Our Pandemically Poor Ecclesiology

What the Coronavirus Deliberations Reveal About Our View of Church

by Jared C. Wilson March 16, 2020

If you live in the United States, it's likely that you did not meet for church yesterday, as part of a concerted effort at stemming the spread of the COVID19 pandemic. This "social distancing" effort has been recommended by medical experts and governmental officials all over the world, and with many  governors and the President himself issuing states of emergency, many church leaders opted to cancel Sunday services, some for the forseeable future. And now, with the CDC advising groups of fifty or more not gather for eight weeks, the situation has become more daunting.

What I have found fascinating is the state of evangelical ecclesiology being revealed through the responses to this emergency, some good and some bad. In times like this, what we believe about church rises to the surface.

For instance, I see in many of the hesitations to cancel worship gatherings a high view of church, wherein leaders recognize the specialness of a local body gathered under the preached word and the ordinances and reluctance to suspend that for any reason. The ekklesia is a special thing, even if ordinary and routine, and it is a weighty thing to consider foregoing it.

On the other hand, I see in some of the language being used for online dissemination of worship more hallmarks of the overculturalization of evangelicalism. "Come to church online" some of the invitations read, as if such a thing were actually possible. An "online campus" -- or, worse in my estimation, a "virtual church" -- are oxymorons betraying our shallow ecclesiology. Here are some other things I've noticed being revealed in our online deliberations about online worship:

An Individualistic Program

For some churches, the switch to all online is practically seamless. They already live stream their services or maintain a so-called online campus. Other churches, however, have struggled to reconcile an online presentation of a service that is biblically and theologically intended for a gathered body of believers. 

"So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another," Paul writes about the table fellowship of the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:33, but the principle extends to the dynamic of the gathering as a whole. (Incidentally, this one major textual reason I think communion outside the context of a whole church gathering is an unbiblical idea.) Church is not meant to serve primarily as a religious resource for individual inspiration.

When we turn down the lights, turn up the volume, and teach lessons aimed at personal improvement, we reinforce the idea that church is primarily for you. "Online church" only further reinforces this error, as it communicates implicitly that what's most important is your personal experience of the programming, not the mutual encouragement of the gathering (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16). Online, you don't have to wait for one another. 

If you have hesitated to cancel services and struggled with how exactly to provide spiritual resourcing to your church virtually, you are feeling that weight. I personally don't think there's anything wrong with broadcasting a message via the Internet in lieu of the service, as a circumstantial accommodation, but we have to admit it's not the same. (But I'm one of those weirdos who doesn't think a preacher on a big screen at a video venue each week is the same as an incarnated preacher feeding his sheep.) If you have not struggled with it much at all, see no major difference between a band performing on stage to cameras and what they usually do each week to an audience, your thinking about church could use some more shoring up.

Indeed, one good reason pastors have decided to cancel services is because they are thinking of the body and her impact on her neighbors. If individualism ruled the day, we would unthinkingly gather, posing health risk to the most vulnerable among us.

A Consumeristic Enterprise

Seeing a bevy of photos from preachers of their setups for Internet sermons and music, I quipped on Twitter about the uninterrupted presence of mood lighting and fog machines. I really don't care too much about such things -- I mainly just think we should more often be asking "Why?" about our use of creative elements, as nothing we incorporate in our services is actually neutural. Everything communicates something -- about what we think worship is, about who we think worship is for, etc. One responder asked that question, "Why do churches use those things anyway?" Someone replied to him, as if it was a stupid question -- and I admit it does strike so many that way in our attractionally-dominated evangelical scene -- "Because it looks cool and people like it." As if that settles it. As if that's all to take into account about the elements of our worship.

I am reminded of the poster that reportedly hung outside Bill Hybels's Willow Creek office and read: "Who is our customer? What does our customer want?"

If church is simply an "experience" for religious consumers, of course we don't need to go any deeper than "It's cool and people like it." But the reluctance of many to take church online this week is indication we all know church is deeper than that. It's not purely about religiously resourcing, is it?

We see the consumeristic ethos at work in some of the other decision-making processes too. Large churches defiantly choosing to gather because the virus is just some political hoax or just some media hype is itself pandering to a particular consumer demographic -- one that has made political identity or other cultural identities part of its brand. For instance, some pastors are saying that canceling services during this time is considered a sign of "liberalism."

Additionally, the pastors who previously mocked concern about the virus in promo videos, offhandedly noting only old people are at risk, are giving us a subconscious "tell" that their church isn't really for old folks (or the immuno-challenged, apparently), but for the young, hip, and "rebellious."

Churches trying to define their brand as cool, counter-cultural, or young is nothing new. But this emergency has brought some of the worst examples of the religious consumerism in evangelicalism to the forefront.

But it's not all bad news.

A Missional Presence?

Many churches have seen the opportunities embedded in the circumstantial disadvantage to bear loving witness to others. Some organize smaller groups for encouragment. Some broadcast scenes of family worship. (Canceled service can't stop Christian worship!) Others see the act of canceling similar to the act of weekly meeting -- a living witness to the world of Christian love. 

The world is watching. And we're all watching together. Like other national and global emergencies, the coronavirus scare has gathered focused attention unlike any other phenomenon. So people are noticing what churches are doing and not doing. We have an opportunity here -- whether you gather or don't gather -- to make Jesus look big to a watching world. For instance, I've already seen examples of churches organizing food drives for underprivileged kids who will be out of schools for a while (where they receive at least 2 meals a day) and brainstorming ways to support workers in their church and community who will be impacted by the cancellation of concerts, sporting events, and the like.

But we will squander this opportunity if we make our decisions purely along the lines of cultural defiance, individual expression, or the need to sustain the consumer machine. If we make our decisions about love of God and love of neighbor -- and we resource our people to carry these mandates out in small and big ways in their daily lives -- we can be known for something more than cool productions or spiritual inspiration. We could be known for being the church. Just like our ecclesiological forefathers during previous times of plague and pestilence.

So whether you meet or don't meet, remember to do all things to the glory of God.