Church is not an end in itself.
We are called to point beyond ourselves, to be a sign of the dawning of the reign of God, precisely in our actual context.
So, let’s think about that context.
COVID-19 has been an accelerator for winds that were already blowing across culture and economics nationally and globally.
Internet commerce was emptying out shopping malls. Flexible office hours and work-from-home arrangements were enhancing life for workers with ample space at home and dependable internet access.
However, this also furthered the economic and cultural divide between white collar elites and service industry workers – from fry cooks to home health care providers to Amazon warehouse workers – who need to be on site.
The “gig economy” – from Uber drivers to contract teachers for online educational enterprises – was mushrooming, while traditional employment with employer-provided health care benefits comprised an ever-smaller portion of the workforce.
The new economy bristles with unresolved ethical issues.
Business and tech vocations attracted our youth to an array of venues, from for-profit technical schools to STEM programs in public universities.
Online instruction expanded in disciplines as disparate as accounting, education and creative writing. This has helped rein in soaring education costs and allowed adult students already in the workforce full-time to pursue their goals without uprooting themselves and their families.
More and more, pre-COVID, we were becoming an online world.
This was not just true in the United States. My students in Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico and the Dominican Republic were witnessing and participating in the same changes.
And what about the church?
We are constantly reminded that participation in worship and church activities has declined throughout the new millennium, as people – not just younger folk – have become more strapped for time, less invested in social institutions of all kinds and more skeptical of the claims of faith in our crisis-driven world.
And then came COVID!
When I was senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in downtown Portland, Oregon, I began to think out loud with staff and lay leadership about an online presence.
In many ways, we were a traditional “big steeple” church, with a gorgeous building, multiple services and intergenerational families. We also had “praise music” sharing time with choral and congregational music sung to organ accompaniment.
I felt we had a “good product,” so why not make it more widely accessible?
If flamboyant megachurches and highly liturgical congregations alike could expand their “market share” and, more importantly, connect people with the good news, then why not us?
The response I got was underwhelming.
We didn’t have the necessary equipment or expertise in house to pull it off; our budget was tight. We already had plenty of opportunity to meet new people in our diverse urban environment.
Let me be frank: I am not blaming leadership. We were all busy and deeply committed. I let go of the thought quickly, as I already had plenty on my plate and no relevant skills of my own to apply.
Fast forward to 2020.
The young pastor who succeeded me as “lead pastor” had literally one Sunday of live worship leadership when the first COVID lockdown hit.
So, the new pastor, the continuing associate pastor — who had relevant skills in worship planning and social media — and many of the same lay leaders, got a bit of expert advice, did the relevant equipment upgrades, and they were literally livestreaming in two weeks. And “the product” continually gets better.
Across town, my friend Mark is a progressive Lutheran pastor here in Portland, a leader in the sanctuary movement, in faith-based responses to gun violence and in advocacy for workers´ rights. His congregation also has multiple services, from traditional Lutheran liturgies to jazz vespers.
Since they’ve gone exclusively online in response to COVID, their weekly worship participation has swelled from 200 to 300 on average to as many as 4,000, with online worshippers from Georgia to Ghana to Hawaii!
Mark said to me excitedly the other day, “It’s a new Reformation!” A Lutheran ought to know.
The Protestant Reformation rode a technological tsunami called the printing press, churning out pamphlets, catechisms and hymnals by the thousands, as well as Luther’s German Bible, which had the same invigorating and standardizing effect on the German language as the King James Version had on English decades later.
The printing press, and the increased levels of literacy that it fostered, made the laity agents of their own faith, rather than passive consumers. Think of kids and senior citizens today who navigate Zoom and Facebook live as effortlessly as they pick up a book!
They include “church junkies” who church hop from one livestream service to another – different traditions, different times and places – all in their pajamas.
But I also have talked to others who tentatively, anonymously, leverage the internet to explore, slaking that innate hunger for transcendence and meaning – “implicit faith,” Hans Küng calls it – without feeling spied out or crowded into premature commitment.
Now, we are innately social creatures – even the introverts among us.
So, I believe that post-COVID, the restaurants and bars and theatres and galleries will fill up again, and new waves of hardy artists, craft persons and entrepreneurs will brave the empty spaces left by those discouraged or crushed by the COVID economy.
And there will again be in-person gatherings for worship, sharing of the sacraments and table fellowship.
But as advocates for “missional church” were telling us long before COVID, the vitality and raison d’être of the body of Christ does not consist in putting bodies in pews, or even finding or creating faith friendships, as important as that may be.
Rather, the body of Christ plants the values and anticipates the transformative power of the reign of God outside the walls, in the here and now.
Myriad forms of advocacy and service are part of this. Certainly, praise and worship are also at the heart of this, whether the worshippers are gathered in a sanctuary or strewn across the worldwide web.
We gladly make Christ known, wherever and however we may.
Who knows what God has in store for us? Perhaps God will even turn the attention of this global, online expression of Christ’s body loose on the new economy!
Adjunct professor of theology at Palmer Seminary in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He served previously as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, and as professor of theology and ethics at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Wheeler appeared in the EthicsDaily.com documentary, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty.”