This week, the number of Americans who have received their first dose of the vaccine will rise to one third of the population. As numbers continue to climb in the US and around the world, some churches will have to contend with yet another set of pandemic-spurred challenges.
At what point will churches that have been meeting virtually go back to in-person meetings? At what point will in-person churches drop mask mandates or other COVID-19 protocol? As the vaccine opens up to all US adults, will they start requiring attendees to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before entry? And will white evangelical resistance to the vaccine subside? In February, 45 percent of this population said they would not be taking the vaccine, according to Pew Research Center.
But beyond figuring out the logistics of in-person worship, churches will also have to contend with figuring out the role of their online ministries. Will they attempt to balance both? Or will one cannibalize the other? This week on Quick to Listen, we’ll be talking about the challenges pastors and church leaders face at this point in the pandemic, with Jay Kim, lead pastor of teaching at WestGate Church in California’s Silicon Valley and teacher-in-residence at Vintage Faith. He’s also the author of Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age.
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Highlights from Quick to Listen #259
To what extent did you imagine vaccines being as divisive as masks and shutdowns have been in church settings?
Jay: We’ve been here before as church leaders. The vaccine issue is already contentious. It is at least laced with the potential for causing further division in the local church.
The only way I can talk about it accurately would be to speak from the perspective of our local congregation. We just had in-person services for Easter. I found out this morning that somebody called the County because there was something that we did that they found questionable. This is somebody who is a long-time beloved member of our church.
Division has become our default. Not only is it acceptable, it feels comfortable, like a warm blanket that's quite dirty, and yet, it’s warm. So we cover ourselves in it.
I expect that the vaccine will be divisive. It has not become divisive in our church just yet. Part of the reason for that is because we are continuing to offer our services online. There is a release valve for those who take the vaccine and feel comfortable showing up and those who were not going to take the vaccine. It gets a little trickier for those who refuse to take the vaccine and have a more extreme view of COVID overall and don't take it maybe as seriously as others do.
At our church, we have not had any pushback with wearing masks. Nobody's fought that, but I imagine that that has been an issue for other churches. Church leaders and pastors are going to have to navigate it with the same sort of kindness, compassion, and yet conviction that we've tried to do with other divisive issues.
That’s a big part of it, compassion and truth-telling. How do you do both? Sometimes it feels like the two are at odds with one another.
Is it the role of pastors and church leaders to be vocal about encouraging congregants to take the vaccine?
Jay: It is the role and responsibility of pastors and church leaders to be truth-tellers. That's our first and foremost calling in the sense that we're called to proclaim and declare the gospel, which is the ultimate truth. But Jesus makes clear that the gospel expresses itself in a variety of ways that should impact our everyday lives and be pragmatic in some ways and not pragmatic in other ways.
Our commitment is to truth-telling. I have my personal leanings which I'm comfortable sharing. I’ve been privileged to be able to get my first dose and will receive my second dose in a couple of weeks. I'm grateful for that. At the same time, I have friends and congregants who don't fit the profile of the caricature of those who you would think are most vocal about being anti-vaxxers. I have friends who are balanced and thoughtful.
Some nurses are not comfortable taking the vaccine. It's a complex issue. We have to begin with the common denominator when it comes to truth-telling, then work our way out from there. I'm not in a position where I feel a strong conviction that church leaders need to push people toward the vaccine.
Before the pandemic, you wrote a book encouraging churches to shift away from technology to analog. How do you see vaccines as a form of technology versus some of the other forms that are more apparent to us?
Jay: Those who haven't read the book often assume that my book is trying to ask everybody to become a Luddite and throw away their iPhones. That could not be further from the truth. I have a deep appreciation for technology. I'm trying to suggest that technology is a tool and like any tool, it doesn't have an intrinsic morality to them.
At their most baseline level, technology isn’t built with an inherent morality where the issues come into play based on our use or misuse. If we apply that to the vaccine, what does my having taken the vaccine say about me? It tells you that I appreciate this technology, this advance in human technology that's allowed us to protect ourselves in my estimation against what has proven to be a significant threat to everyday life.
