EXPOSED BY COVID

“We were exposed to COVID, but COVID exposed us,” one Christian leader told me recently. COVID certainly exposed the increasing politicization of the church and the elevation of our rights over the cross. Still, even more significantly, COVID exposed our flawed ecclesiology, as he pointed out. The fissures of a bad ecclesiology were already cutting deep into the western church. COVID merely exposed them.

A Pew Research Center study published on March 22, 2022, revealed that large numbers of people are not coming back to in-person church attendance despite the decline of COVID. Of those who attended in-person church services once or twice a month before the pandemic, only 67% have returned to church, and 36% of those combine in-person and online attendance each month. One in five people (21%) who had attended regularly before the pandemic now appear to substitute virtual church for in-person church. You can read the full study here. You can read James Emery White’s analysis of the study here. White predicts:

They are not coming back.

COVID exposed a deep crack in our ecclesiology that has been growing deeper for decades. Large numbers of people were coming to church for the wrong reasons because church was promoted in the wrong ways. Willow Creek Community Church, which popularized the seeker movement, commissioned a study in 2007 that revealed large numbers of Christians who had “stalled” in their Christian lives and felt the church had let them down. According to George Barna, 10% of Americans in 2017 said they “love Jesus, but not the church,” leading to significant numbers of Christians who choose not to attend church because they don’t see it as necessary or helpful to their spiritual lives. The flaw in our ecclesiology is misunderstanding and misrepresenting why the church gathers. If we promote church as an exciting event that will attract big crowds of people, we should not be surprised when some of those crowds decide it is unnecessary or can be enjoyed digitally.

GATHERED AND SCATTERED

In his seminal work explaining the biblical theology of the local church back in the 1970s, Gene Getz concluded from his exhaustive study of the New Testament that:

  • The church scattered in the world for evangelism.
  • The church gathered in community for edification.

Each of these settings has “distinctive activities and objectives.”[1] The Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20) has only one command. We are to make disciples while going to all nations. It is our mission, the reason we exist. Two participles follow the main command to make disciples. These two participles describe how we are to carry out that commission. “Baptizing and teaching” explain how we make disciples. Baptizing is the result of evangelism. Teaching is the process of edification. In the New Testament, the church scattered is focused on evangelism (Acts 1:8; 4:1-2,4; 5:12-14, 19-21, 25, 27-28, 42 et al.). The church gathered is focused on edification (Acts 2:41-42; 4:32; 11:22-26 et al.).

The modern seeker movement, with its emphasis on attractional Christianity, reversed this biblical paradigm. The church gathered on Sunday morning for evangelism, not worship. The church scattered during the week for edification in small group settings. Robert Schuller, following in the footsteps of Harry Emerson Fosdick and Norman Vincent Peale, promoted a new model for ministry beginning in the 1950s. Schuller recognized that Californians were not interested in the Bible, theology, and the afterlife, so he reinvented the methodology of the church and became the forerunner of the seeker movement. The people were customers, and the church building/campus was the shopping center. The goal was to attract unchurched people to church so they could offer Christianity to them. He said, “I am something like a show barker who cries out to the unchurched, ‘Come in here, there’s something good for you.’”

Today, many evangelicals have refined this process and turned the church service into an evangelistic event, albeit without the extremes of Schuller’s theology of self-esteem. The worship service becomes a “soul-winning station” designed to attract people to Christianity.[2] When the church service changes from gathered worship to an evangelistic event, the nature of the church service changes. Christians invite non-Christians to join them in listening to the professional preacher evangelize the unsaved. We have flipped the biblical paradigm for church on its head. People gather on Sunday morning for evangelism and scatter for edification in small groups during the week.

MISSIONAL VERSUS PASTORAL PREACHING

The result is a radical change in preaching. Preachers must avoid the jargon of Christianity. People are not interested in the Bible and theology, so the preacher must simplify the message and avoid any deep instruction in God’s Word. The message focuses on the felt needs and life questions that unbelievers ask. Preaching in the gathered church becomes missional rather than pastoral. The preacher focuses his efforts on evangelism, not edification, attracting crowds, not growing disciples. The result is the loss of pastoral preaching in the church, leading to a biblically illiterate body of believers and a church gathering that we can take or leave at our leisure.

A flawed ecclesiology produces a weak commitment to the local church, and COVID exposed the flaw. For too long, churches have followed a birdbath methodology for church growth – an inch deep and a mile wide. It is quantity over quality. Quantitative growth without qualitative growth yields crowds of consumers who have little desire for discipleship. Crowds are fickle (John 6:66-67), while discipleship is hard (Luke 9:23-24). The gathering of the church is for disciples to worship the living Word by growing deeper in the written Word, so they can scatter to proclaim the saving Word.

We gather to grow. We scatter to sow.

 

[1] Gene Getz, Sharpening the Focus of the Church, revised edition, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2012, reprint of the 1984 revised edition previously published by Moody Press, 1975, 49, cf. 47-55.

[2] Getz, Sharpening the Focus, 264.