When the pandemic began, none of us were prepared. Governments, national, state and local; businesses, both large and small; schools systems at every level; medical communities, from large hospitals to local care givers; parents were unprepared to care for their children, and last of all, local churches had no clue how to be a church without doing church every Sunday. Local pastors began to call the experts and experts began to call local pastors to find out what was going on. (When the experts I called started calling me seeking advice I knew we were in trouble). No one knew what to do.
That led to an interesting experiment. We shut down church for a year. Most of us went online in some form or fashion -- with varying degrees of success. We tried to hold meetings with Zoom and even do small groups with Teams. Universally, the video meetings and groups quickly grew old and most eventually stopped all together. The teleconferencing went from "Hey, we're all in this together" to "Sorry, but just can't do another Zoom meeting." Most of our congregations adapted to online services. From time to time, people would complain about wanting to come back to church, but by and large, people enjoyed sitting on their couches in their pajamas and watching church.
In short, we closed our churches for a year and no one missed us. Now, while that's not totally true -- some missed gathering for worship and some missed their small group. Some were frustrated by not being able to have a funeral or wedding in the sanctuary, but other than that, they didn't miss us. Add one of the most divisive presidential elections in recent memory, and we have all of the ingredients for an Oscar-winning disaster movie.
We flunked pandemic.
The depth of our failure is now becoming clear. While most predicted a rush back to church because families had been isolated for a year, we’re finding the opposite is happening. For some, COVID fear is still very real. A number of our people are uncomfortable in large groups where some haven't been vaccinated. It remains to be seen when and if this group will return to their previous attendance patterns.
Another group is never coming back. They were nominal church members before the pandemic, and since staying home, they’ve realized their lives were just fine without church. They have found other things to do on Sunday morning and they've moved on. A smaller group is finding out that online church works for them. Normally, these are young couples and empty nesters, who get up on Sunday morning, fix their coffee and watch the service while they read the Sunday paper. When the service is over, they move about their day with minimal interruption. They have checked the "attended church" box, and now, the rest of the day is theirs.
The pandemic also revealed another glaring failure. We aren't making any disciples of Christ. What makes me so confident in my assessment? Have you read the social media posts of most Christians during this election cycle? Some of the most vile, hateful, hurtful and blasphemous things were posted by Christians attacking the candidates, other people and even other Christians. Jesus said it's not what goes into the mouth that makes us unclean, but what comes out of our mouths -- revealing our inner selves -- that defiles us. And He didn’t have social media.
The typical response among church leadership after we've realized we've botched things is to peddle harder. We believe that if we just pump our legs hard enough, we'll regain our momentum. Peddling doesn't help when the chain is off the bike.
Our churches have hundreds of programs -- Bible studies for every age group, mission trips to every continent -- and at the end of the day, nothing has changed. Worse, no one has changed.
Mind you, COVID didn't break anything. COVID showed us what was broken. The saddest part is it doesn't look like we've learned the lessons we were supposed to learn during the pandemic. Remember how many blogs we read about how we had discovered a new pace of life during the quarantine? How being forced to stay home allowed us to rediscover the simple pleasures of family dinners and game nights? Now, with quarantines and restrictions being lifted, families are jumping back into their overcrowded schedules. It’s as if we’ve learned nothing.
Sadly, churches are the same way. Determined to make up for lost time, we’re scheduling and rescheduling everything we didn’t get to do last year. No one is asking the hard, but important question — should we be doing this at all?
So, we’ll fill up our church calendars again. We’ll have people coming and going from our building. We’ll have workshops about loving our neighbors and mission programs about helping the poor. We’ll feel all better about how spiritual we’re becoming. Of course, we wouldn’t have actually met our neighbors or engaged with the poor. We’ll start missing family dinners again. There won’t be any time. We’ll be too busy going to church.
As I said, COVID didn’t break anything, but it showed us what was broken. While COVID was bad, walking away from this event having learned nothing is even worse.
It’s one thing to flunk pandemic, but it’s another thing entirely to flunk life.