But as a Christian, we just celebrated Easter and the 40 days leading up to that, Lent, which began with Ash Wednesday. One of the major reasons we remember on that day is that we are going to die.
In many ways, death has become much more visceral this past year, particularly during the pandemic. Subversively enough, technology and medical advancement like the vaccine can blind us to reality.
While we may be able to extend life expectancy and the quality of life, the reality is the end always comes. I think about Paul's words in 1 Thessalonians, where he says “In the midst of death, we don't grieve like the rest of the world grieves without hope.” Paul is not saying that Christians do not grieve death. We do. We simply grieve with hope.
Sometimes, advances in modern technology and medicine shift the placement of that hope to science, undoing some discipleship elements within us.
Do you think requiring “vaccine passports,” in the form of negative COVID tests or proof of vaccination, would be helpful for large gatherings, like Sunday services?
Jay: I'm still processing the balance between our responsibility for the welfare of those who show up and that is a great responsibility. One of the reasons why nobody takes issue with bringing kids to church is there's a whole check-in system, where you register your name, sign up, and get a sticker. You show your sticker to check your kid out.
If a church didn't have that, parents would be wary. That is the question that now applies in this eventual post-pandemic reality where this thing looms overhead. What is our responsibility now beyond children? What is our responsibility to one another, as we gather in the same physical space? One of the reasons I struggle with this is the questions of ecclesiology. I believe firmly that the church is family and that the church is not just something I whipped up out of thin air. This is in the Scriptures. The New Testament makes clear in Paul that we are to operate pragmatically as brothers and sisters, which in his culture would have been the most important familial bond that two individuals could have shared. Other New Testament writers use that as the metric for who we are to be as the church.
This whole thing messes with my paradigm of welcoming people to the church as a dinner table. I've asked myself the question, Am I leaning too hard into idealism at the expense of keeping our people safe? Not that we're doing anything to keep them unsafe or to expose them to danger.
I don't have an answer other than to say our leadership team and I are wrestling with that balance. It is a balance between doing our absolute best to make sure that we limit exposure to anything unsafe. I think 100% safety is a myth. We've never been safe. Driving in your car to get to our church exposes you to danger.
At the same time, we have a responsibility as leaders to do all that we can to limit that exposure. It's a question that all of us as church leaders and pastors need to consider deeply and thoughtfully.
How has your church adopted the use of video and live streaming?
Jay: The church where I serve is a multi-campus church. There would be a live worship team at each campus, but the sermon was a video of the teacher for that weekend, from the main location typically. There were early conversations about moving away from that, the disembodied experience of watching a preacher on a camera. It falls short of what biblical ecclesiology calls us to do. We were moving toward that when the pandemic hit and everything went online.
Now that we are coming out of that fog, we have moved to a live preacher at every campus model. We've been back in person and at the same time, trying to serve well and care for about the two-thirds of our church community who have not yet made their way back to in-person gatherings.
We continue to have the online service, which now is a live stream of one of our campuses every Sunday. We're having serious conversations about how our online presence will be affected once more people get vaccinated and feel more comfortable moving back to in-person service.
Have you experimented with ways to use video to do transformation and not just information?
Jay: Yes, but they all fell short, to be honest. Anything over video felt primarily informational. People struggled with music and worship the most.
They would say they enjoyed the sermons. I thought maybe the sermon is just as dynamic and engaging over a video stream. In the past year, I've come to realize that's not true.
People’s paradigm of what the sermon is supposed to be either shifted or their pre-pandemic paradigm entrenched itself further in their hearts and minds. Most people believe that the sermon is supposed to primarily be an exchange of information.
When people say they enjoyed the sermon, what they mean is they enjoyed the viewing experience. They enjoyed the tidbits of information. The contextual history was fascinating.
It's almost like watching a documentary. But if they were to watch a documentary of ancient Israel, why is it that our church still sends people to Israel every year?
Why is it that people still pay thousands of dollars to go to the Holy Land to touch the dirt and walk the paths? There’s something different about it. That is not what people inherently mean when they say they enjoyed the sermon online.
