In the middle of March last year, churches across America shut their doors and warned congregants to stay home. The sheltering-in-place was supposed to last a few weeks, just long enough to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections and ease the pressure on healthcare providers.
Few knew what to make of the news, or how long the pandemic would last. “Is it worth doing yet another post on the coronavirus?” TGC editor Ivan Mesa asked on a private Slack channel at the end of March.
TGC ended up publishing 247 more pieces over the next 12 months. Churches scrambled to move services online, to set up sound systems for summer services in parking lots, and to tape off every other pew. Pastors navigated exhaustion, isolation, and congregations arguing over masks, race, and politics.
“Our church post-COVID will be a different church than it was pre-COVID,” High Pointe Baptist Church pastor Juan Sanchez said. “I think this will be true for most churches.”
Some congregants have left, while others have joined. New staff has been hired. Children have grown. Some members will have to meet each other for the first time, or get to know each other again.
Within a year or two, those things are likely to settle down and smooth out. The masks will come down, the tape will come off the drinking fountains, and the chairs will move back together.
But other changes may stick around. TGC asked eight pastors: If we were looking at your church in 10 years, would you be able to point to a difference COVID made?
“I never would’ve agreed to video preaching before this year,” Reality LA pastor Jeremy Treat said. “But here we are.”
Reality LA hasn’t been able to meet in person for more than a year. But when they finally do come together again, Treat isn’t sure when they’ll turn off the livestream.
“I wrestle with it, because there are always people who are vulnerable or who can’t make it on a Sunday for valid reasons,” he said. But does a weekly livestream “enable whole swaths of people who want to tune in because they’re prone to laziness or consumerism?”
That’s a common question. Like podcasting before it, livestreaming is a conundrum: it lets those who are shut in or traveling worship in real time, and it’s an easier way for a nonbeliever to hear a good sermon. But it can also lead to lower attendance and more church switching.
“People have said to us, ‘I got used to being able to stay in my pajamas and roll out of bed 15 minutes before service starts with my cup of coffee,’” said Hinson Baptist Church pastor Michael Lawrence, who began livestreaming after COVID. “But as people are coming back, they’re uniformly saying to me, ‘This is hard, but I need to do this. Getting the sermon over YouTube and singing with my kids in the living room is not a replacement for the fellowship of the saints under the preaching of God’s Word and the ordinances.’”
Sometime in the next few months, “we’re going to have to make a decision about taking the livestream from public to private,” he said. “There will be some who will need us to continue to provide the livestream—I totally get that. But for everyone else, we’ll have to encourage them to re-strengthen that muscle of getting in the car or on a bike and getting to church.”
At Open Door Presbyterian Church in Virginia, the elders may contemplate turning off the livestream altogether to help people kick the habit, pastor Paul Kim said.
“It’s been a good platform for seekers who haven’t yet committed to come to a physical church building,” he said. He’s had about 80 people join his church during the past year, and all of them first attended services online. “On the other hand, we don’t want to train regular members to think, Oh, I did a worship service online, so I completed my responsibility.”
At the end of 2019, Zoom had an average of 10 million meeting participants every day. By the end of 2020, it had 350 million.
“I can’t imagine doing church council meetings in person ever again,” said Bernard Howard, who planted Good Shepherd Anglican Church in New York City in 2017. Meeting on Zoom means his council members don’t need to navigate the subway system to get across the city and back. The meeting can take an hour or two, instead of all evening.
Zoom lets parents put small children to bed and then jump onto a small group gathering. It lets those who are homebound join Bible studies. And it lets committees more easily find times everyone can meet—you don’t even have to be in town to attend.
In Portland, moving to Zoom increased attendance at pastor Lawrence’s leaders’ meetings dramatically.
“We’ve always tried to meet with elders, deacons, staff, small group leaders, and Sunday school teachers before our congregational meetings so they know what’s going to happen,” he said. “No matter what we did, the same 25 percent of the leaders would show up.”
Since the meeting moved to Zoom, though, “we’ve had around 100 percent participation,” he said. “It was amazing. All of a sudden everyone is showing up—and participating. They have questions. They’re engaging with the agenda. That was fascinating for me.”
He thinks the virtual context might feel more comfortable for some. “Lots of people don’t like public speaking of any kind, including asking a question or offering a comment in person at a public forum,” he said. “Maybe sitting in their own home on Zoom helps lessen that discomfort. . . . Something like that is going to stay.”
Worship services and meetings aren’t the only things technology affected. In Kim’s church, it expanded mission opportunities.
“When things are normal, we don’t like changes,” he said. “We are busy, so we don’t even try new things.” For example, Open Door sends a short-term mission team to the same majority-Muslim country each year. But last year, they couldn’t.
“Yet the country is developing their web platforms so they can do school online,” Kim said. “Through that channel, we’ve been able to disciple the young Christians or seekers that we’ve met on previous mission trips. It’s possible for us to continue keeping up the relationships and training them.”
