Covid is starting to become a memory...so what should we learn from the experience? And what questions should we be asking now?
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Be good and do good.
In this episode I answer the question, what’s the next step.
Welcome to Balancing the Christian Life. I’m Dr. Kenny Embry. We’ll talk about being better Christians and people in the digital age. Let’s go.
Okay, this is my first bonus episode, but this is something I’ve had on my mind a lot lately.
So I got my first dose of the Covid vaccine a couple weeks ago and I’m due to get my second shot in a week or so. There’s a sense in which the entire world is taking a collective breath and saying they are glad the pandemic is getting behind us and we can get back to business as usual. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be happy to be rid of the great mask debate, mentally calculating six feet, and suspecting if every well-intentioned friend is a carrier of Covid. I admit, I don’t personally know many people who have perished in Covid, but when I took my car to get serviced the other day, I talked to one of the guys I know and he told me he lost 18 friends to the disease. I can’t wrap my mind around that. As a professor, I often have classes that hover around 18-20 and I thought about suddenly not having those people around. That’s sobering.
Churches are beginning to take their jerryrigged solutions to keep Covid contained and phasing them out. I know many which are celebrating bringing everyone under one roof at the same time, and there’s reason to be happy. Toilet paper and paper towel shortages, are becoming a distant memory. But it’s easy to put something behind us without considering what crises like Covid teach us.
All crises like Covid create heroes. Mr. Rogers produced a famous public service announcement in response to the September 11 crisis where he told the viewers, “when I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” The helpers you’ve had during this entire crisis have risen to the occasion. As Christians, one of the things we should be able to do is thank people who have helped make things better. Many people have had to learn new skills in short order. Behind every streaming service, every relocated assembly, every child’s class, and every decision have been groups of people who have taken an idea and translated it into a plan and then worked that plan. They are largely volunteers. Thank them for what they’ve done. The people behind the cameras or who make sure the PowerPoint slides are in order or the audio feed gets broadcast often don’t get much recognition. They hear the criticism and complaints, but be sure they hear the appreciation and gratitude.
But there are other conversations that need to happen. There are three questions which need answering before we burn all the masks and take the tape off the pews and carpet. First, what problems did the pandemic uncover? Second, what have we learned which we can use further to help Christians and those who don’t know Christ? And third, what changes should we make?
In the Old Testament we read about calamities happening to God’s people and the lessons they learned. We read about the wilderness wandering. We read about the fiery serpents. We read about the domination of other nations over Israel like Babylon, Assyria and Persia. At a time when God’s people should have been destroyed, they thrived.
The problems Coronavirus uncovered were more than just how we configure seating or how a service could become a super spreader event. But for many places, the church building became a problem. When you take the church building away, did you still have a church? The easy answer is yes, you did. We have always argued church is the people and not a place. The more complicated answer, though, is when the place wasn’t an option anymore, how well did you do? One of the few numbers any church knows is attendance. How many people are in the seats? Honestly, that’s also the number many are still watching. How many people are returning to the building, and how many aren’t coming back? Some places are starting to count the number of views their livestreams are bringing in or how many people will watch the same thing later. Good numbers to watch, to be sure. A harder question is how much are the people you can reach growing?
I like counting things. I like to say numbers don’t lie. If people are coming then you can probably assume something is working. But how well are they working and why?
I’ve talked to many people during the crisis, and one of the themes I heard a lot was we thought this program was working, but once it was gone, our members didn’t show the growth we expected as a result of being in the class or going to the service. The programs we had were supposed to be making people stronger. But were the Bible classes, the second services, the gospel meetings for the members, or did we use the members to support the programs? How did we choose what to talk about? How did we decide to present the content? And most importantly, how did we figure out if what we were trying was working or not? Or did we have that kind of feedback in place at all? Did we have that special study because it was helping a group of people who needed help, or did we have that study because on Sunday we have a study?
It’s easy to assume everything in 2019 was great and 2020 wrecked it all, and thank goodness for a vaccine that is going to take everything back to normal. But was normal really working or was it simply hiding problems? When you took away the children’s Bible classes at the building, did it show you how effectively we were teaching our children Christianity at home? Is a church service supposed to be the main or primary way to spread Christianity? Should our biggest conversion tool be living a Christian life or inviting others to a church service? And even in those church services, how did we measure if the messages changed people or not? How do we measure growth aside from an attendance count? The seven churches addressed in the first three chapters of Revelation probably all thought they were doing pretty well. But unless you were in Smyrna or Philadelphia, there was something to fix. And the problems of those churches weren’t identified as people forsaking the assembly or missing Bible classes at the building. How do we learn from their mistakes? Or more to the point, have we identified what problems the pandemic allowed us to see better?
Second, if we can see the problems the pandemic didn’t really create but uncovered, how can we make things better? It seems the mission of God’s church is to help make Christians, and then make them stronger. We call Jesus’s last command in Matthew 28 the great commission. In other words, he tells us to go tell people his story to get them in a relationship with God. Then we see leaders like Paul tell us to make each other better, like in First Thessalonians 5. Be in a good relationship with God, then do good to those around you. Be good and do good.
I have been impressed by people who have seen the blessing in the pandemic. That’s a pretty mature perspective to take. Christianity traditionally flourishes in crises.
So, what have we learned to help communicate Christ to others and strengthen those around us?