We stopped at the viewing experience rather than wanting to immerse ourselves fully in the experience of God's word, changing us as a spirit sort of comes alive in and through us through the witnessing experience of the sermon coming alive in our, in our very midst.
When your church moved from a special online version back to a live stream, did you get a sense that shifting technologies made some things possible with regards to engagement?
Jay: I think that the Zoom dynamic did tap into something that has been missing in preaching in the Western evangelical church post–Gutenberg press.
Before the printing press, the sermon was not front and center in the worshiping life of the gathered church. It was always the communion table and worship together was a much more immersive, participatory experience. If you think about the way music has changed, it wasn't until probably 150 years ago that we were able to record music.
Music up until a century-and-a-half ago was an ephemeral experience. You had to go somewhere and experience music together with other people, or you had to make music yourself at home, you had to sing with your kids or your family. Everything has changed.
The change has been accelerated because of technologies like the print press, the Walkman and the Discman, and now, the iPhone and Spotify. Everything is becoming hyper-individualized. I have my own Bible at home. I don't need to go to a place to hear the Word of God, read aloud. I have my own piece of bread and my own glass of wine at home. I could take communion on my own. I can listen to any song that's ever been written with a touch of a few buttons. I think we're losing a lot there.
What Zoom did is, ironically, pointed us back to our need for the communal. That was a great lesson for us to learn, as ironic as it is that our distance forced us to learn the lesson.
I'm hopeful that we can apply it to our in-person experiences. Zoom didn't satiate the hunger. It just pointed us to it. A great example is when I travel for work and I'm grateful that I have FaceTime on my phone, where I can see my wife and my kids. It doesn't satiate my longing to be with them. It makes me aware of the desire and longing. It gets me amped up to hop on a plane, fly back, and hug my real wife and kids in my real arms.
I'm hopeful that our experience with Zoom and these little glimpses we saw into participation could be more deeply ingrained in the worshiping life of our church. I hope that it pushes us further into the real thing now that we're able to do so.
When talking to fellow church leaders and pastors, do you get a sense that there are people who may have built their lives around other patterns and may not necessarily be interested in coming back?
Jay: That concern is warranted. A year of this pandemic has habituated people into new rhythms. That's undeniable. My greatest concern is that it's habituated those who would consider themselves faithful followers of Jesus in such a way that they see church, whether it's in person or online, as an option.
This year has been so disorienting, and it's shuffled the deck of our priorities in such a significant way. This movement that was already happening before the pandemic, where people began to see the church and their relationship to God as an individual exercise, has been accelerated because of the pandemic.
Church leaders are going to have to hunker down and get ready for the long haul of rehabilitating our people. At the same time, I'm hopeful because I don't think that God designed things the way He did arbitrarily. I think He designed us to journey with Him alongside others because we're made in the image of a relational God.
The desire remains, as CS Lewis said so beautifully. If there is a desire in me that the world cannot satisfy, it's not because the universe is a fraud. It's because there's a desire in me that is not meant for this world.
I believe that to be true. That must be a source of hope for pastors and church leaders, as we embark on what is going to be a challenging several months and years ahead.
What is it like to serve two groups synchronously: the one that is in front of you, and one that you are addressing through a lens?
Jay: We’ve committed to prioritizing in a hierarchy of hybridity. We're in a hybrid future; online is here to stay at least for the time being. We're not calling it pure hybridity, meaning we do multiple things. We have a hierarchy: we’re emphasizing and putting most of our energy toward in-person gathering first and foremost. We're doing that unapologetically.
We're not doing that by neglecting those who are unable to join us. We're still addressing their needs as best as we can, but if ever there is a decision to be made, for example, we're writing one sermon a week and that one sermon is going to be written within the hierarchy.
It's going to be written with the in-person community in mind. Those who are at home will watch it from their televisions and hopefully, it's encouraging and informational. But we believe that the sermon comes alive in the room.
