September 29, 2020

What if the church wasted the COVID crisis by not prepping for a more hostile shutdown?

Here’s a thought: What if the church wasted the COVID crisis?

And I’m not simply talking about church preference. Nor am I talking about don’t simply talk about what the better model for evangelism, mission and pastoral care might be.

I’m talking about whether we wasted an opportunity to prepare ourselves for a far more reaching and hostile disrupter that a virus that swept up everyone, and required strict measures for everyone to adhere to.

What if we had used the COVID disrupter as a dry run to prepare our churches for the rise of increasingly restrictive government measures on what the church can proclaim and practice? Because all the signs are saying that is clearly a direction we could be headed in.

So hey, it’s been nice to do church online for a bit – something of a novelty. While so many other things were in lockdown, it even made it kinda fun. And we were stoked to see some of our sermons can get out to more people on Youtube than ever did before. And how about those Blessing videos from around the world? They were great!

But let’s face it, our whole strategy was based around the fact that it wouldn’t have to be forever, and that, despite the curse of not being able to meet in larger groups, our technology could get our message our more clearly.

Once COVID was over, however, we could start to trickle back. Indeed most of the conversations I heard around “we could change this up in the long term”, faded into the background as the doors opened and the numbers permitted to meet again swelled.

But what if during that time of disruption we had sat down and asked ourselves question such as these:

What would we do for church if a more hostile disrupter, such as a government clampdown on what was permitted for churches to proclaim publicly, came into force?

Not saying it’s going to happen overnight. But hey, please don’t insist that it could never happen!

The COVID disrupter gave us a great opportunity to test how we might run church life if another great disrupter came our way. And by the sounds of it we either didn’t have the time or the inclination to avail ourselves of some critical, creative thinking during that time. We’re trying to get church back to normal even though I feel that life itself won’t get back to normal for some time – if ever, after this.

What plans do we have in place if the central tenets of our faith and the implications of our ethical stance on matters around sex and marriage were ever placed in the firing line? What strategies have we come up with if we had to go “dark web” with church?

But that’s not conceivable, right? Yeah right. Just like 2020’s COVID crisis was completely inconceivable, and came out of the blue without any warning.

Actually it didn’t, did it? All the signs were there, we just ignored them. We had very few strategies in place for what many of those in the know, scientists, virologists and public health experts, had warned was inevitable. .

There are plenty of conference papers available in the public domain that discussed the possibilities. Plenty of experts who worried over the modern world’s complacencies. That warned whoever would listen over the way we lived such globally mobile lives. And we were like “Whatever, now when can I book my next trip to Bali?

And we didn’t listen to the experts. We were just being modern, ahistorical people who think progress is the norm and that empires and civilisations don’t collapse and fall. It seemed so outlandish and crazy that a pandemic could, a) sweep the world, and b) that governments would resort to such draconian measures to repress it.

Well scoff if you may, but surely the plethora of books, observations, not to mention increasingly confronting experiences that show the Western framework based on Christianity is starting to creak and groan, should at least give us pause for thought.

Indeed when even writers such as Douglas Murray and Tom Holland, both of whom are not Christian, start to say that something troubling is happening, we should be taking note.

And not only taking note, taking precautionary action. There is no need to head for the hills “prepper” style, but surely churches and orthodox denominations should prepare for an eventuality in which government interference – genuinely hostile interference – is countenanced.

Have we considered a way of doing church that flies much further under the radar than we currently do? That breaks our congregation sizes down into small, manoeuverable units operating with very limited social media access?

We should stop trusting that governments will always behave rationally when it comes to logical arguments around the safety of orthodox Christianity. Hey, they already are listening to irrational voices around the presence or otherwise of conversion therapy in churches.

There is a definite slant away from rationality and towards emotion. And that’s because there’s a looming clash between the vision of human flourishing that the church has historically held to, and which a Christianised cultural and political framework held to for lack of anything seeming alternative, and the post-Christian one.

And as we have learned, the post-Christian framework is not curious about much of Christianity’s ethical framework, it is openly hostile. And many in the cultural and academic world are happy to push that hostility in the halls of government and are demanding action.

So here in Australia, state governments (two so far with more on the way) have banned the practice of conversion therapy that for all intents and purposes does not exist in any true form. It truly is tantamount to banning unicorns.

And these governments are more than happy submissions from hostile groups that quite frankly have no grounding in reality, and who have shown their real hand by insisting that prayer groups, Bible studies and sermons on biblical passages around sex are on the same level as a “pray the gay away” pseudo-psychological fringe group (the names of such groups somehow escapes them when it comes to writing these submissions). And will progressive governments accept this Trojan Horse agenda? Why would we assume they would not?

