by Raj Attiken
COVID-19 seems to be holding the world hostage with threats of contagion and economic disaster. As a large-scale human tragedy unfolds, it is natural for us to look for signs of hope and assurance. Different voices are prescribing how people of faith should relate to this global disruption. Although the coronavirus does not conveniently fit into any of our apocalyptic postulations, some are finding ways to squeeze this into an “end of the world” scenario. Besides any spiritual lessons that the crisis holds for us, it is not too early to reflect on its potential impact on our faith community—the Adventist Church—organizationally. What could be different about the Adventist Church on the other side of this pandemic?
The immediate impact is obvious. Most of us are not gathering in our home churches for worship. We are not gathering for Sabbath School discussions, mid-week meetings and the like. We are not connecting with fellow Adventists in fellowship and meals. We are not engaged in mission endeavors in the ways we are used to. We are not placing our financial contributions in offering plates.
Change is Possible–Even in the Church
It is heartening to observe how churches have stepped up quickly to the new realities we face. Churches are delivering helpful online resources to members. Churches are offering to assist members, especially the elderly and disabled, by buying supplies for them, by delivering food or medicine, and doing a host of acts of mercy. Pastors are contacting members through communication technology to encourage them and provide spiritual nurture. We are demonstrating in tangible ways that we need each other and that we can be there for each other. The pandemic has firmly impressed upon us that we are all connected – as neighborhoods, communities, societies, and nations. We are finding ways to live out loud the tenets of our faith that declare that we are our brother’s keeper and that anyone in need is our neighbor.
In compliance with the restriction on mass gatherings recommended or mandated by federal, state and local agencies, many churches have chosen to cancel their on-site worship gatherings. Others – some of them large – have held, and announced their intention to continue to hold, their worship services as before. “Cancelling church services is the wrong response to the coronavirus pandemic,” announced one prominent Christian journal. “When we worship, we join the Christian rebellion against the false lordship of the principalities and powers that claim to rule our lives, including sickness and death . . . The Church’s concern should be to sustain the spiritual health of those entrusted to her care,” it continued.
One video clip on Twitter showed a pastor saying to his congregation, “I know they don’t want us to do this but turn around and reach out to people…This church will never close.” Another pastor of a 300-member congregation said, “It’s not a concern. The virus, we believe, is politically motivated.” Some pastors used the situation to promote their financial interests. In a broadcast on a live TV show, a well-known millionaire televangelist warned his followers, “If you lose your job, don’t you dare stop giving to the church.” Describing her church as a hospital for the sick, another evangelist quoted Psalm 91 and asked people to send her donations of $91.
While there has been blatant disregard by some to the appeals by federal, state, and health professionals, most churches have cooperated. In fact, the crisis has even stimulated creativity among some—even in the Roman Catholic church. A Maryland priest set up an outdoor drive-through confessional to avoid both public gatherings and the sharing of common services such as kneelers, chairs, and doorknobs. In another location, a priest pasted self-portraits of his church members and placed them on benches in his church and offered mass. On March 19, Pope Francis announced that people who cannot get to confession because of the coronavirus lockdown can go to God directly, be specific about their sins, request pardon and experience God’s loving forgiveness.
Participating in church gatherings for worship, study, and fellowship is a central feature of faith to most Adventists. For the church to be the church as we have known it, we need for people to come together. We are now beginning to experience virtually what we once did in person. We are figuring out what worship means even when we cannot physically be with other worshipers in the same room. We are gaining new understandings of what community means. We are discovering how digital spaces are replacing brick-and-mortar buildings. The church has literally “left the building.” The crisis has impressed upon us that the global church is not bound by time or space or location – it is ever present and available.
The effort that is being expended to be the church in digital space has revealed something about how we view worship. Some churches are live-streaming performances on their church stages, with praise teams, song leaders, musicians, story-tellers, and preachers doing their part as if a congregation is present in their physical space. This model conveys the notion that the primary action in worship is what usually happens “in front” of the sanctuary. Others are live-streaming the pastor’s sermon, delivered from home. Some are conducting synchronous discussions and prayer sessions via the internet. I suspect that each of these approaches reveals a particular definition or understanding of what worship is.
These virtual realities serve us well for this moment of crisis. But what of the future? When the crisis has passed, will we return to our former and familiar ways of being church? After experiencing virtual reality for an extended period of time – weeks or months – some of us may find it to be a preferable, convenient, and meaningful option to going to church on Sabbaths. One church invited its online viewers to send messages about the location from which members were watching the worship service. Responses included the couch, in bed, at the dining table, in the kitchen while brewing coffee, in the den, and more. Will we form new habits and worship rituals that may be hard to give up after the crisis? What could this mean to the future shape of Adventism?
Companies in the United States that have long resisted the notion of employees working remotely – from their homes, on-line – have chosen to not only encourage this, but require it. By the time we come out of the current health emergency, working remotely could be the new normal in many jobs. Will the digital church become the new normal for many in the church? We will know, in time.
Giving — When the Plate Cannot Be Passed
Adventist pastors are keenly aware that church attendance is closely linked to giving of tithes and offerings. When attendance declines, church income declines. In a survey by Church Answers, a large online community for Practical Church Ministry, four out of ten churches reported that giving was less than 30% of normal giving on the weekend of March 21. Over half said giving was less than 40% of normal giving. Despite the availability of online giving options, members who do not attend church services do not give as much as, or as often as, they do when they do attend services. Additionally, the high levels of unemployment introduce another reason for reduced financial giving to churches. It is, obviously, impossible to forecast the financial impact on a church of not holding services for many weeks and perhaps months, and of members losing their regular income. Yet churches need a steady income stream for the salaries of non-clergy church staff, mortgage payments, cost of utilities, insurance, etc. Very few churches have financial reserves to cover these costs for extended periods of time.
Conferences, which in the Adventist organizational system administer the payroll for pastors, educators, and conference staff, are also directly impacted by the suspension of worship gatherings in local churches and the accompanying loss of income. By church policy, Conferences are required to maintain a certain level of financial reserves, generally referred to as working capital. This is “rainy day money” intended to keep the Conference’s operations going for a period of time if income declines or halts. Depending on the length of the “shelter in place” orders in states and cities, Conferences could deplete their financial reserves rather rapidly, impacting their ability to pay employees.
It is not too early for the higher levels of the church hierarchy to think about the financial viability of local congregations. The current health emergency may require that the General Conference, Divisions, and Union Conferences return to local Conferences and churches, from their reserves, substantial amounts of the funds that have been generated for them at the local church level. Even as some businesses in the United States are having to lay off employees and close down, this might also be a time when financially struggling churches – without assistance from the denomination – are forced to disband and dispose of their facilities. Both for the immediate and for the long term, financial resilience may require the denomination to do things differently with regards to the organizational structure and use of financial resources. It is noteworthy that some of the changes the General Conference has announced regarding the 2021 General Conference Session are changes that constituents have been urging for years but which the General Conference has resisted. These include the expanded use of communication technology with the global church and downsizing of the number of delegates.
One news headline offered the prognostication that America, and the world, will not be the same again after the COVID-19 crisis. I wonder how much the Adventist Church will be the same or different. It’s not too early to ponder.
Dr. Raj Attiken is an adjunct professor of religion at Kettering College, the Adventist higher education institution in Dayton, Ohio, and former president of the denomination’s Ohio Conference.