On numerous occasions over the last six months I have heard or seen COVID’s effect on churches described as “apocalyptic.” Frequently, the word has been used in its improper but colloquial sense of “catastrophic” or “disastrous,” referring to the chaos it has created for worship services or the damage it has done to budgets. Sometimes, however, it has also been used in its correct sense, to refer to the way COVID has revealed things previously hidden: for example, the fact that some government officials consider casinos and pet grooming more important than worship services, or that the relationship of state power to ecclesiastical authority is highly contested even within many churches.
Hopefully, we will see an end to the COVID chaos within the next six months, even with the possibility of a second wave looming. Yet the second wave is not the only cause for concern. I wonder whether we might see something even more significant: a second ecclesiastical apocalypse.
In conversation with many ministers, I have noticed one key concern again and again: How many Christians will return to church once COVID has stabilized? It is anecdotal at best at this point, but the figure often cited in my presence is 30 percent: Three out of every ten pre-COVID worshipers might stay away for good. One friend told me that his denomination’s leadership has informed its ministers that a third of its congregations might close within the next few months.
That figure may prove to be as hyperbolic as many of the other figures that have been bandied about regarding COVID. But it has a chillingly credible feel to it. Many of us have heard people commenting on how watching a church service online at leisure on a Sunday—or whatever other day of the week is most convenient to the consumer—has proved rather attractive. And this raises a number of obvious questions: Why not? Is anything lost thereby? How might those of us who think physical presence at worship is essential respond?
Douglas Farrow has reflected in great depth upon the importance of the ascension for ecclesiology and therefore for worship. Christ’s ascension is essential to Pentecost, to the mission of the Spirit, and thus to the birth and subsequent life of the apostolic church. It also makes worship here and now the celebration of Christ’s presence in the face of his absence. Indeed, the issue of how the physically absent Christ can be present is determinative of how we understand worship and its constituent elements. And it therefore has an obvious bearing on how we think of online worship in relation to a physical congregational assembly.
Roman Catholic theology sees this presence of the absent Christ in sacramental terms. The mass is the place where Christ comes and meets with his people. And the mass, involving physical elements and (ideally) consumption of the same, makes it rather obvious what is lost in a virtual environment. Now, according to Roman Catholic teaching, one does not have to receive the Eucharist to enjoy its spiritual benefits, but there is a risk that such a line of argument might play into the hands of Protestantism with a certain subjectivism. Physical reception is surely to be preferred; and physical presence is required for physical reception.
For Protestants, Christ is present via the proclamation of his word and (for good Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed types at least) through the sacraments, but only when they are set within the larger context of the word preached. And that makes the difference between a physical gathering of the church and one that is online somewhat harder to articulate at a theological level. Hearing a sermon online is still possible in a way that eating the sacramental elements is not.
Part of the Protestant answer is that the church is a community. Community is integral to the picture of the church we find in the Book of Acts and also (ironically) underlies the problems that Paul often addresses in his letters. Where there is no community, there can be no community dysfunction. And community works best when there is real human contact and interaction. To take an extreme example: A screen cannot hold your hand and pray for you on your deathbed.
Of more significance are the elements of worship: the reading and the proclamation of the Word, prayer, singing and, yes, the sacraments. And all of these require present, communal action. Even preaching is in a sense a dialogue between the God who confronts his people with his presence through his Word and the people’s response in faith and repentance. Does that require the immediate, physical proximity of preacher and people? Not in an absolute sense—just as in Roman Catholic theology, the mass does not absolutely require such. But immediate physical proximity is best. It may be hard to articulate why this is so, in the same way that it can be hard to articulate why a live concert or theater performance is superior to watching the same on the television, but it is true nonetheless. A personal word is best delivered in the context of the messenger meeting with the recipient.
So what will be revealed if vast swathes of Protestants do not return to physical church when COVID finally settles down? Surely that the theology of preaching as God’s confrontational presence in and through proclamation has at some point been supplanted in the minds of many by a notion that it is merely a transmission of information or a pep talk. And that listening as active, faithful response has correspondingly been reduced to a passive reception, of the kind that televisions and countless other screens have made the default position. To put it another way, it will reveal that preachers have become confused with life coaches or entertainers, and congregations have been replaced by audiences and autonomous consumers. Such a scenario will be apocalyptic. And in both senses of the word.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.
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