In March of 2020 I told a younger pastoral colleague that I expected the lockdown due to COVID19 to last somewhere between 2-3 weeks.
Obviously, I was wrong.
We are now nearly 2 years in and seeing the highest new infection rates at any point in the pandemic due to the incredibly contagious Omicron variant. That being said, thanks to the effectiveness of the various vaccines and other counter measures, hospitalization rates do not appear to be rising at anywhere near the same steep pace. Many experts are predicting that the Omicron variant may in fact bring us closer to the end of this pandemic.
But what sort of church will be waiting for us on the other side?
Two years is a long time for any organism to exist under extraordinary pressure. The church has endured lockdowns, capacity limitations, complicated safety protocols, political strain, relational trauma, and leadership fatigue of an unprecedented nature. Pressures such as these generate significant changes. Among those I anticipate the following:
1. A slightly smaller church
In a private seminar I attended recently, Ed Stetzer made an interesting remark about the impact of COVID on a typical American Evangelical church:
“Out of a 100 people in a typical church, the front third became more engaged over the course of COVID; the middle third are hanging on but struggling, the back third have largely if not entirely disconnected.”
In a pastors’ forum that I facilitate for over 100 pastors from coast to coast in Canada, the numbers being reported appear slightly better than what our colleagues are experiencing south of the border. American churches were dealing with other exacerbating forces (Trump, racism/CRT, etc.) over the course of this pandemic that significantly increased the pressure on local congregations. Pastors on the Canadian forum are reporting something closer to a 10-20% decline in church attendance; though interestingly, with no associated decrease in giving. That would seem to suggest that the people who were blown away by the winds of COVID were not terribly invested in the first place. They may have been “attending” without engaging in any tangible way.
Of course, we won’t have a very clear picture of the true effect of COVID on church engagement in Canada until all restrictions are removed and the virus itself has passed into the endemic stage. Most of the pastors I’m in contact with believe that there are many people being counted in that 10-20% number who are isolating for health reasons and who remain engaged online. A substantial portion of these people will likely return when they feel it is safe to do so. Nevertheless, it would seem wise to presume that when all is said and done, the average evangelical church will be 5-15% smaller on the other side of this pandemic.
2. A significantly simpler church
Over the last 22 months, churches all across the world have been forced to endure a dizzying series of protocols, restrictions and recommendations. In a report I prepared for our Board a few months ago, I was able to identify 9 distinct protocol phases, each with differing guidelines and ministry limitations. We went through hard lockdowns, partial lockdowns and capacity restrictions of varying degrees of severity all of which required us to make significant modifications to our worship, outreach and disciple-making ministries. The net result of all of this has been a severe truncation and simplification of our life as a local congregation – and that may not be a bad thing.
To be clear, once this pandemic is over and all restrictions upon indoor gatherings are removed, we will be amongst the happiest people on planet earth. There are numerous hindrances that we will be glad to cast off and there are numerous programs and initiatives that we will be glad to reengage – but there are some things that we have simply learned to do without. Our people have discovered that less is sometimes more. We’ve learned that spending less money on programs results in more money spent on missions. We’ve learned that fewer nights out can actually be better for the family and for neighbourhood outreach.
During several protocol phases, the only thing we were allowed to do was conduct religious services. As such, we found ourselves doing less more. Many of our disciple-making groups were collapsed into a catch-all mid-week Bible Study, which we combined with worship and prayer so that it could legitimately be considered a religious service. Our home groups needed to do basically the same thing and therefore began to focus on fellowship, pray and Bible teaching, usually consisting of a Going Deeper discussion based on the previous week’s sermon. It was all very simple and uncomplicated and it appears to have worked as well or better than what we did before.
I’m hearing similar musings and epiphanies from pastors all across the country.
As such, I suspect that on the other side of COVID-19 we will see a significantly simpler and more streamlined approach to corporate life and worship.
3. A substantially stronger church
As mentioned above, in the private pastors’ forum that I facilitate, Canadian evangelical pastors are reporting a 10-20% decline in church attendance with no corresponding decrease in congregational giving. What that would seem to indicate is that many of the people who have left were not highly invested in the life and ministry of the church to begin with.
While there are no doubt several people in every church staying home right now due to serious health concerns (as there always have been), many others have fallen away because they were never truly connected in the first place.
They were deadwood. They weren’t producing fruit, but they were consuming resources. Jesus spoke about this dynamic on multiple occasions. In John 15 he said:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:1–2 ESV)
Nominalism is the death of evangelical churches. Most evangelical churches operate with some sort of congregational or presbyterian polity, both of which become cumbersome and unwieldy in a church harbouring a high percentage of nominal or unconverted congregants. A little bit of trouble and tribulation tends to clear the deck for more efficient and decisive action moving forward.
It also tends to free up resources for leadership development and evangelism.
Many pastors are reporting that the people who left, were in the main, people who consumed a high level of pastoral and board attention. COVID protocols weren’t the first thing they had complained about. They were squeaky wheels, by and large, who consumed a lot of leadership grease. Having now moved on, that grease can be applied in other places.
The past 22 months have featured pruning winds and invigorating challenges – both of which will serve the long-term health and vitality of the church. Jesus spoke about the impact that shock and upheaval can have on the health of a flagging organism. He told a story saying:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6–9 ESV)
Among other things, the parable seems to reflect the willingness of God to use upheaval and difficulty to stimulate growth and fruitfulness. Peace and stability, while being the ideal conditions for Gospel work and ministry, have often served to undermine our faithfulness, focus, and vitality. Prolonged peace, more often than not, has led to weakness, compromise, and spiritual neglect. And thus a season of upheaval and a healthy application of manure may turn out to be just what the doctor ordered.
