Over the past 10 weeks, churches like mine all over the country have scrambled to use technology to connect with their people. Terms like “livestreaming,” “Zoom,” and “upload speed” have caused more than a few pastors to lose sleep.
But with Gov. Scott’s announcement last Friday that churches can begin holding in-person services at 25% capacity, we have a new set of problems to solve. While we celebrate the end to a season of exile, the real test is still ahead of us. Churches will face significant challenges as we adapt to a COVID-19 world, but I am convinced that in those challenges lie opportunities for the church to be what she is called to be. Here are three such challenges and opportunities that every church is facing, in order of increasing importance.
First, the challenge of logistics. Re-opening a church is not a simple as one might think. Pastors and church boards are facing a gamut of interrelated questions: How many people will even want to come? How do we ensure that we don’t exceed our 25% occupancy limit? Do we need two services? Should we meet outdoors or indoors? Are masks required? Can we offer anything for the kids? What about people with underlying health issues who probably shouldn’t come but will anyway? Who will volunteer for the extra cleaning, setup, and teardown? Should we continue the livestream for those who can’t come? To make things harder, guidelines are ever evolving. But here’s the great opportunity: with all these limits and restrictions, we are forced to clarify why we gather. By necessity our church services will be shorter and simpler. Maybe the joy of simply being together again to worship God will remind us that the comforts and traditions we have to forego were never all that important anyway. Maybe we’ll realize that we can afford a little more spontaneity and flexibility.
Second, the challenge of love. With change comes anxiety; with anxiety comes conflict. As our churches begin to make decisions about re-gathering, sparks will fly. Feelings will be hurt. But here’s the great opportunity: conflict has always been the soil in which Christian grace and love can grow. Perhaps more than ever we have the opportunity to put our money where our mouth is and extend true grace, love, and humility—the kind that is “patient, kind….[and] not easily angered” (1 Cor 13) and is “not looking to your own interests, but the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Perhaps those who still wipe down their groceries can learn to be patient and loving toward those who think the virus is a hoax, and vice versa. Jesus is famous for his love. Our churches should be also.
Third, the challenge of long-term adaptation. This is the biggie. If we think we can simply get through this season and return to normal, we’ve got another thing coming. COVID-19 is a watershed event for our entire society and churches are no exception. As we move forward in this new world, many churches will find that their budgets, buildings, and programming of the past are no longer manageable or effective. Giving will decrease. Buildings will be used for fewer large group activities. The older generations—the majority in many of our churches—will not be coming back in full numbers.
All of this presents a crisis of identity and purpose. But it’s a needed crisis. For too long the church has seen as an archaic, irrelevant institution. Sometimes that reputation is deserved. In reality, the church is an organic movement, the body of Jesus himself. It has persisted through times of plague, persecution, and even affluence, in every culture where it has been planted. A pastor friend of mine has been saying, “Let’s not waste a good pandemic.” He means that we have a once-in-many-generations opportunity to do some institutional soul-searching. We need to open our Bibles and ask, “Who are we?” and “Why do we do what we do?” This sounds scary, but Jesus knows what he’s doing. Will we follow him?
Tyler Smith is the pastor of Georgia Plain Baptist Church