In 2016, I wrote an article for Christian Courier called “Disruptive Theology.”
I said that in the digital age, churches are less about where you live, and more about a community of believers with a shared understanding of faith. That digital ways of connecting with each other were becoming more important to many of us than face-to-face connections.
I wrote: “The church is just as vulnerable as any other institution to new ways people choose to see the world. Just ask Luther and Calvin. Maybe even more so – since faith itself is based on a close, personal relationship with someone we feel like we know well, but have never seen. I think we’re in the middle of a new Reformation – we don’t know it yet.”
That thesis seemed a little far-fetched to some people. I know that in one course at Redeemer University, the article was – and remains – a hotly debated reading on a course syllabus.
And then, COVID happened.
Overnight, everything changed everywhere. For example, doctors have been trying to get patients to use telemedicine for years. They wanted us to use conference calls for routine appointments and check-ins, and to use virtual tools to guide surgeries in remote communities. Now, that’s happening.
In education, teachers said that school could be a mix of in-person and remote learning – and that some kids would really benefit from an online option. There was a ton of resistance to that kind of innovation, but now, that’s happening.
Business leaders wanted people to sign up for virtual conferences instead of taking expensive trips. And workers have been saying for decades that technology would allow them to work from home. Now that’s happening, too.
Not only is all that happening, it’s working. And while people are feeling fatigued by only being able to do certain things online, there’s no doubt that a lot of patients, students, businesses and workers are benefitting from having a digital, on-demand option. And when COVID is over, we know that a lot of organizations aren’t going back to the old ways. Banks, for example, are cutting their office footprints and letting people work remotely because it saves money and doesn’t lead to a drop in productivity. Uber Eats – and expanded home delivery for restaurants – is here to stay.
It’s as if, overnight, the world got dragged 20 years into the digital future.
So, what about churches?
Some of the changes have been disastrous. Without members in the pews, and steady attendance, donations have fallen. This has been especially hard on urban congregations with expensive overhead, and a few prominent U.S. and Canadian churches have had to close their doors for good. It’s also made funerals and baptisms and weddings – all the important and in-person moments that bring people together – nearly impossible. We need to acknowledge that there is a massive, painful gaping hole in the middle of a lot of ministries right now. And I don’t know if others miss my singing, but I sure do miss singing along with them.
But not all the changes have been bad. In our own church, for example, there’s been an extra effort to connect everyone by phone. Our Pastor has done Facebook Live Bible studies. Sermons are available on-demand. That part has been great. For those of us who have busy schedules, active families or long workdays, being able to interact with your church on your own time is a bit of a Godsend. And I spend a lot of time these days communicating with pastors and fellow Christians from around the world on social media. It feels like my congregation has gone global, in some ways.
Thanks to COVID, the church has gone from somewhere you go, to something that comes to you. From a community down the street to a community around the world. From a place that you attend, to a place that attends to you.
How many of these changes will be permanent? Time will tell. But now that churches have been disrupted – and have shown they can meet us where we live, and that gathering together doesn’t always have to mean being in the same room together – it’s hard to imagine going backwards.