By: Laura Bennett
Attending church online has become a norm for many congregations in this pandemic. Linking in with people from your own church as well as others around the globe, as you enjoy a coffee in your lounge room, has become standard Sunday fare.
So when the virus lifts, will church return to normal, or will some of our fundamental approaches to faith and the way we gather be forever changed?
Mike Gore (pictured) is the CEO of Open Doors Australia – a not-for-profit organisation that has worked with the persecuted church around the world for over 60 years.
In his own experience of church in this season, and looking ahead to what comes next, Mike believes we’ve been given a profound opportunity to readdress our Christianity. He says we can look to the lessons learnt by the Chinese church 60 years ago.
“At the height of persecution [in China] in the 50’s and the 60’s, the church was kind of dispersed, and forced into homes – much like we’re experiencing now,” he said. “[Some believers observed that] ‘before persecution came we practised our faith and our love for God in the church – and almost nowhere else, but when persecution came it dispersed the church, and we practised faith in our homes, and because of that – everywhere else’. That’s one the most beautiful realities of what we’re experiencing now; faith has become so much more a part of our household.”
Church is Not About a Building
For Mike and his family, it’s been a chance to remember that church is not a Sunday gathering.
“We’re teaching our kids that church is anything but just the four walls on a Sunday,” he said, “and so for me [the pandemic has provided] a super intimate faith-growing – and hopefully faith-deepening, experience.”
Given that Western culture to tends to experience church as a mass gathering, the idea of being dispersed doesn’t sit easy with everyone. Many church leaders have had to adapt to the flexibility and freedoms of the current climate, which Mike says has been a huge learning curve.
“For years pastors have pleaded with their congregations to remember that the church is outside the four walls… Overnight these prayers got answered.”
“The church’s first response in my view,” Mike said, “was one of fear and control; people were really worried [wondering], ‘what does this mean? How do I keep my church together?’ – which are all normal and OK worries.
“But all of a sudden this online battleground emerged where everyone’s trying to compete for the best live stream, and trying to make sure the congregation ‘remained together on that Sunday’.”
“What’s ironic is that for [many years] church pastors have pleaded with their congregations to remember that the church is outside the four walls, and to ‘be a Monday Christian too! Reach out into your community!’
“Overnight these prayers got answered, and churches were scattered into homes, and some church leaders were screaming, ‘Come back! Come back!’”
A Shift From Content to Connection
As the lockdown situation has continued, however, Mike has seen more pastors and leaders adjusting to the new norm.
“Over the last few weeks I have seen people become more comfortable with it, and churches have decreased their focus on content, and increased their focus on connection,” he said. “And for me, that’s the key in what we’ve learned from the persecuted church: that when the church is forced into homes, the battleground shouldn’t be the best deliverable content – the battleground is connection.”
The persecuted church also offer us lessons in how to embrace isolation, and the power that can come from social norms being upended. One Chinese evangelist who was jailed for his faith and led 96 people to Christ behind bars, developed a mantra: ‘You need to build yourself a cell… In Western nations, distraction is what suffocates and overwhelms faith…I was forced into a cell – you need to build yourself a cell’.
The Gift of Isolation
Mike’s view is that this isolation is a gift and a blessing, and that the labels we may have built our identity in – particularly for those in the church who are ‘worship leaders’ or ‘preachers and teachers’ – are ones we can’t lean on anymore.
“This period of isolation is probably not the noose-around-the-neck that some of us feel it is,” said Mike, “it’s actually a hand on the back from the Lord pushing us in to a beautiful, focused relationship with Him.
“Stripping back all the distractions of culture… we’ve realised that actually, when that’s all gone – we’re still OK.”
“Stripping back all the distractions of culture, and all the things we found our identity in – whether it’s church, whether it’s work, whether it’s socialising – we’ve realised that actually, when that’s all gone – we’re still OK.
“Billy Graham said it best: ‘At the foot of the cross the ground is level’. Titles have been stripped away from people and we’ve realised it’s not about [labels], but fostering a hand-holding relationship with Jesus.”
The Pros and Cons of the Pandemic
Thinking ahead to what church may look like in the future, Mike says there’s some definite pros and cons that could come from the church experience we’ve had during the COVID crisis.
“One of the risks is that we’ll look back on this time in history,” said Mike, “and see a decline in the number of regular church attending Christians… with one of the reasons being that the pursuit of content over connection has left some people going, ‘I haven’t even heard form my church’.
“For others, their routine will be forever interrupted by the change [in church setting] and they won’t go back to the building as often. I think we’ll also see a broadening of the gospel; people will be more used to receiving information online – but from a variety of sources.
“A positive of that is a reduction of the denominational lines, and the patriotism around denominations. Which I think is one of the beautiful things witnessed in the persecuted church.
“I’m hoping we’ll see a far more unified church – from a denominational sense – arise from this moment.”
Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.
About the Author: Laura is a media professional, broadcaster and writer from Sydney, Australia.