Opinion: Covid-19 Represents an Existential Crisis for the Church

There are all manner of debates which will rumble and rage relating to the Covid-19 pandemic; did my/your/our government respond to it quickly enough or handle it efficiently enough? Was lockdown the correct response? What will be the wider effects on society? These are interesting and important questions but they are not our subject here.

These thoughts are about the effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic (and associated lockdowns) on the church. Briefly put it is my belief that, whatever the opportunities lockdown has brought, (and these are not to be dismissed), the pandemic has now created an existential crisis for the Church. 

By “Church” I am not speaking of any one congregation. If you are reading this in Burghead Free Church these thoughts are not directed at us particularly but are aimed more generally at the Church universal.

The word ‘created’ should also be qualified. In the same way the virus has accelerated current societal trends, (like the death of the high street and the growth on e-commerce), in the church it has similarly served to highlight or expedite existing negative trends. 

But What of The Positives?

Whilst talk of a crisis looms, it is certainly worth bearing in mind some of the positives and opportunities this strange season has afforded. 

 Many churches (our own included) have been given a needed push to engage evangelistically in the digital world. Creative and courageous leaders have adapted to new challenges with vigour and ingenuity (as creative and courageous leaders do). 

Some congregations have been freed up from an unhelpful busyness and emphasis on programatic ministry. Counterintuitively this may have enabled some congregations to be more present and connected with/in their local community, engaging in ministries of evangelism, prayer and service (this has certainly been true in our own experience). 

Though church leaders were sometimes mislead by artificially inflated viewing figures (Facebook, for example, counts a 3-second glance as a video “view”) there really was a real surge of interest in online content and services in the early days of the pandemic. It seems that the combination of real fear/uncertainty plus time to kill really did lead some in the UK to express fresh interest in spiritual matters. 

Wise churches have prayerfully and strategically cultivated these new links with many guests continuing to plug in to digital services, attend online evangelistic courses, or be followed up in other imaginative ways. A small number of folks seem genuinely to have come to faith during these days – which is a cause of much rejoicing (in heaven and on earth). 

These unexpected benefits of lockdown are not to be dismissed lightly. Wise congregations can and will prayerfully build on them in the future. My contention is simply that what is in danger of being lost – in many congregations at least –  outweighs what has been gained.

To put it another way, whilst this Pandemic may be the making of some congregations I fear it will be the breaking of others. 

My aim in expressing this view is not simply to be miserable, or to further burden church leaders (who have already taken a real battering this year). It should go without saying that my aim is not to question the sovereignty of God who has, for his good purposes, brought this season upon us. 

However, trusting in divine sovereignty never negates the need for human responsibility. Simply put, if we’re going to aim our prayers, our plans, and our practice at mitigating the threats posed by Covid-19 and associated lockdowns, we need to be clear and realistic about these threats.  That begins with identifying them. 

Enough preamble. I believe the Covid-19 pandemic now represents an existential crisis for the church…

  1. Because Some have drifted off and may never return. 

Some have grown cold in their devotion to Christ during the lockdown. Months away from the routines of the physical gathering of the Lord’s people have exposed a shallow faith (or perhaps a lack of real saving faith at all). 

Some will respond to say that this is merely a pruning of the church which reveals those who really belong to Christ. There may be some truth in that, perhaps even some value in that. Nonetheless a healthy church always has a ‘fringe’ of folks (we would have called them adherents in the old days) who are in and around the congregation even if not yet fully committed to Christ. This group often represented the first line of our evangelistic efforts and many now seem to have slipped away. 

They say it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit or routine. Lockdown has far exceeded this and formed new stay-at-home habits in some. At the time of writing it seems we are to be plunged into further restrictions which may further reinforce this trend. 

Caveat: I am NOT speaking here about those dear saints who would love to be actively involved in the in-person activities of the church but are genuinely prevented from doing so by illness or health vulnerabilities or those who for other good reasons simply cannot join physically. 

  1. Because the cliff-edge of age has come sooner than expected

Linked to this some of our most devoted senior saints have left the in-person gathering and may never be able return to it. It was already the case that many of these faithful Christians would go to glory in the next decade – bringing a cliff edge moment of decline to already dwindling congregations. However, Covid has brought that cliff edge sooner and made it steeper as many are now effectively housebound (and possibly permanently so) in this new normal. 

Don’t hear me wrong, we sincerely hope and pray they will return, they are an extremely significant source of strength to the church, and they remain an important part of the body of Christ whether they can gather physically or not, but we will greatly miss their presence, their wisdom, their practical service, and their encouragement. Many churches were already only just surviving because of these saints. What will befall congregations if significant swathes of this group are now permanently housebound? 

  1. Because it has caused a financial crisis (which hasn’t arrived yet)

There is, it seems to me, an extraordinary lack of news coverage about the impending financial crisis. Many people have (thus far) been shielded from the worst of this because of the Government’s furlough scheme. 

