The Shocking Lie COVID Unveiled About the Church
Rev. Dr. Bryce Ashlin-Mayo, DMin, is Dean of Theology and Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Ambrose University
If you have been around the church for a while, you will know the adage, “the church can’t change.” As familiar and recognizable as the iPhone ringtone, this saying has imprinted itself on the church’s collective consciousness as irrefutable truth. Yet, COVID unveiled it as a tragic lie that the church has believed about herself.
COVID revealed the shocking truth about change and this church. The church is not just competent at change – she can excel at it. When COVID struck, the church moved fast and with greater agility than any company, school, government, or small business. The church crowd-sourced ideas and pivoted ministries online within days, if not hours.
Although clumsy and, at times, not well thought out, the impulse and ability to change wakened from its catatonic state. When crisis struck, the church proved that she could, and would, change if she had to.
The question then looms: What does the church perceive as a crisis?
First, the church believed it needed to meet to worship corporately on the weekend and that its need to gather and the lack of ability to do so was a crisis worth resuscitating its acuity for change. As someone who teaches and trains church leaders on digital ministry, I am always surprised that most people see digital as simply a means for public corporate gatherings (live streaming) but are often uninterested in the possibilities for evangelism, community engagement, and discipleship (where digital’s most significant potential lies).
Second, and more importantly, what does it say about the church’s response to other challenges she faces (ageing leadership, outdated structures, lack of volunteers, sterile (non-reproducing) disciple-making, declining attendance numbers, etc.)? These are well documented and exist across churches, traditions, and denominations. The old excuse that the church can’t change so these are just inevitable realities, has now been proven irrefutably wrong.
Instead, the church can change (in fact, she is good at it) when she perceives a threat worthy of her mobilization. The lie exposed by COVID is that all the challenges listed above facing the church are not seen as existential threats worthy of a swift response. They are just accepted as its inevitable fate. In and of itself, that is a devastating charge that the church must now plead guilty to.
If more proof is needed, consider what has happened since restrictions have lifted and the church has begun to go back to “normal” (or at least a version of it). What has changed? Where has all the innovation gone? The fact is, we still see ageing leadership, sterile disciple-making, lack of volunteers, declining attendance, etc., as problems, but they are problems in a system we are comfortable in, and our comfort can swoon a crisis to sleep. Until we recognize them as threats needing drastic action, I am not sure it will change.
But there is hope. Hope that change is not just possible: it is proven. Hope that once the crisis is acknowledged as such, opportunity and innovation can be conceived and new methods born. This is the season for the Church to be honest with herself and, by doing so, reanimate the change she proved so capable of.
What We're Reading
Church Planters: Inside the World of Religion Entrepreneurs
Richard N. Pitt
I have had many conversations with church planters over the years. Nearly all planters operate with sincere intentions and plans to advance the Kingdom, however defined. My repeated sense is that church planters would benefit greatly, personally and professionally, with a healthier knowledge of, and robust engagement with, empirical data regarding church planting. One reason I hold this view is that data can help to counter and inform many well-intentioned yet misguided assumptions, practices, and expectations among many church planters. This new data-driven book by sociologist Richard Pitt is a great resource. I particularly value this book’s focus on the organizational, societal, and environmental narratives and conditions that profoundly affect the church planter experience. I implore anyone involved with church planting to read this book.
Dr. Joel Thiessen is Professor of Sociology at Ambrose University and Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute
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