The writer Thomas Long talks about the witness of preaching. The sermon doesn't belong to the preacher, the sermon is the thing that comes alive when the preacher speaks the words and the congregation receives those words. Dallas Willard said that the most important thing in a sermon is the moment between when the words leave the preacher's mouth and right before they enter the congregation's ears, meaning it's what the spirit of God does at that moment in that particular place. You could argue that that could be done over a screen, but I would suggest that it can't be done in the same way as it is in person.
What do you say to folks who -- for disability, sickness, illness, and other reasons – have found this year to be one in which they get to more fully participate in events, and are anxious that these communities are going to withdraw from them?
Jay: I wrote the book that I wrote before the pandemic. People told me I didn't consider those who are physically unable to show up in a large gathering of people.
My awareness and my appreciation for ministries that have those communities in mind have greatly increased. We need to do more work there. My friend leads a large church and they have a ministry to shut-ins where they take the sermon every Sunday on a DVD to living facilities and they play the sermon. One of their staff or a volunteer leads hymns on a guitar. It’s a way to bring the church to those who cannot go to church.
I pray we see more creative expressions of hybridity as we move into the future. The church needs to keep in mind those for whom this season has been a tremendous blessing because it has given more focused energy to their community. That's critically important.
However, I think the overwhelming majority of people who have thoroughly enjoyed the season of online is not because they belong to that community where showing up in person is unwise or not possible. The overwhelming majority have enjoyed the season because it's been convenient.
Along those lines, I don't think that following Jesus was ever intended to be convenient. Church was never meant to be convenient. It is in our experience of inconvenience that we are transformed.
How do you encourage people who are considering leaving their church or finding a new one, without moving into a consumer mentality?
Jay: I am always a proponent of informing your church community if you are leaving. As a pastor, one of the most painful things is when people seem to fall off the face of the planet and you don't know where they went. Then you discover six months, 12 months later, that they have been going to this other church and there were several reasons why they didn't think that the church community for them.
There’s a different level of pain there when you're not told. Churches are not products to consume. There are people to whom we belong and if the search for a new church is driven by that, a real sense of belonging, then I think that that's a worthwhile search. It’s overly optimistic to say “You're going to experience real belonging with all communities you step foot in.” That's just not true for a variety of reasons.
At the same time, that search for belonging can very quickly and dangerously turn into a search for a better product to consume. If what belonging translates to is just finding a group of people that make you feel good all the time. Bonhoeffer has that fantastic quote where he says that those who love their dream of a Christian community, more than the Christian community itself, destroy that Christian community, even though that's not their intention.
That's what happens when we see church as a product to consume. We destroy entire communities because we're treating the bride like a prostitute.
Like you pay some money to get what you want, and it makes you feel good for a while, and then you leave, but that's not the relationship. God uses his committed fidelity to one another and loving relationship through the ups and downs, for the long haul.
What might help heal the division happening in church right now, where people may be fearful that some political conversation is going to come up? What’s your hope?
Jay: Christ has continued to lead through two World Wars, famines, other pandemics, and division greater than even the division we face now. To be very honest, my hope has been shaken this past year for a variety of reasons. Yet I come back to the fact that there is still good beyond the often characterized narrative of what is happening in the church.
Every time I come across one of those stories, I experience other voices of faithful followers who are willing to tell the truth, who are willing to confront evil when it needs to be confronted, and who are willing to take courageous steps toward goodness and the flourishing of all. It never fails.
What has encouraged you during this season of intense division?
Jay: One that immediately comes to mind is not long after the George Floyd tragedy, which we are coming up on the first anniversary of. Our church, like most churches in America, was intensely divided. Long story short, an African American leader in our church and a Caucasian police officer who was also heavily involved in leadership on a lay level came together and did this beautiful conversation.
They named some of the stuff that was broken and wrong in our culture and named some of the stuff that we need to address within our congregation, shedding tears with one another and offering forgiveness to each other. It helped navigate and guide our church community through what was and continues to be an intense season of turmoil and pain.
I've got story after story like that, in small and big ways, of people in human ways coming together to shine light into bleak darkness.
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