Dr. Robin Johnston discusses COVID fallout in churches and our response. Dr. Johnston serves as the editor in chief and publisher for the United Pentecostal Church International. In addition he is the director for the Center for the Study of Oneness Pentecostalism and an adjunct professor at Urshan Graduate School of Theology.
Experts suggest our behaviors typically are paired. What practical challenges do churches face with online services?
The change in our way of having church affects people’s practices and behaviors. For me, going to church in an unfamiliar community is not the same as going to my home church. While I may go to a conference, the place that nurtures me best and most is the local church I’m part of. The content is not different there than it would be at another UPCI church, but these are the people I’m in community with, which allows me to become a participant and not a spectator. If I’m not intentional at a church I’m visiting, I may catch myself becoming a spectator because of the temptation to study and observe what is unfamiliar. Dropping the spectator hat and picking up the participant’s mantle is difficult in that environment. In the familiarity of community, there is a focus and intentionality that engages me more deeply.One of the biggest challenges with online church is the tendency to spectate and not participate. Worship is one of the ways we move from spectating to participating. Click To Tweet
One of the biggest challenges with online church is the tendency to spectate and not participate. Worship is one of the ways we move from spectating to participating. Merely observing is easier with online church. In that sense I believe online church is only a temporary setting. I believe successful spiritual growth must have participation. If we have to do online services, we would also need to do small groups or some solution that encourages participation. We can’t have one-way church.
As worship teams have gotten better over the years, in some ways we are lulled into being spectators instead of participants. We must think intentionally about how to still encourage whole-church participation.
When we don’t have the luxury of having more church and having services in any format we want, we must be intentional to use the opportunities we do have to drive the mission. If we are not being intentional, we are missing an opportunity.
Statistics suggest marriage separations are on the rise. Would you change your strategy if teaching married couples right now?
Comparing the church to global statistics is difficult. The church is and should be living by different paradigms than the world. Still we must speak about these issues and the sanctity of marriage.
If we can transition people from thinking about what we have lost to thinking about something new we can do, we have opportunities.
So while church leaders and counselors could speak to the specifics in helping married couples, the main principle is that the church open a line of dialogue about how our couples and families are doing.
Sadly, studies show that domestic abuse is on the rise. Because we’re spending more time in the home, problems in the home are being exacerbated. We must speak about these issues as well.
How can we change our outlook on the pandemic? And what opportunities do you see for the future?
Personally, I have struggled to be optimistic even though that is my natural orientation. This pandemic has been more difficult than anything I’ve been through because I don’t see a way I can fix it. This is an unseen enemy that is layered with all kinds of issues and changing so many areas of life. It’s hard to even get interested in commonalities of life (local community events) because so much is canceled or tentative.
Even for those who are able to attend church in their building, attendees may not be processing it as “we should just be thankful we can be in the building.” We may be focused more on what we can’t do. Masks, seat restrictions, limitations on being able to socialize have made church feel so different, we don’t have the same experience that made church feel like church. As with many things in life, when we have a history of something being a certain way, when it changes, we may feel it is no longer worth the investment. If we didn’t have a long history of church being the way we have always known it to be, we might be thrilled with our current church experience.
However, in comparison, we’re struggling because church is not what it was. We must find something new so there is no comparison. If we can transition people from thinking about what we have lost to thinking about something new we can do, we have opportunities. The truth is that COVID-19 should have slowed us down and we should be less busy with so many cancelations and prohibited activities. We theoretically have time to reprioritize and do new things as a church we’ve never before convinced busy people to try.
How can we recognize opportunities and what God wants to do in the season of COVID-19?
Most parents find certain stages of parenting difficult and taxing. If parents cannot look ahead and keep moving forward in faith that the season of parenting, they are currently in will change, they may feel overwhelmed. Parents must learn to look for the gifts in the child-rearing years.
As a church, we need to be asking in the midst of this crisis: what is it showing us, what new things can we learn, and how can we be missional in the middle of this pandemic.
When parents realize they only have the current season once and there are things about each season with their child to enjoy, their perspective changes. Similarly, the church needs to find ways to appreciate what God wants to do during this season, looking for the gifts we can take advantage of and how we can find joy from Him during what is certainly a difficult time.
Politicians have been known to say things like, “This crisis is too good to waste.” As a church, we need to be asking in the midst of this crisis: what is it showing us, what new things can we learn, and how can we be missional in the middle of this pandemic.
Church leaders may find new windows of ministry and discover that potential by navigating a crisis we didn’t ask for. I would advocate one answer is small groups. If people would discover it isn’t something they add onto an already busy schedule, if they made it integral to how they do life together, small groups would take hold. When church came back, people would still want their small groups because it was set up not as an alternative patch to church, but as a meaningful means of ministering spiritually and creating community.
No doubt church leaders will find many avenues of evangelizing and discipling. We’ll need to proceed prayerfully and develop ministries and approaches for living out the mission of the church in new ways during this unique season. As we do so, we may find unexpected blessings in an otherwise unasked for pandemic.
Resources and Links by Dr. Johnston
Handbook on the Book of Acts (Also available in Spanish)
Howard A. Goss: A Pentecostal Life
Spiritual Disciplines: Essential Practices of the Christian Life
The Art of Pastoring: Essays in Honor of Timothy A. Dugas