• COVID has accelerated an already existing change in our religious landscape.

I have a tendency to make unrequested proposals. I’ll have some “great idea,” write it up and send it to some poor, unsuspecting soul. Most of the time these folks are very gracious to receive my brainstorm…but they rarely find fruition. Let’s be honest: people are busy enough without dealing with another scheme from yours truly.

So you can imagine my surprise when I sent the Executive Director of our network of 1500 churches my latest idea…only to receive a quick reply: “This is great! Let’s get started!”

What was this idea? Basically I posed some questions: “Our American religious landscape is changing. How can our churches prepare for a post-pandemic world? And how can we prepare for the cultural environment we’ll face ten years from now?” These are crucial issues for anyone concerned about the future of churches.

An online think-tank was quickly formed. Soon Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leaders from around the world were meeting on Zoom to discuss trends and design resources to help churches navigate an uncertain future.

While the data is still being gathered, one thing has come to light: the online church is here to stay. Virtual worship services, prayer groups, classes, small groups and meetings will remain a part of our church life. And while this has made meetings more convenient, increased outreach and has allowed access to church events for those unable to leave their homes, I have concerns.

Even a casual reading of the New Testament epistles reveals something crucial: while most of us associate church life with a worship service, the Biblical expectation is more about relationships. Our church should be a loving family that includes personal encouragement, prayer and even admonishment. Those epistles tell us that our relationships with one another are just as important as what we believe. Church relationships are the environment for spiritual growth and discipleship.

So can you appreciate my concern about an increased reliance on virtual church? We are already in an historical trend where church life is frequently passive, anonymous or similar to a school classroom or civic club. Perhaps revivalism, the church growth movement or televised worship has encouraged this trend – or maybe we simply gravitate towards individualism.

Regardless, as we anticipate the end of COVID an opportunity awaits. Many of us are lonely. At a recent drive-thru event one church member was moved to tears because she missed everyone and missed their hugs. Despite online opportunities, let’s make the most of this moment. As people begin to return to their churches, let’s reclaim the importance of face-to-face, spiritually-focused relationships. Perhaps you will seek a prayer partner, join a small group or create a Christian book club with some of your friends. In a world with screens that constantly beckon, let me encourage you to seek those safe places where you can be open and authentic with other followers of Christ. Otherwise I’ll be forced to write another proposal…