The digital tools we’ve been using during Covid were often reserved for the chronically ill before Covid. If you couldn’t be at the building, here was a stop gap measure which would allow us to share parts of the worship service. Some saw this as a “less than” experience. But something else important happened. People unfamiliar with us who had questions about what happened at church now had answers. What do we talk about at church? What does the service look like? How do they show care for one another. And probably most importantly, what does their relationship to God look like? Some of the people I’ve talked to have talked about how digital tools and the website have become the front door to our church buildings, and they’re right. It’s intimidating to be an outsider who knows nothing about that group of people who meet at the building down the street. But they now have the ability to not only guess, but see for themselves.
Something else that happened is those who wanted to grow stronger now had opportunities. They had more Bible classes, more sermons, more access to more Christians. They had an almost unending supply of stuff they could consume. But they also had the opportunity to help others. They learned the names of people they could pray for, financially support, encourage, and become a part of their lives. These people could live down the street or a world away. Digital tools do a great job of erasing time and distance. Unlike traditional tools like radio or television, digital tools allowed us not only to watch or listen, but also to react and participate. Are there disadvantages? Sure. Every time we’ve discussed the use of digital tools, I’ve been careful to include the problems they bring. But it’s equally as important to talk about what they make possible.
Almost every church I know has the following problem. They want to have a Bible study program of some sort. A Bible study program at a church building has several constraints. How many teachers do you have? How many classrooms do you have? Where do you keep all your classroom materials? How long should a class be? How do you schedule a study? What if the things you want to talk about don’t fall neatly into 45 minutes? What if you need an hour? What if you need 15 minutes? What if different sessions require different lengths of time? What if the class doesn’t neatly conform to a 13 week quarter? How do you allow people to have a side conversation which helps individuals understand something without derailing the main conversation? What if there are few people who want to meet for this class? What if someone misses one of the classes? How do you develop a longer theme with important parts that need to be covered? How do you develop a thoughtful curriculum which covers a span of years? What if you want your students to study something else before they go to this class? What if you have a family move in during the class? How do you get them up to speed?
We’ve developed some solutions to some of these questions, but the use of digital tools helps give different answers to many of these problems. If you need a class to go 15 minutes, let it go 15 minutes. If someone has to miss a class, record it so they can see what they missed. If you want to have a class that has a small number of people, have the class, anyway. Do these tools have problems? Sure. But do they also present solutions to many problems we’ve always had. Yes. They also allow us to go back and begin refining the way we do things but seeing what works and fixing what doesn’t.
In other words, these digital tools can help us make new Christians and build others up. We’ve seen it working, especially in places where they’ve experimented in their use.
Okay, so maybe 2019 Christianity had problems. Maybe there are lessons we should get out of 2020 and 2021. And maybe there are some things we begin trying. But what should they be?
I definitely have some things I would suggest, but let me start here. One of the guys who impresses me with his attitude and his work ethic is Nehemiah. Many books have been written about lessons from this impressive character. I always think about Chuck Swindoll’s “Hand Me Another Brick” where he focuses on the building of character. I think he’s right. But the blueprint Nehemiah gives us begins where it should. Nehemiah asked God what to do, and then listened and acted. Nehemiah then asked himself what he could do, then listened and acted. Finally Nehemiah asked the people what they could do, and then listened and acted. He started with the authority. Then he looked to what was immediately in his control. Then he brought others into God’s vision and his own action
What does God want us to do? What are we personally able and willing to do? What can we get those around us to help in doing? Like we said before, God wants us to spread his word to others, and to make those who have decided to follow him stronger. So what are you, personally, willing to take on to do that? Now, who can you get to work with you in those efforts?
Digital tools are excellent for introducing people to ideas and, specifically, Christianity. Facebook is just one of those tools. According to Statista, 190 million Americans are currently active monthly Facebook users. That’s a little less than 2/3 of the US population over the age of 14. In other words, the majority of people around us voluntarily all use the same platform. I would definitely find a way to use that platform as well. It’s already where everyone is.
Secondly, have a candid conversation about the problems that happened during the last year, but also what worked better than expected. If the answer is “nothing worked better,” let me ask you to dig deeper. The israelites who wandered the wilderness found a greater reliance on God. The first century Christians persecuted for their faith spread the word further and faster than they could have anticipated. Realize in every crisis, God gives blessings. In this crisis, there were people who rose to the challenge and filled a need. Some places became closer as they tried to help others. Definitions of worship were re-examined. Questions which needed raising were brought to light. There were pointless debates, but there were also heroes who rose to the challenge. Find them.
Finally, ask yourself what these new tools which everyone now knows make possible. Is there a shorter class you’d like to try which would be good for a small group and work well on Zoom? Can you ask for help via a Facebook group? Could your bulletin be better sent via email? Could prayer requests be shared and discussed on social media? Could we use tools like Venmo or gofundme to coordinate giving financial help? What digital tools make collective action easier? What did we think was impossible before Covid that now becomes not only possible, but likely?
Finally, find out from others what they’d like to try. The platforms and tools we now have allow us to spread Christianity and its hope further, faster, and more reliably. Are there disadvantages? Of course. But the advantages are everywhere for those willing to try something different.
The first century church had a big question and challenge. What happens after Jesus returns to the Father? How do we grow? How do we teach others? How do we strengthen those around us? In the first century, they took advantage of roads, of the government, of writing, of speeches, of debates, of kitchen conversations. Frankly, they took advantage of every form of communication they had, every channel they could use to see that our neighbors, one at a time got to know God and what he’s done for us. What have we learned? What are we willing to try?
God bless us to learn from our past, and work toward our future using the tools he has blessed us with.
Just so you know, I’m still planning to release another episode this Friday. But this was something I wanted to share before then. So until next time, let’s be good and do good.