The churches that will recover the best from COVID and the Zoom church phenomenon are those which take thes three marks seriously: preaching, sacraments, and Christian fellowship.
Some experts are predicting somewhere around a 30% drop in post-COVID church attendance. While I’m sure there are many different factors that contribute to the drop, one has to think that “Zoom church” carries part of the blame: it has just been too easy to sit at home in our pajamas, drink coffee, and listen to our favorite pastor. None of the fuss, exerted energy, or investment in that unpleasant thing called “other people”.
While some churches (incorrectly, I think) are adapting to the new situation by making Zoom church a fixed component of their overall church strategy, most will hope to go back to the way things were. But again, they will find that, on average, they will have about 30% fewer people with whom they can get back to normal. The ease that Zoom has brought to our church life will not be easy to overcome when COVID is just a memory, and some churches will have closed their doors long before that happens.
In this article, I would like to describe three types of churches, and evaluate how well they will be able to recover from COVID and Zoom church. Each type of church has a weakness that has been exposed during the past several months, as well as a strength that will draw people back to the pews. The three types of churches I will be describing in this brief article are preaching, sacramental, and community churches, which I will evaluate from a pragmatic, rather than from a theological, perspective. Obviously, there is no such thing as a “pure church” that perfectly fits any of the three types, but each church has certain tendencies toward one type or another, which can help evaluate it as a whole.
The first type of church is the one that emphasizes its preaching, and to a lesser extent, its music. Churches of this type see peaching as the primary reason why people go to church. They view the whole liturgy as preparing for the sermon, which is typically lasts between 30–60 minutes. Churches with a reformed background, especially Presbyterian and Baptist, typically fit this mold. The strength of this type of church is the power of experiencing the preaching and music firsthand, and its weakness is that technology has allowed people to listen to preaching and music outside of Sunday morning.
The second type of church is the one that emphasizes its sacraments, and to a lesser extent, the liturgy in general. Churches of this type see the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, as the primary reason why people go to church. They view the whole liturgy as preparing for the Eucharist, which is part of a long and elaborate ceremony that typically lasting some 30 minutes. Churches with a High Church background, such as High Church Anglicans and Lutherans —to say nothing of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox— typically fit this mold. The strength of this type of church is the fact that people have to be physically present to participate in them (esp. the Eucharist), and its weakness is that COVID has shown that one can still grow in Christian maturity without physically participating in the sacraments, thereby weakening their supposedly indispensable role.
The third type of church is the one that emphasizes Christian community, and to a lesser extent, on living the Christian life in general. Churches of this type see fellowship and communion as the primary reason why people go to church. They view the church service as preparing people to live the Christian life throughout the week, and often hold regular meetings throughout the week for the purposes of Bible reading, prayer, and fulfilling the “one another” commands. Churches with a Low Church and/or revivalist background, such as Anabaptist, Baptist, Methodist, and Charismatic churches, typically fit this mold. The strength of this type of church is its taking advantage of humanity’s natural instinct to want to be together, and its weakness is the fact that people can come together any day of the week, not just at church on Sunday.
Perhaps there are other types of churches, but I think that preaching, sacramental, and community churches embrace the vast majority of them. The important question before us is, which of these will be able to recover from Zoom church?
In my opinion, I think the sacramental and community churches have the best chance, while the preaching church will have the hardest time recovering. In a sacramental church, there literally is no other place where one can go to get the sacraments. If the church members take the sacraments seriously, Zoom church was never a legitimate substitute for the real thing, and thus they will return to the pews as soon as possible. In a community church, there are very strong ties between the members, and most likely they will have noticed the relational hole in their lives, and will be excited to return and see their spiritual brothers and sisters. Preaching churches, in my opinion, will have the hardest go. If “church” is little more than listening to a preacher (or being entertained by live music), then why go through all the fuss of doing it Sunday morning with the masses, when you can do it from the comfort of your own home, and listen to your favorite preacher?
As was stated at the beginning, there is no church that perfectly fits the mold of any of the three types presented above, and this is a good thing: churches need to be well-rounded. In fact, I think that the churches that will recover the best from COVID and the Zoom church phenomenon are those which take seriously all three types: preaching, sacraments, and Christian fellowship.
Although I developed the three types of churches from a merely observational perspective, neither I do not think that the grouping is random. They correspond to two other ways we are accustomed to speak of the Church.
First, they correspond to the three “marks” of a true church that were developed during the Reformation. The first mark, the true preaching of the Gospel, corresponds to preaching churches; the second mark, the right administration of the sacraments, corresponds to sacramental churches; and the third mark, church discipline, to the extent that it highlights the necessity to live out the Christian life, corresponds to community churches.
Second, they correspond to view the Church “from above” and “from below”. When we look at the Church from above, we look at it as an organization, i.e., outer structure and official ministry, which corresponds to the preaching and sacraments. When we look at the Church from below, we look at it as an organism, i.e., its inner life and one another ministry, which corresponds to community churches. (1)
If you are a layman, the best thing you can do for yourself and your brothers and sisters in Christ is to return to church on Sunday mornings. If you are a pastor, the best thing you can do is build your church on God’s Word, and emphasize good preaching, a healthy view of the sacraments (and of the physical world in general), and Christian community.
(1). Some of the key concepts developed here have come from my listening to Carl Truman’s comments on his podcast, The Mortification of Spin.