When that ends in April 2021, the deepest recession in living memory combined with huge government borrowing and soaring unemployment will surely mean a financial crisis the like of which most of us have not seen in our lifetimes. There are a great many implications of course but it will inevitably hit the churches too, many of whom were barely surviving before this began. 

There is opportunity in this too of course, we remember that the early church was largely poor. There is a chance to think again and repurpose our expenditure on mission instead of maintenance. There is a chance for the church to step up in sacrificial giving and service. 

But, make no mistake, there is a huge challenge here. 

  1. Because there is a startling lack of urgency to begin meeting in-person again 

This point needs some caveats (please listen to my caveats!) 

Some parts of the UK have been plunged into further, tighter lockdown restrictions again recently. The months ahead look as if they will bring more of this for all of us. Other congregations rent buildings and have been hindered from meeting in ways that are beyond their control, other Christians have genuine health reasons for remaining at home. Add to this that the cap of 20 on church attendance recently imposed across mainland Scotland means in-person attendance is now very challenging. 

However, there is, it seems to me, a startling lack of urgency amongst churches and individual Christians who could meet but are choosing not to. The prevailing attitude in some places seems to be “we’ll wait until this blows over then get back to normal”. This misses the point that things will not get back to normal. One wonders what will be left in congregations who take this approach by they time they judge it time to resume ‘normal service’ again. At this point such congregations may realise that faithful older members will never return in-person (see pt. 2), that faithful younger members have (rightly or wrongly) sought fellowship elsewhere, that the on the fringe have drifted off altogether, and that there is simply nothing left. 

We’re all delighted to hear news of vaccines. But even with the best smoothest and fastest possible roll-out (which is unlikely given the complexity of the task) we will be in lockdown restrictions of one kind or another for many more months, exacerbating this problem further. 

  1. Because consumer culture is flourishing 

For all the benefits of online church (and – please note – I’m a technophile who is a huge advocate of these things) one significant drawback we must try to mitigate is the danger of flourishing consumer attitudes. Many are effectively saying… “when I can watch any service, from any church, with any preacher – why stick to my own?”. 

Listing the myriad problems with this approach is for another blog post. My point here is that this is happening and is to the detriment of many beliers and local congregations alike. 

  1. Because the spike in spiritual interest was, in the end, short-lived

We should thank God for the significant spike of digital interest in the gospel that occurred at the start of the lockdown. Many churches (our own included) have genuinely benefited from this. We have made new contacts and encountered gospel opportunities I would never have thought possible. We are still seeing new people connect both online and in-person. 

However, the great hopes of many that the digital interest surge was the start of some national revival have surely been dashed. The almost universal experience was that the surge slowly wained and fell away. 

We must pray on. 

  1. Because a (potentially) dangerous precedent for future government infringement upon the freedom to worship has been set.

Hear me clearly now. 

I believe both the UK and Scottish governments have acted with the best of intentions to quell the spread of a dangerous virus. The sort of persecution complex you sometimes see amongst Western Christians who are desperate to find some serious infringement of their liberty in every government action is unhelpful (and makes a mockery of the real and serious persecution faced by bothers and sisters around the world). Let me further add that, despite an anomaly here and there, (and which sector doesn’t have those?), I don’t think churches have been treated unfairly during this Pandemic. 

Nonetheless as former Prime Minister Thersea May recently said in a House of Commons speech; 

“I just want to make one word about public worship and echo the concerns of others. My concern is that the Government today, making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused for a government in the future with the worst of intentions, and it has unintended consequences.”

  1. Because National Church leaders have not spoken with a powerful and prophetic voice. 

Reformed/Evangelical Christians may not like the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Catholic Bishop of Westminster function as our spokesmen. However, in the eyes of the public, (who, perhaps understandably, don’t know or care about the difference between a High Anglican, an Independent Baptist, or a Scottish Presbyterian), these are the authoritative Christian voices in the land. As far as Joe Bloggs on the street knows, what Justin Welby says and does is what Christians believe, full stop. 

It is certainly the case the Archbishop has done some very good and commendable things during these days (stories of him serving undercover as a chaplain at a London hospital at the height of the Pandemic are a wonderful example of last-shall-be-fist Christian service).

However, what we have not heard during this Pandemic from such leaders with a national platform, is a strong prophetic voice preaching the gospel. We (rightly) heard many calls from these leaders to comply with government to prevent physical death and preserve life, but there was no stark clarion call to trust in Christ to be saved from eternal death, and kept for eternal life. 

Think what an opportunity has been missed: the nation was presented with its own mortality in a way never before seen in our lifetime – with daily death tolls plastered over the evening news on a nightly basis and, whilst there was a great deal of excellent gospel preaching in local congregations, we lacked a clear voice from key national leaders. 

Conclusions – pray for mercy, and work for revitalisation. 

This article is not written to depress. Indeed time may prove me wrong on many counts (and I sincerely hope it does). I write to present what I see to be the existential crisis facing the Christian church in the UK and so to spur us to prayer and action. We must pray that God will have mercy on his church. We must put our shoulders to the wheel to work for its revitalisation.