I think we should already be considering who can have access to our sermon and teaching materials online. That would be a very small way of preparing for what might eventuate.

Now before I am accused (once more) of being a Hennie Penny and shrieking that the sky is falling, the liberal media in the US, as the election approaches, is hyper-ventilating over the possibility that Trump will steal the election, form a dictatorship and usher in some sort of Atwoodian Gilead. If you can countenance that, then you can certainly countenance a more interventionist and hostile government towards orthodox Christianity in the West. At least admit that possibility! It seems everything is on the table. And we need to be ready for that.

And speaking of Gilead, the sheer hostility towards orthodox Christianity in the US is bemusing. Or it would be if it were not frightening. Say what you like about the Supreme Court nomination process, but the anguish and loathing around the Amy Coney Barrett’s church affiliation, “People of Praise” – a Catholic charismatic community is bizarre. Kylie Beach has written an informative piece about it over at Eternity magazine.

What strikes me in her description is just how normal the community is, in fact how aligned it is to much of the missional church movement aims of the last two decades:

“Our community life is characterised by deep and lasting friendships. We share our lives together, often in small groups and in larger prayer meetings. We read Scripture together. We share meals together. We attend each other’s baptisms and weddings and funerals. We support each other financially and materially and spiritually. We strive to live our daily lives in our families, workplaces and cities in harmony with God and with all people.”

Time to call in the Feds eh? Yet the vanilla flavour (to anyone who has done missional household church) didn’t stop that august organ Newsweek from wrongfully claiming that Margaret Atwood actually modelled Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale on People of Praise. Just this week The Wall Street Journal wrote about the efforts to shred Coney Barratt’s reputation on her religious life in an interesting article that you can read here.

The WSJ called out the double standard in which Joe Biden is lauded by progressives for being a good Catholic, while Amy Coney Barratt is a bad Catholic. There’s a difference, and it’s all around what one thinks about sexuality and reproduction apparently, although according to Catholic teaching Biden is way off the straight and narrow, and it’s Coney Barratt who is on the money.

Which kinda tells you where this will go. There will be sanctioned churches – much as there are in China today – and there will be non-sanctioned churches, much as there are in China today. The non-sanctioned will be viewed as either seditious (under hard totalitarianism), or dangerous to the public good (under soft totalitarianism). And the sanctioned churches? Don’t expect too much support from there, that’s all I’m going to say

Will this all of this clamping down on orthodox Christianity come to pass? Maybe.

Say it like you mean it!


And that’s the issue, That’s not “definitely”, but it’s not “definitely not” either. But when it comes to other matters, such as safe church practices, “maybe not” is an invitation for disaster. Small chance of something going wrong, but huge consequences if it does. The church that play with the odds and get complacent are taking huge risks.

I say the same about where the cultural trend might take us. Chances of something happening? Not overwhelming, but not impossible, if the pace of change already is any indication. Consequences of something like that happening? Let’s just say most church systems have soft underbellies. No contingency plans, no vision of how to do church differently if they had to (we’ve seen and heard that already around COVID).

Who could have foreseen the dramatic shift against many of the ethical orthodoxies of Christianity that we have experienced the past few years among Western governments eager to please their progressive cultural overlords?

Well actually a lot of us could. And did. We simply watched the trend and the pace at which it was quickening, and like the virologists we were holding conferences and writing books about it, all the while competing with a church growth culture that has moved across denominational barriers, and that is particularly vulnerable to what we might call “gospel climate change”.

We watch as the “nones” are on the rise. We watch as the cultural gatekeepers sniff blood. We watch as governments across the progressive West seem hell bent on believing that dreadful practices are occurring on the flimsiest of evidences. And, yes, we watch as some wings of the church aid and abet that hostility by ignoring or exacerbating injustices.

And maybe it will come to naught. But maybe it won’t. And if we can’t say for certain, It would seem best to have a strategy in place that, ironically when you think about it, would look pretty much like the descriptor quoted above of Amy Coney Barrat’s People of Praise, and with none of the risky public shop front windows of our currrent church expressions.

I’m not saying change everything now. I’m not saying you’re even going to need that change. But it would seem wise to prepare for it. It would seem wise to have a blueprint for an emergency, a document and action plan behind a little red-framed glass box on the church wall.

in other words it would seem wise to have a pre-determined strategy for what might happen, given that all of the signs are the heat is being turned up, and none of the signs are that the hard “sexular” progressive narrative is keen to take prisoners, or give a hall pass to those it views as flies in the cultural ointment. Something will happen, just what it is, and to what extent, we don’t know. But we didn’t see COVID coming in 2020, despite that fact that some did.

So we have no excuse to waste this crisis.

Next time: Strategies For the Next Great Church Disrupter.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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