Who would have imagined that the COVID-19 pandemic would put the brakes on church participation in such an alarming and abrupt manner?
The pandemic posed the question: If habits are disrupted, will people continue to engage in ministry and mission? What will happen to worship attendance, Bible study, Sunday School, youth and children’s ministries, stewardship, and outreach?
Even researchers and journalists began speculating about the post-COVID condition of the church: Will people stop going?
This isn’t the first time the question has been asked.
In 1911, one of the greatest perceived threats to Christian life was the automobile. December 7, 1911, Lutheran Witness noted that people fall into “the habit of taking Sunday ‘spins’ instead of attending divine worship in God’s house, and thus are soon weaned away from their church activities.” Financial waste and family neglect added to the reason that “the automobile craze presents many dangers to a Christian aside from the ‘joy-riding’ evil.” (Theodore Graebner, Church News and Comments, Lutheran Witness XXX, 7 Dec 1911, 198, quoted in Carl S. Meyer, Moving Frontiers, CPH 1964, 377-378)
A decade later, the radio loomed as a threat to church engagement. In 1924, Rev. Dr. Walter A. Maier considered the possibility of using the radio for ministry. But preaching over the radio caused devoted church members to think that people “might just get lazy Sunday mornings and prefer hearing a sermon in bed.” Maier imagined otherwise. He saw new possibilities: “And what about those who can’t attend church because of illness, or age, or location? Now the church can come to them wherever they may be.” “Imagine the implications—masses could hear and even be brought to faith.” (Paul Maier, A Man Spoke, A World Listened, McGraw Hill, 1963, 70)
Changing times and new innovations, by God’s grace, result in the advance of the church, not its retreat. God used the automobile and the radio to expand His Kingdom. More people were reached. More people received the gift of life and salvation in Jesus. More people were sent to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. Why would we expect anything less during the shifts and changes hastened by a pandemic?
Referencing Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the Apostle Paul prayed that followers of Jesus would know “the hope to which he has called you” and “the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (Eph. 1:18–19). The Apostle declared the Good News that God “put all things under [Jesus’] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:22).
That means we do not need to fear the church’s retreat. Instead, by faith, we can embrace and steward changes and innovations, holding onto certain hope in the greatness and power of God. With Easter confidence and Pentecost vigor, we know that even through a pandemic, the church will advance.
By Rev. Michael Newman
President, LCMS Texas District
Questions for reflection:
Read Acts 2:36-47. How was the church advancing because of the events of Pentecost Day?
What new Gospel opportunities do you see because of the pandemic?
Prayer starter: Ask God to fill you with trust in Him and to help you steward these changing times for the Gospel.