’t want to concentrate/spend time on another kind of talk – TED is much more captivating. Services that had more “experiential” parts (art installations, meditation areas, etc.) were hot in the late ’90s/early “00s, with the rise of the “Emerging Church”, but I don’t hear about those kinds of services any more. They take a lot of work to plan and make truly helpful for worship.

    What will hold Christians together, with God and one another, until we can meet safely indoors again, will be exactly what Robert and his wife are doing – which has been a large part of the pattern of daily life for Christians ever since we were still part of Judaism. Jewish prayer services provided the pattern for Christian worship, both gathered (Eucharist) and at home. Fixed daily prayer is how Christians “keep it together” so that when bad things happen we can “keep it together”.

    Pray as you are able, but make it regular at certain time/s during the day. Online resources can be found for BCP, Catholic breviary, Northumbria Community (short services with a Celtic flavor), and Orthodox morning/evening prayers and prayers of the Hours (offices). I’m sure there are others. What I love about those fixed times of prayer is that I don’t have to worry about whether I “feel like it” or not, and I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to say; I just do it, and use words that people who have been closer to Jesus than I am have given me (of course there is room for my own words as well). This is another way I am connected with Christians across the ages. Quite the opposite of becoming “rote” or unthinking or “not from the heart”, even when my motivation is not great fixed prayer has become the anchor of my life as a Christian. Before I started doing it, my prayer life was very much “hit and miss” and I had lots of guilt around not praying as much as I thought I should. Since I started fixed prayer (ten years before I became Orthodox), I know that at least some time during the day I am taking a few minutes to bring my body and soul before Christ, who is deserving of all my love. It’s not about asking for things – it’s about the love.



  22. I think there are some very thin Sacramental Churches. Some of the thick churches of the Reformation could be the Movarians and Mennonites and maybe the Amish are peace loving and socially focused.


  23. The online model also wouldn’t give people a true “worship experience” (see my comment above). Also, I believe you are correct that many people wouldn’t pay for it and darn, those flashing lights and smoke machines are expensive! It could be quite tricky…


  24. “People are a lot less willing to pay for online content than they are live, and there often are places to find that content for free.”


    Both mega-churches and universities, once you go streaming to home, the business model collapses.


  25. My church, a quarter of a millennium old and still kicking, instinctively makes decisions looking about fifty years down the road. This is why preventive maintenance is regarded practically as a sacrament. We need a new roof? Watch as people wince in pain at the prospect. Yet somehow it gets paid for. And the institution certainly is bigger, and more durable, than any given pastor, no matter how much we like him. So far as I can tell, the megachurches still haven’t figured out a way to deal with the senior pastor retiring or dying or being caught in a motel room with a rental boy, much less how to build long term financial stability.


  26. I read a book some ten or fifteen years ago that predicted that the megachurch model had reached its limits due to how far people were willing to drive to church. The flaw in the prediction was that while people would only drive so far, it turned out that they were willing to watch the sermon on TV, so long as there was a live band. Hence the multi-campus megachurch model. I can imagine some of these megachurches transitioning to an online business model, but I’m not sure how that will work. People are a lot less willing to pay for online content than they are live, and there often are places to find that content for free.


  27. “Thick” churches do have a longer historical trace and track record of survival through hard times.


  28. Remember “The Coming Evangelical Collapse”?
    Well, this is It.

    P.S. Constant Growth is also the philosophy of the Cancer Tumor. (Including spinning off as many additional “Franchise Campuses” as possible).


  29. “Worship experience”: I like to quote Matthew 18:20 at them. This seems to be one of those texts that get discreetly overlooked in Evangelical circles. (Note, however, the distinction between worship and membership in a community.)


  30. Some times (like now) force you to “go solo” for a while.
    Sometimes the best available choice is the least bad of a bunch of bad choices.

    That said, the Evangelicals’ (pre-Trump Worshio) Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation is at heart a very Selfish gospel, and “going solo” just feeds into it and makes it worse. Christians (like all people) need a Reality Check from others.


  31. Latest news along those lines is that Georgia and Florida are officially Anti-Mask. State of Georgia is suing the Mayor and City Council of Atlanta (not the City of Atlanta, the Mayor and Councilmen as individuals) for instituting a mandatory mask order.

    The governors of both Florida and Georgia have been described as “MAGA Cult members”; their histories as Governor hit all the Christianese Culture War metrics. I would not be surprised if they self-described as “Devout Christians”.


