Will the Church Ever Be the Same?
by Alvin Masarira | 1 April 2020 |
Seventh-day Adventists are generally predisposed to reading a lot into world events. Our Biblical understanding of the Great Controversy and end-time events prompts us to over-interpret world events, and give them the significance they don’t deserve. It is a very difficult balancing act between being sober minded and being alert in the light of Matthew 24 and 25. We are susceptible to coming up with all sorts of interpretations and conclusions from our observations of events, especially those with a global impact—e.g., attacks on New York on September 11, 2001, or the COVID-19 pandemic.
I am not going to venture to give any prophetic meaning to COVID-19 or where it lies in the context of end-time events, but one thing I know is that the world will be a completely different place after this pandemic is over. Unlike anything this generation has ever experienced, this pandemic will completely change the way we view many things, how we relate to one another and how we conduct our lives. Since we don’t know what these changes will mean in practice and how our lives will be changed, many look into the future with some trepidation. Uncertainty can be a scary thing, especially when one cannot do anything to influence it. One institution that will be impacted is the church.
Structural and Congregational Changes
The church will be impacted at the organizational/structural level, and members will be impacted in how they view and relate to the organization. The post-COVID-19 life of the church will be very different. In almost every country, the gathering of people in large numbers has been restricted and in some countries this has even been completely banned. That means churches are not meeting as usual for their regular services. Camp meetings, Pathfinder camps, Women Ministries retreats and all gatherings that had been meticulously planned and even paid for have been canceled or postponed—until who knows when? And the biggest of them all, the General Conference Session 2020 that had been in planning for years, has been tentatively postponed to 2021—and who knows if 2021 will be possible?
Both church members and leaders are grappling with the new reality. What does it mean to be a church with no physical church events, no corporate programs, no corporate Sabbath programs in our church venues? What does it mean to be a local church pastor who is not able to preach to a live congregation during Sabbath worship inside a building? What does it mean to be a local church elder of members who are having Sabbath worship in their homes? What does it mean to be a President or Executive Secretary or Chief Financial Officer or departmental director or Executive Committee of a conference whose churches are not meeting at the known locations but rather as small groups in people’s private homes? Who manages the preaching roster for these thousands of churches in homes every Sabbath? How does the church board even provide administrative guidance in such a situation? Of course the easiest wish to have is to believe that this will just be for a short period of time. That this will be over in a few weeks or months and we will go back to our “normal” church. But who says it will be over in a few weeks or months? Even if it were to be over in a few weeks, who says we will go back to our “normal” church? What if this COVID-19 era fundamentally changes the way a big section of the church membership thinks about church? What if they develop an appetite for home churches and don’t feel like going back to the past? What if, during this time, they start questioning many things about “doing church” that have been assumed to be the normal and only standard since 1863?
As church members worship in homes or in small groups they are finding creative ways of doing church and fellowship. In this time when members are relying on themselves and not on organized programs from an elected committee, questions are being raised about the role of the organization. This adds to the already many questions that some members have been asking in the last decades, especially with the increased application of technology in people’s lives and society concerning the running of the organization. Young people especially have been asking such questions and are no longer willing to give blind loyalty to organizations. All organizations (e.g., political parties, companies or even churches) are struggling to get the loyalty and support of young people. The youth expects organizations to justify why they deserve their support and loyalty. It is no longer enough to simply expect support and loyalty and commitment on the basis that this is how things have been done from the beginning. This is a disturbing, troubling and worrying space to be for a voluntary organization that relies on the free-will commitment of its members. Life after COVID-19 will be very different and institutions would need to be prepared to deal with a society which is likely to have experienced a mindset shift. The fundamental question would be, after weeks of home worship, what is church really? What is real and true worship? Do we need a building and a congregation with the traditional style of worship and liturgy? Do we need to invest in church buildings and other physical infrastructure? Where is the storehouse and where I should send my tithes and offerings? Why do we need a worldwide church structure? Why can’t we have more regional or local structures that are loosely connected to one another? What is the role of women and youth in these small group or home churches? How do we relate with the many online independent ministries that are offering content for some of the home churches? What if one wants rather to support these financially, and not the traditional church?
Rethinking the Concept of Church
Scary as these scenarios might be for church administrators, it would nonetheless be wise for church leaders to embrace the post-COVID-19 mindset and work with it in order to radically rethink what church is and how it should be organized and run. How can the church be more relevant to a changed society? How can the church become more efficient with its resources because they are not unlimited? How can the church start dealing with the very complex questions of relevance bedeviling the world. Issues of social justice, poverty and human rights, gender-based violence, racism, tribalism or ethnic segregation.
There are a number of things the church should be doing in planning what’s ahead. One of them is to encourage local congregations to use this time in serious internal conversations, to develop plans for what they believe to be the most effective ways of doing church and mission in their community post-COVID-19. It will no longer be one-size-fits-all. We need to be prepared for the fact that the time of church programs developed at the General Conference (and Divisions) and then cascaded through Unions to local churches is up. Do congregations have to meet every Sabbath in their usual place of worship? Or can they decide only to meet once a month and on the other Sabbaths, they meet in homes and small groups? How can the local and union conferences support whatever system local churches adopt? What would be the role of the pastor in this new setup? The church should seriously engage the youth to ensure the church becomes relevant to them, deal with their questions and even learn from the youth on how to effectively reach their generation.
Advances in technology have created an opportunity for many independent ministries which appeal to some sections of the general membership. While some of these ministries fully support the mission and the structures of the church, some tend to sow seeds of suspicion towards the church organization in the minds of members. There are, however, some church members who see these ministries as an alternative to the official church structures and they therefore divert some of the resources they would normally give to the church to these ministries. Since the church generally has no control over this trend at the best of times, the new way of doing church that has now been imposed upon us will make it even more difficult for the church organization. How does the church ensure member faithfulness and commitment in supporting the church with tithes and offerings? Some members could even start challenging the church teaching that the local conference is the storehouse of Malachi 3:10.
What the world and the church will look like after the pandemic is over is still conjecture at best. But it will be different from what it was some months ago. Unfortunately, the church tends to always lag behind societal changes, and is slow to adapt. The church structures tend to be cumbersome and slow in making decisions, but I hope the church will seize this great opportunity to assess its systems and structures. The preaching of the gospel is still an unfinished work and the pandemic will not stop it, because Jesus Himself said it is only after the preaching of the gospel that the end will come (Matthew 24:14).
This pandemic could be an opportunity for the development and implementation of more effective ways to reach the vast and complex society this world has become.
Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is a structural engineering consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife, Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.