As a result of these factors, I suspect that should the Lord tarry, the church will be substantially stronger in 2030 than it was in 2019.
There are however a few factors and forces working against that rather optimistic forecast. Two, in particular, come immediately to mind.
1. A spirit of division
I refer to “a spirit of division” rather than to “divisive people and pastors” because of the reminder provided by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians chapter 6:
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV)
Prolonged social, cultural, and political crises create opportunities for malevolent spiritual forces to influence weary and disheartened people. With defenses down and resources depleted, people are susceptible to suggestion and manipulation. As such we have seen people and pastors doing and saying things that I don’t believe they would have done in 2019.
As a council member and content contributor for TGC Canada, I’ve been asked on several occasions to write articles addressing issues of pastoral concern over the course of this pandemic. It has been eye-opening, to say the least, to observe the extremes of reaction to some of these articles. I’ve seen friends and colleagues begin to act like enemies because I thought differently than them with respect to masks, vaccines, and the appropriate threshold for civil disobedience in a time of national crisis. None of these things would have been considered fellowship level issues 24 months ago – but now, families, friends, churches, and denominations are dividing over these tertiary matters.
It is enough to make one suspect demonic influence.
I am hopeful that when the pressures represented by this pandemic begin to fade, these extremes of reaction will fade and diminish along with them – but I am concerned that this may not be the case. Things have been said that are hard to unsay. Lines have been crossed that are hard to uncross. Alliances have been dissolved that ought not to have been dissolved.
I cannot help but view this as part of the devil’s long-term strategy. He wanted to divide the evangelical church in Canada in advance of the more substantial challenges we are likely to be facing in the coming years. I am praying that a widespread understanding of this will motivate the humility and contrition – not to mention mercy and forgetfulness – that will allow us to move forward together once all of this is done and behind us.
2. A spirit of defiance
Alongside this spirit of division, and no doubt animated by the same malevolent forces, I am concerned about a widespread spirit of defiance on display within evangelical churches. To be clear, defiance is sometimes required of Christian people in certain, unusual circumstances. When the Sanhedrin forbade the Apostles to preach in the name of Jesus, they responded with courage, clarity, and conviction, saying:
“We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29 ESV)
And they paid a heavy price for that defiance. They were beaten and physically abused; nevertheless, the apostles departed from the council:
“rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” (Acts 5:41 ESV)
Thus, there is a time for Christians to refuse to comply with the orders of the state. If the state requires you to do that which God forbids or forbids you to do that which God commands, then it is right and appropriate for you to express respectful defiance. That is a near universally recognized exception to the general rule. The general rule is stated by the Apostle Paul in Romans 13:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1–2 ESV)
Thus, generally speaking, a Christian is to live in subjection to the state, recognizing that the state has a mandate from the Lord, just as surely as does the pastor or the preacher.
“for he is God’s servant for your good.” (Romans 13:4 ESV)
In 2019 I don’t know that I would have been able to find a friend in ministry serving in an evangelical church who disagreed with that general perspective. After 22 months of political, social and psychological stress, however, that has certainly changed.
The ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who was also a statesman and successful general, comments incisively about the effect that prolonged conflict has on human nature and civil discourse.
“Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.”
During a season of prolonged conflict, polarization, and civil unrest, moderate views begin to look like cowardice, restraint begins to look like abdication, wisdom begins to look like inaction, extremism becomes the norm on every side. The end result is a breakdown in civility and the loss of any inclination toward peace. That seems to be precisely what we are now observing in the evangelical church in Canada during the latter stages of this pandemic.
There is a very little inclination toward peace and a default posture of hostility and defiance toward the state. Unless some curb is placed upon this out of control inclination, we are likely to pay a heavy price both in the public square and in the court of law. Faithful Christian witness in a hostile culture requires people and leaders to be:
“wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16 ESV)
It will require people who can steer a careful course between extremes and who can maintain their own stability in provocative environments.
Christian wisdom generally involves holding various concerns and commitments in proper tension. The biblical emphasis on God’s Sovereignty, for example, must be held in proper tension with what the Bible says about the moral responsibility of human beings. What the Bible says about grace must be held in proper relationship with what it says about works; likewise, what the Bible says about civil disobedience must be held in proper tension with what the Bible says about living in subjection to civil authorities. In a time of prolonged crisis, however, all such “nuanced” perspectives are viewed with deep suspicion.
Again, one hopes that when the pressures represented by this pandemic begin to fade, these social and spiritual extremes will fade and diminish along with them – but it will require an enormous amount of self-reflection, contrition, and meditation upon Holy Scripture to re-establish our previous equilibrium.
We will all need to be committed to that process.
Toward the end of rediscovering a more biblical equilibrium, if you would like to join me in reading through the whole Bible in 2022, please check out the Into The Word podcast where we read verse by verse and chapter by chapter through the whole counsel of God. Over the last 5 years, we’ve been able to cover 435 chapters of the Bible, with the hope of covering another 50-60 chapters in 2022. You can find all of that content at the Into The Word archive site or you can download the Into The Word app at the iTunes store or on Google Play.
And may God alone be glorified!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can find his personal blog, Semper Reformanda, by clicking here.
Article updated at 3:00PM on January 4, 2021.