Certainly, 2020 has been different, Smith said. The pandemic affected more people for a longer period of time. And it’s not over yet. “Here’s what we know about trauma: the hard part comes later on,” Treat said. “If this season has been traumatic, the worst part is going to come out in the next couple of years. Is the church prepared to shepherd and disciple people who are depressed and anxious?” He’s cautiously optimistic about the future. “The book of Acts and church history tells us this is how Christ builds his church,” he said. “I’m looking forward to see how the Lord is at work in all of it.”
In the middle of March last year, churches across America shut their doors and warned congregants to stay home. The sheltering-in-place was supposed to last a few weeks, just long enough to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections and ease the pressure on healthcare providers.
Few knew what to make of the news, or how long the pandemic would last. “Is it worth doing yet another post on the coronavirus?” TGC editor Ivan Mesa asked on a private Slack channel at the end of March.
TGC ended up publishing 247 more pieces over the next 12 months. Churches scrambled to move services online, to set up sound systems for summer services in parking lots, and to tape off every other pew. Pastors navigated exhaustion, isolation, and congregations arguing over masks, race, and politics.
Some congregants have left, while others have joined. New staff has been hired. Children have grown. Some members will have to meet each other for the first time, or get to know each other again.“Our church post-COVID will be a different church than it was pre-COVID,” High Pointe Baptist Church pastor Juan Sanchez said. “I think this will be true for most churches.”
Within a year or two, those things are likely to settle down and smooth out. The masks will come down, the tape will come off the drinking fountains, and the chairs will move back together.
But other changes may stick around. TGC asked eight pastors: If we were looking at your church in 10 years, would you be able to point to a difference COVID made?
“I never would’ve agreed to video preaching before this year,” Reality LA pastor Jeremy Treat said. “But here we are.”
Reality LA hasn’t been able to meet in person for more than a year. But when they finally do come together again, Treat isn’t sure when they’ll turn off the livestream.
“I wrestle with it, because there are always people who are vulnerable or who can’t make it on a Sunday for valid reasons,” he said. But does a weekly livestream “enable whole swaths of people who want to tune in because they’re prone to laziness or consumerism?”
That’s a common question. Like podcasting before it, livestreaming is a conundrum: it lets those who are shut in or traveling worship in real time, and it’s an easier way for a nonbeliever to hear a good sermon. But it can also lead to lower attendance and more church switching.
“People have said to us, ‘I got used to being able to stay in my pajamas and roll out of bed 15 minutes before service starts with my cup of coffee,’” said Hinson Baptist Church pastor Michael Lawrence, who began livestreaming after COVID. “But as people are coming back, they’re uniformly saying to me, ‘This is hard, but I need to do this. Getting the sermon over YouTube and singing with my kids in the living room is not a replacement for the fellowship of the saints under the preaching of God’s Word and the ordinances.’”
Sometime in the next few months, “we’re going to have to make a decision about taking the livestream from public to private,” he said. “There will be some who will need us to continue to provide the livestream—I totally get that. But for everyone else, we’ll have to encourage them to re-strengthen that muscle of getting in the car or on a bike and getting to church.”
At Open Door Presbyterian Church in Virginia, the elders may contemplate turning off the livestream altogether to help people kick the habit, pastor Paul Kim said.
“It’s been a good platform for seekers who haven’t yet committed to come to a physical church building,” he said. He’s had about 80 people join his church during the past year, and all of them first attended services online. “On the other hand, we don’t want to train regular members to think, Oh, I did a worship service online, so I completed my responsibility.”
At the end of 2019, Zoom had an average of 10 million meeting participants every day. By the end of 2020, it had 350 million.
“I can’t imagine doing church council meetings in person ever again,” said Bernard Howard, who planted Good Shepherd Anglican Church in New York City in 2017. Meeting on Zoom means his council members don’t need to navigate the subway system to get across the city and back. The meeting can take an hour or two, instead of all evening.
Zoom lets parents put small children to bed and then jump onto a small group gathering. It lets those who are homebound join Bible studies. And it lets committees more easily find times everyone can meet—you don’t even have to be in town to attend.
“We’ve always tried to meet with elders, deacons, staff, small group leaders, and Sunday school teachers before our congregational meetings so they know what’s going to happen,” he said. “No matter what we did, the same 25 percent of the leaders would show up.”In Portland, moving to Zoom increased attendance at pastor Lawrence’s leaders’ meetings dramatically.
Since the meeting moved to Zoom, though, “we’ve had around 100 percent participation,” he said. “It was amazing. All of a sudden everyone is showing up—and participating. They have questions. They’re engaging with the agenda. That was fascinating for me.”
He thinks the virtual context might feel more comfortable for some. “Lots of people don’t like public speaking of any kind, including asking a question or offering a comment in person at a public forum,” he said. “Maybe sitting in their own home on Zoom helps lessen that discomfort. . . . Something like that is going to stay.”
Worship services and meetings aren’t the only things technology affected. In Kim’s church, it expanded mission opportunities.
“When things are normal, we don’t like changes,” he said. “We are busy, so we don’t even try new things.” For example, Open Door sends a short-term mission team to the same majority-Muslim country each year. But last year, they couldn’t.
“Yet the country is developing their web platforms so they can do school online,” Kim said. “Through that channel, we’ve been able to disciple the young Christians or seekers that we’ve met on previous mission trips. It’s possible for us to continue keeping up the relationships and training them.”
That’s a tool they’ll continue to use in the future, he said.
Providence Church in Texas might hold onto parts of the online registration, even though the state’s seating restrictions have been lifted. “We may keep some aspects of that, because it has allowed us to track who is coming, and to reach back out to them in a more seamless way,” pastor Afshin Ziafat said. “It’s been a way to on-ramp people into the life of the church. Before, they had to fill out a card. Now people aren’t falling through the cracks as much.”