Last week, I was made aware that a number of evangelicals, including one very prominent leader, had already written books on how Christians should respond to the coronavirus crisis, to be released shortly. I was struck by what was, at best, a distinct lack of wisdom in the proposal that definitive answers could already be offered to a crisis we are only just beginning to live through; at worst, a disturbing attempt to capitalise on a crisis that is ruining the lives of huge numbers of people. To write a short article or contribute some thoughts to a podcast is one thing; these are by nature tentative, a means of thinking out loud, and can be amended as time goes on. A book, however, speaks with a deeper sense of finality.
From a different perspective a couple of days ago came a collection of very short essays packaged in an online book reflecting on the Church’s forced move into the online world. The first group of essays contained reflections from pastors and church leaders about their experiences of moving church online in the past few months. The second group of essays, from researchers working in the fields of digital theology and media studies, focused on questions the Church should be grappling with as it considers what can be learned from this time and helpfully carried forward in its future online engagement.
I was disappointed by this for similar reasons – far too little time has elapsed for anyone to be able to clearly reflect on what we are going through and what we are doing in response. But I was disappointed further by the tone of many of these short essays. Most were overwhelmingly positive about the move online, many going so far as to state with confidence that this is going to be the new ‘normal’ for the Church, or that this is the thing that will save the Church and attract young people back. While a few important questions were raised in the essays (primarily by the researchers, interestingly) about issues like community and liturgical participation, by and large the reflections were weak and lacking in substance. Indeed, many of the contributors seemed more eager to push their preconceived ideas of what the Church should like, rather than to address more directly what is actually going on in this moment. I found it intriguing that no parishioners were invited to offer comments – I was speaking with a few people in recent days who long to get back to church as they know it, and who are sick and tired of sitting in front of a screen multiple times a week.
As I suggested above, what troubles me initially about these kinds of books coming out so soon is the inability to reflect deeply on this profoundly new situation. As I write, we are a mere thirty-six days into lockdown in the United Kingdom, and we have only known about the presence of this virus for five months. Scientists and medical practitioners are telling us that we have eighteen to twenty-four more months of dealing with this until vaccinations are administered widely, and even then, the future is not certain. As it pertains to the Church, easing of lockdown restrictions will be slow, and this means that any prospect of meeting together as we did prior to March could still be some way off. How can we really say something meaningful about how the current restrictions have impacted the Church when we are still in the stage of this all being very novel?
However, it is not just lack of time and experience that leads to shallow reflections. All of this underlines a pervasive problem in many circles to fail to grapple with the deep theological issues this current crisis throws up. This is evident in both of the books I have highlighted above. Evangelical writers, in rushing to provide answers to the crisis, have to fall back on pre-formulated answers to questions on matters like suffering and theodicy that cannot yet address this specific moment in time. Pressured into saying something by the cult of celebrity, they can only offer general comments that fail to speak directly to the specific contexts of people’s lives. Similarly, church leaders and researchers, in the rush to emphasise the good of moving church online, have to ignore or gloss over deep questions about the nature of the Church, liturgy, and sacramentology. Pressured both into adapting in an instant, and advancing the narrative that ‘everything is awesome’, many can only give these bigger questions a tacit nod while they set up the next Zoom meeting.
It was notable in the online book that only one or two contributions from church leaders raised questions about whether churches are rushing into online worship with a sense of urgency, and going online simply because they feel pressured to do so. Similarly, only one researcher, from a sociological background, suggested a posture of tentativeness in commenting on what this will mean for the future, observing that most churches have gone online out of necessity, not conviction. Caution must be used when suggesting what will remain, while also looking for what good things can be continued after this crisis is over. It is in these temperate responses that more wisdom is found.
To be sure, the move online was inevitable, and churches have, by and large, adapted remarkably to the changes required overnight. My concern is not with this move itself, but only that to attempt to justify it as the ‘new normal’, or to herald a ‘new reformation’ of the Church, generally betrays a weak ecclesiology and a profound inability to think theologically. Certainly, all of us who are church leaders and theologians will be called upon to reflect on the current situation, but the wisest responses will be from those who are willing to begin by saying, ‘I don’t know’. To that end, I was impressed by this conversation on The Living Church’s new podcast, which discussed both opportunities and challenges, and did so within a deeply theological framework.
I am not suggesting we cannot say anything meaningful yet at this point. We can draw lessons from both this crisis and previous crises, and we will continue to do so. But for now, this is a time to focus on the local – to do what we can to continue to lead worship in our churches, to attend to the needs of our parishioners, and above all, to pray. The future remains unknown, and it is only in hindsight that we will truly see how this moment has changed the Church.