  32. For those who say any of our worship services have become mere productions I would ask this: Don’t we get out of them what we put into them? Isn’t the critique of that worship services have become mere productions just another face of the consumer attitude that looks for what is in it for me? I’m just asking for a friend… 🙂


  33. I agree, Allen, because so many churches have embraced a business model, which relies on constant growth. Mainline churches have aged without new blood coming in and often rely on their endowments to pay the bills. Evangelical churches embraced the entertainment model, but that seems to be waning, too, as it’s exhausting to have to be on constant alert for the newest, greatest trend in music, programs, or preaching series. If you don’t catch the wave, people will move on to the church that did, always chasing the brass ring that will give them all the tools to have a happy, healthy, prosperous life (at the best price!)
    Reality always seeps in, though, and crushes the dream of a perfect Christian life here on earth, doesn’t it? COVID sure did.


  34. Interesting you should mention this as I heard an interview last week with a megachurch pastor in (I think I am remembering correctly) Atlanta that has an attendance of thousands every weekend at their main church and its satellite buildings. The pastor said they would not be having in person worship services until January at the earliest but he was concerned because virtual worship could not replicate the “worship experience.” My ears perked up. Worship experience? Who says worship was supposed to be an “experience”? It’s not Cirque du Soleil or a Beyonce extravaganza, which are nice, but really. I can’t see worship of a God that one considers all knowing, all powerful, and all loving as something that needs to compete as an entertainment experience. I guess I always viewed worship as a time to humble oneself before God, seek wisdom and forgiveness, and offer some imperfect human praise.

    It’s also interesting that I have talked to a number of people since this COVID shutdown who are, like me, nearing or at retirement, mostly lifelong church goers, who say they haven’t missed it, don’t intend to return, and really, deep down, don’t even believe much of it any more.
    Fault lines exposed.


  35. I’m curious to see how this falls out between what I think of as ‘thick’ churches (sacramental) and ‘thin’ churches (sermon-based).

    In reality, the kind of service that is most vulnerable will be the ‘program’ or ‘event’ based church.

    Maybe we should start thinking about what kind of Christians we will be after the pandemic is over.


  36. In my old days of being the finance guy is the evangelical world, I came to intimately understand the finances of a mega church. It varies by church, but it is typical that 50% of budget goes to all staff related expenses, 25% to building and maintaining the building and infrastructure, and 25% to “everything else”. In the rapidly growing church world, it is essential that every staff member brings enough people to essentially cover double his/her salary. In a simplistic world, this would mean one staff member needs to bring in 20 families, but it is actually much more than that since most people in that world do much less than a full tithe.

    Now, back to COVID. In the short term, churches are fine. Many in the U.S. got the PPP and most offerings are staying stable. Expenses have actually dropped due to cancellations of events and lower utility/building costs. But, this is not sustainable long term. As families realize all youth and children’s events will be cancelled for extended periods, there becomes less and less need to support the church. As families become increasingly disconnected from their favorite staff member, they will see no reason to continue giving.

    The financial structure WILL collapse, I give it to sometime in 2021 with some effects as soon as this fall.


  37. Say what? This may depend on geography, but in my experience it is not at all hard to find a church service in the suburbs that isn’t a “production.” Of course I am looking a non-Evangelical churches. Sadly, many mainline churches try to copy Evangelical production-worship, mostly doing a very poor job of it. But look around and you can generally find one not doing that.


  38. Just updated the photo. (I mulched last night) And I realized I had a before picture of the same spot which I will add to end of the post.


  39. I have been down the path you describe, it works for a time but without the corporate liturgy, it will fade.

    Same with virtual, it may work for some people for a short time, but it won’t work for long for most people.


  40. On the other hand, it’s no good being well-connected in a larger group that is willfully marching towards the edge of a cliff. For people who share our concerns about the Christian Life, options are scarse.


  41. And it’s really, REALLY hard to find Sunday morning services in the suburbs that are not “productions’. And even harder to find people who share your concerns.


  42. I sympathise with your perspective Michael Z.

    At the same time I find that we (wife and I) are not particularly missing the Sunday morning production. But maybe that’s because we’re sliding out of the “Christian” bracket…


  43. I just don’t believe we can be healthy Christians (or even healthy human beings) simply through fellowship with our own spouse or nuclear family. I totally agree that Zoom church can be frustrating and that meeting in person would be deeply irresponsible. But I worry about our Western individualism convincing us that we can replace corporate worship with private devotionals. Even small-group gatherings, if they’re primarily with friends who we have a lot in common with, may serve to further atomize the Church instead of drawing us together.


  44. The problems we face in this arena are due in no small part to our fellow American believers’ insistence that the old ways MUST go on, whatever the consequences. We cannot look to the old denominations and ministries for a solution, because they have none. However we must/can go forward from here, it’s going to have to come from us, with whatever guidance God mercifully grants us. We’re on our own, which is all the more reason why we need to keep talking about this here, among ourselves.


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