That’s a tool they’ll continue to use in the future, he said.
Providence Church in Texas might hold onto parts of the online registration, even though the state’s seating restrictions have been lifted. “We may keep some aspects of that, because it has allowed us to track who is coming, and to reach back out to them in a more seamless way,” pastor Afshin Ziafat said. “It’s been a way to on-ramp people into the life of the church. Before, they had to fill out a card. Now people aren’t falling through the cracks as much.”
At Roosevelt Community Church in Phoenix, a physical offering was always an important part of the service. “I thought it encouraged people to think consciously and practically about what they would give to the Lord,” pastor Vermon Pierre said. “Since the start of the pandemic we’ve offered multiple ways to give—text to give, online, boxes in the back—and it seems to me that it hasn’t affected things as much as I thought it would. In other words, we could still emphasize the importance of giving, and people would receive that without needing a formal ‘pass the basket’ time in our service.”
In fact, having different options has helped strengthen the habit of regular giving, he said. That’s a habit worth hanging onto.
“I used to have to really preach the importance of community,” Ziafat said. “This past year, I’ve not had to do a lot of convincing.”
It’s likely the initial joy of coming back together will wear off after time. But the past year will permanently change who shows up. Ziafat has seen COVID sift his church, although not necessarily into believers and unbelievers. “Those that were really tied into the community in our church are the ones who stuck through this,” he said. “Those on the fringe are the ones who fell off.”
“Some of our older people have not been able to return, and others may have got so used to worshiping at home that they may not feel the need to return,” said Colin Smith, senior pastor at The Orchard Evangelical Free Church near Chicago. “The pastoral concern for those who are not gathering is an increasing weight on my heart.”
At Hinson Baptist, small groups became the main point of contact for many. “This past year forced us to think about how we can get more people into small groups, and how we can train leaders so they’re substantive,” Lawrence said. “We always thought this ministry was important. This just pushed it to another level for us. I think we’re going to look back and say that was really good and helpful.”
Working through the divisions is also helpful, even while it’s painful, Treat said. “This season has exposed so much in the church—a lot of political idolatry, a lot of racial tensions that were kept at bay. . . . We’ve been forced to wrestle with these awkward conversations about politics and race. Our church is going to come through this more united because it’s a deeper unity.”
But for some churches, the weight of 2020 was too much altogether.
Opening and Closing and Moving
“I know of two gospel-preaching church plants that have closed in Manhattan,” Howard said. He’s worried that small plants, especially in areas that have been slow to reopen, might look around only to see that some members have deserted them for larger churches with better online resources.
Kim wonders the same thing. “We don’t want to hurt small churches,” he said. “We have to be careful about who we’re attracting with our resources. If it’s weakening small church bodies in local areas, then we aren’t doing any good for the kingdom.”
It’s possible that closing churches—or even shrinking demand for commercial real estate—will open up space for church plants. “If prices continue to go down, all of a sudden owning our own church meeting place is no longer an impossible dream that requires a startup billionaire joining the church,” said Howard, who has been renting a small theater in New York City.
His church has been able to meet in person a few times during the past year. Many churches that meet in public schools—such as Reality LA—haven’t been able to gather at all.
“As a low-church evangelical, I’ve been trained to see all the positives—that the church is not the building, that [a rented school or office space] is friendlier to non-Christians,” Treat said. But two years ago a small Baptist church gave Reality LA their office space and building. Even though it’s not large enough to be Reality LA’s primary gathering space, “now that we have a physical space, I am recognizing the value of sacred space—of being able to say, ‘This space is set apart for God’s purposes in the heart of the city.’ . . . My hope is that other churches will get buildings too.”
Overall, “I think there’s going to be a shaking out,” Smith said. “That can bring a warming of the spiritual temperature.”
While some individuals drifted away from Christianity in 2020, others have come to Christ. About 45 percent of Americans who value their faith told Pew Research Center their faith has become stronger because of the outbreak, along with about 11 percent of those who said their faith wasn’t as important to them.
How long that will last is hard to gauge.
“After 9/11, there was all this talk of spirituality going up,” Treat said. “When you look back on it, it didn’t create lasting change. I’m sure it did in some people individually, but not in a way that’s noticeable culturally.”
Certainly, 2020 has been different, he said. The pandemic affected more people for a longer period of time. And it’s not over yet.
“Here’s what we know about trauma: the hard part comes later on,” Treat said. “If this season has been traumatic, the worst part is going to come out in the next couple of years. Is the church prepared to shepherd and disciple people who are depressed and anxious?”
He’s cautiously optimistic about the future. “The book of Acts and church history tells us this is how Christ builds his church,” he said. “I’m looking forward to see how the Lord is at work in all of it.”
Written by: SARAH EEKHOFF ZYLSTRA
First published 12.03.21: How Will COVID Permanently Change Churches? (thegospelcoalition.org)