The Connecting Church: Re-imagining the Church of the Present and Future in this COVID-19 Pandemic Era
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The COVID-19 pandemic which is caused by SARS-CoV-2, a single strand of RNA cause a worldwide upheaval. It literally causes society to lockdown, confined billions to their homes. Churches worldwide are closed, with the cancellation of most church activities in church buildings. Overnight, it forced the church to move online utilizing numerous platforms and social media. Some churches are doing well in this, others not so. Now, as the pandemic begins to settle, there are indications that the authorities will be slowly easing restrictions for churches to meet physically. While restrictions are eased, there still are many requirements that are instituted for the prevention of COVID-19 infection and reinfection. In general, church gatherings are limited to 30 persons or less at one time, meetings not more than one and a half hours, and should have 2 hours between meetings to allowing cleaning. Congregants seated distancing at least 1-2 meters from each other and should wear face masks. Temperature monitoring and personal contact information will be taken on entering the hall. People traffic is directed to move in one direction so that there will be no mixing. People are to go leave church premises immediately after the services. Children under 15 years old and seniors more than 60 years old will not be allowed to attend the physical service. It is not known how long these restrictions will be implemented as there is no way of predicting how long the pandemic will last.
There has been a lot of literature on the Digital Church and the Distanced Church, implying that the digital mode is the next step in the evolution of the church. While the church may be connected digitally, there is still the need for human to human gathering. There are limits to human interactions through the electronic platforms. Deeper human relationships can only be built in the physical presence of each other. However, being forced online has opened the church’s eyes at the vast potential of digital and the connectivity that the internet offers. The COVID-19 church will be where human gathers together. What is new is how it has expanded beyond its bricks-and-mortar shells to cyberspace to become a Connecting Church.
First, the Connecting Church is connected to God. During the lockdown, some churches have direct streaming Sunday services, while others use pre-recorded sermons. Congregants are encouraged to log in and participate in the worship. Some churches shut down totally. The deliverance of services depends on the technical equipment and abilities of the church. It is heartening to note that some of the bigger and more techno-savvy churches are offering courses and apprenticeship to help the smaller churches to set up online worship services. Some churches allow Holy Communion online at home. What is encouraging is that suddenly congregants are exposed to a wide variety of services and sermons as the online services are open to all. This has developed a sense of unity and togetherness for the congregations in these times of social distancing. The Holy Spirit continues to work through the internet and there have been numerous reports of healing, deliverance, and divine encounters online.
Second, the timing of the development of communication software such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram, social media such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Youtube, and streaming communication such as Facetime, Skype, Zoom, Google Meet, Facebook Live, and Microsoft Teams allow the socially distanced church to connect with one another. Many small groups in churches are meeting regularly, continuing their weekly meetings online. Individuals are reconnecting with each other through their telephones or online platform. Some are connecting long lost friends and reconnecting with others. Some churches hold regular prayer meetings online. Others continue their midweek devotional teachings. Attendance for these events is high because it is convenient to attend. Before, to attend a meeting one needs to dress, leave the house, and travel to attend a meeting. Now it is one step from the kitchen to the living room. These new emerging technologies enabled the members of the church to be connected to each other. As was quoted by a member of a church, “We are socially distanced but we are not spiritually distanced. We are actually closer now than ever before as a Body of Christ”. Yet, with all these technologies, we still need to be physically present to each other as we are embodied souls, and our interaction with the world is incarnational.
Third, small groups have always been where most interactions take place. It is the crucible of spiritual formation. It is the most connected part of the body of Christ. Relationships in small groups are the elements of spiritual formation. Small groups, also known as cell groups, are the level where human interaction interacts at its best, or its worst. The Acts 2 church is a small group and it has all the curricular forms of Godliness in its makeup. As the lockdown restrictions ease, probably the gathering of 10 or fewer people will be allowed. Hence the small groups will be the first part of the church to gather before the larger groups are allowed. In the meantime, the larger group will continue to stream and meet online with numerous restrictions to prevent large group gatherings.
Fourth, the large group which we commonly identify as the church. Prior to the pandemic, the decline of the Megachurch movement was observed by many church growth experts. The fall from grace of some of the megachurch leaders is sad reminders of the cracks in the movement. The megachurch movement is closely linked to the consumer culture from which it draws its inspiration. Around the time of the growth of the megachurch movement, there was also the cell church movement. Cell groups are small groups within a church, usually comprising of 10-20 members.
A church with cells is different from a cell church. A church with cells is a church that has cell groups as one of the activities of the church. The main focus is however on the main Sunday service, and the leaders are the pastors and church leaders overseeing the whole church. The main focus of the cell church is on the cells itself which the Sunday service is one of the functions of the cells. The leadership of the church lies with the cell leaders.
Most churches are churches with cells. The pandemic has revealed the vulnerability of this model. The lockdown closed the main church which is usually sited in buildings. The suddenness of the lockdown caught the leadership of many churches off guard. Many churches are led by top-down leadership. Many churches were adrift in limbo while their leaders recovered from their shock and formulate some sort of response. However, within the first few weeks, it was found that it was members of small groups which are connecting with one another to encourage and comfort. When the leaders recover from their shock and reassert control of the cell groups was the church considered to be functioning. It is my considered opinion that the cell churches did better in the lockdown as their leadership is not vertical but the horizontal. They just continued with their connections and being church.
Finally, which type of church will survive the aftermath of the pandemic? Economic and social disruption will follow pandemic. Churches with cells are often heavily invested in buildings and staff. Money will be scarce as tithing amounts will be reduced as members face the financial crunch. Churches may be forced to heavily mortgage if not sell off their buildings, and reduce their personnel. A cell church may not be so heavily invested in buildings and personnel. Cells usually meet in homes of members. They are likely to ride the storm better.
The situation is dire and there may be closure of churches and ‘retrenchment’ of pastors! A leader of a major denomination in Malaysia in a recent webinar estimated that one-third of the churches in his denomination may have to close down in the aftermath of the pandemic. These are mostly church with cells and heavily committed financially to the rental properties and staff.
There needs to be a paradigm shift in our thinking about the way we do and become church. I will suggest the COVID-19 Connecting Church be a Cell Church that is connected physically in homes and via technologies. Sunday services will be streamed into the cells. Perhaps it is no longer necessary for large auditoriums and offices. If needed, these churches can always rent a hall for their large group meetings. This makes more sense than owning large buildings which we utilize for a few hours every week. This will reduce the financial burden and allows more member to take up leadership roles and cell leaders. This is more in line with the Biblical and Reformers’ mandate of the priesthood of all believers. Understanding ecclesiology in terms of substance rather than the form allows us the liberty to choose.
In summary, what type of church will emerge from the dust once the lockdown is over and the authorities facilitate the opening of the churches? While many are hopeful that life will return to normal once the pandemic is over, the reality is that we have to live with the new normalcy. Unfortunately, there will be many Christian leaders who will want to return to the old normal, by force if necessary. What is this new normalcy and what will the church look like? Connectivity is the key here. We have discovered the genie of technology and there is no way to put the genie back into the jar. Social distancing is here to stay and in a way, we will remain a ‘distanced’ church. The organizational setup of a connecting cell church is a better option in times such as these.
11 June 2020