I have to admit, I was discouraged after a phone call with a colleague. My wife and I have been praying that this national interruption in our normal would put the local church on a course of transformation. However, what my colleague shared struck a temporary blow to that hope.
My friend told me he had a videoconference with a number of pastors around the country. He inquired how they were doing with the limitations of conducting their weekly services. Most, he said, were actually excited. They reported that viewing of their live-feed services had increased significantly over their regular weekly physical attendance pre-pandemic. One pastor of a church of 150 reported the viewers were nearly 500. The takeaway for these pastors is that, through this new approach, they are reaching so many more people! My colleague asked in what way are they reaching them? Their conclusion was that more people were watching their services and listening to their sermons.
My discouragement lay in the fact that this is what local churches have been doing increasingly for decades—creating spectators. When fans watch a football game, or some other sporting event, they are cheering, perhaps analyzing what is taking place in front of them, booing at times, but they are not on the field participating. They are merely spectators.
In so many ways, this is what weekly church services have become. The worship band is on stage and we watch. The pastor is on stage and we listen. The central focus of our attention is the stage. Worship is viewed as singing and/or listening to what’s being sung, and preaching/teaching is viewed as focused on the pastor—what he or she says and how they present their message. So, “video church” is an easy transition to make because it requires mere spectating, which is what people see as the norm. Thus, when we reach the end of self-isolation, there may be quite a few folks who decide they would rather sit in their pjs to watch church in the comfort of their homes and their favorite chairs rather than deal with the inconvenience of getting up and getting dressed to basically experience the same thing.
The question is, how does the Church fulfill its mission (Matthew 28:18-20) if the only expectation is attendance, either in the seats at the church building or in front of a screen? Yes, Jesus did preach, but he also spent countless hours showing his disciples what it meant to follow him. He didn’t just tell them or talk to them about the Scriptures; he showed them. And then, he sent them out to do what he had both taught and demonstrated. And not only the Twelve, but others as well. And then his commission to all of us is to “make disciples.” One cannot do that sitting in a pew or on the couch at home. Following Jesus is not about merely watching, but doing. In fact, Jesus defined our love for him as being expressed through obeying him. James says something along similar lines: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (verse 22)
In order to do that, we have to understand the Christian life is not a spectator sport where you are familiar with the rules, enjoy the action from the comfort of your seat, and that’s your role. Following Jesus, rather, is about participation in the work of the Kingdom and making disciples. This may seem to some as radical thinking, but it really is just embracing the basic teachings of the Scriptures.
I hope those pastors will eventually realize this. I hope you will as well if you haven’t already. And my wife and I will continue to pray for transformation. It is what we need; indeed, it is what the world needs.
© Jim Musser 2020 All Scripture references are from the New International Version, 2011.