Reassessing “church” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the easiest and, surprisingly, most efficient ways to destabilize any society is to chip away at its traditions. In any social group, traditions are the mortar that holds the societal structure together. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that at the center of many societal turning points are traditions that have been called into question.
From Antiochus Epiphanes IV and his attempts to expedite the Hellenization of the Jews to the numerous wars that are still raging today, the questioning of traditions remains one of the most fruitful seeds for conflict.
Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly destabilized the global community. Regardless of whether you identify as religious or not, this pandemic has necessitated the questioning and, in some cases, the abandonment of traditions.
Many of us have had to wrestle with questions including: Can we or should we celebrate Thanksgiving without assembling? Do we need offices for work to be productive? Is the brick-and-mortar school essential for education to happen? In addressing these questions, psychological and societal shifts are inevitable.
As a Seventh-day Adventist Christian pastor, one tradition, among many others, that I have questioned during this pandemic is that of congregating. During the course of this health crisis, I have asked questions such as: What are the pros and cons of in-person worship vs. virtual worship? Does worship only happen in a church building? And what is the correlation between our buildings and our identity?
Between the shutdowns and the re-openings, I have observed that a significant number of people have decided not to come to the church building. Many people have embraced the advantages of worshipping online, advantages such as the fact that you can attend the worship meeting of your choice regardless of your geographical location. You can also enjoy church without running the risk of having to get involved. And finally, if the worship service is not appealing to you, you can leave and join another without risking the shame and becoming a subject for the local rumor mill.
I understand this topic unearths a minefield of emotions because some people strongly disapprove of this “restaurant model” of doing church. In contrast to those who find it valuable in that it affords every individual a meaningful worship experience.
Those who disapprove emphasize the lack of accountability, among other things, on the part of the worshiper. The issues of offerings and human resources when it comes to event planning often take center stage. “The Restaurant model makes for immature Christians,” they argue, “the church, from the Sabbath School class to its evangelistic meetings, is necessary for perpetual Christian maturity.”
Worship and the Apocalypse
Over the years, it appears we have started to exclusively associate worship with church activities, leading us to view any societal shift that affects our meeting in the church as apocalyptic.
I think the danger of the apocalyptic interpretation of everything is evident for all to see. For example, during this health crisis, many were sounding the alarm for religious persecution where it was non-existent. The apocalyptic interpretation of everything blurred the lines between a religious crisis and a health crisis. Anyone who tried to call for calm and reason was unfortunately labeled as an active, unreligious participant in the conspiracy and, consequently, the enemy.
If there is one question that the pandemic has brought to the forefront of our collective religious understanding, it is this: Does one need to show up in the church building to have a legitimate worship experience? I believe that the pandemic has alerted many of us to the possibility that there is probably more to worship than showing up in a brick-and-mortar religious building.
Why We Do Church
One of the fundamental reasons we come together is to encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Worship is not primarily what we do but who we are. Worship is not mainly dramatization but essence. We don't congregate in order to worship; we assemble because we worship.
It was this great idea of coming together as worshipers of God, to encourage one another to be faithful in love and good works, that the author of Hebrews was talking about when he said, “Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
We need to remember that we always bring who we are, good or bad, to the church building. That is why I often promote “Evange-living” (our everyday Christian lives as Kingdom citizens) over evangelism (the preoccupation with the promotion and running of church events). After all, the greatest sermon preached is the one lived.
Heraclitus of Ephesus, a pre-Socratic philosopher, is credited with observing and articulating that “Change is the only constant in life.” A detailed study of Christianity's history will prove beyond a doubt that change is a guaranteed consistent.
The only thing that the winds of change cannot and most likely will not blow away when it comes to church is our reason for existence. If we embrace the idea that our buildings are not synonymous with worship, we might find that shutting them down is none consequential to the Christian movement. We might find that changing how we do church is a guaranteed expectation, and therefore we ought to hold on to traditions loosely.
On this side of eternity, we will go through many situations that require a change of practice and not principle. This time around, it has been the COVID-19 pandemic, and only God knows what the future will throw at us.
Let us take courage in the fact that Jesus is the Head of the Church (Ephesians 5:23). He will lead His people and “give them everything they need for life and Godliness” (2 Peter 1:3) even as they navigate the turbulence of change.
In one of his prolific books on prayer, E. M. Bounds wrote that, “The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods but through men (People). He does not come on machinery but on people. He does not anoint plans, but People.”
The church is primarily people and not buildings and systems. Buildings will come and go, systems of operation will change, but God’s Spirit will continue to move and inspire people.
1. Bounds, E., 2012. Power Through Prayer. Paterson NJ: Trinity Press; Unabridged edition.
2. Graham, Daniel W. "Heraclitus." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, September 3, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/.
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, orator, and author currently serving in the Osoyoos Church in the British Columbia Conference in Canada. Pastor Thandazani and his wife Matilda have been blessed with three beautiful girls who are the joy of their lives and their highest calling. (www.themscproject.com)
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.