‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
couldn’t put Humpty together again‘
As everybody knows in this early part of 2020, we are living through a health Crisis brought about by the Covid-19 Pandemic, a Crisis which is completely reshaping the way we live our lives as well as causing turmoil in the financial affairs of individuals, of nations, and in the world economy. The Church has proved not to be immune to the turmoil. As I reflected on this it has occurred to me that the children’s song ‘Humpty Dumpty’ can perhaps serve as an analogy for the situation in which the church now finds itself, which is in a sense that of being an ‘Ecclesial Humpty’.
The children’s song is generally believed to be based on a real event in the 17th century English Civil War, when a large Cannon (named Humpty Dumpty) placed on a church tower in the east coast English city of Colchester, was brought tumbling to the ground by gun fire, smashed into pieces and was unable to be repaired.
It may be considered a little irreverent perhaps but I think that the Humpty Dumpty story is somewhat analogous to the position the ‘Church’ finds itself in: being knocked off its foundations and broken into many (digital) pieces, with the ensuing question as to how, and to what degree, it can be ‘put together again’?
For many the answer will be that when the Pandemic subsides ‘Church as they have known it’ will just start up again and things will be just as before, indeed it will be ‘business as usual’. I venture here to respectfully suggest that there is a number of factors that might indicate otherwise. Conversations with colleagues and the results of some ‘straw polling’ both tend to support this assertion.
A Digital Irony
The fact is that the national situation brought about by the Covid-19 Pandemic has also destroyed (if only temporarily) what might be called the ‘business model’, that is the ‘SIC’ church model, ‘Sunday-centric, In-Drag (attractional), Christendom-form’, of the standard church.
After many years of campaigning, along with many others, for the standard church to be re-imagined as ‘Something Completely Different’ for the sake of fruitful mission in the mosaic of socio-spiritual cultures of 21st century western society, there appears to be something of an irony in the Church’s predicament.
For at least half a century, and particularly in the 21st century, the mainline church has been stubbornly resistant to any attempt to significantly reinvent itself in order to be more missionally effective in the kaleidoscope of cultures comprising what we might now call the ‘digital’ or ‘on-line’ society’ in which it now finds itself, shattered into many ‘fragments’. The irony is, that these ‘fragments’ are ‘on-line fragments’ which now largely only exist in the 21st century digital cultural universe with which the church has steadfastly refused to engage! Amazingly, ‘Something Completely Different’ has suddenly arrived!
Adding to the irony is the fact that this has bypassed church leaderships and has happened without any real sign that they have developed any significant interest in doing any such thing as ‘Something Completely Different’. For what amounts to the closing down of the standard ‘business model’, has been caused not by a sudden and long overdue Damascus Road lightbulb moment that radical change is needed, but rather has been forced by unexpected external events.
This raises some important questions-
1. To what degree can the ‘Ecclesial Humpty’, the currently fragmented standard church model be ‘put together again’?
2. More importantly, to what degree should it be?
Reconstructing the ‘Ecclesial Humpty’
While it is certain that church staffs, leaderships and probably most church members will attempt to bring things back to the way they were, my answer to the can the ‘Ecclesial ‘Humpty’ be ‘put together again’ question is ‘Yes but’ – the ‘But’ is a qualifying ‘probably not completely’. The reality is that it is likely to be a diminished version of what existed pre Covid-19. The reason for this belief is that there are I believe some factors (to a degree already evident) that are consequential to the current ‘church’ shutdown and the societal turmoil, both of which will limit the attempt to return to ‘business as usual’.
One is the loss of fringe consumerist, Christianity-Lite members. Many of these, who have a limited commitment will not be prepared to make the effort to log in to a Cyber-service, will have found other things todo on Sundays and /or will have just got out of any habit they may have had of Sunday attendance. The result will be that post Covid-19 average attendances are likely to be reduced. (There are indications that it already is in real terms with reports of only 60% attendance by congregational members at weekly cyber alternatives to Sunday church). While there is a small possibility that this ‘purging’ might mean congregations are more spiritually healthy, it is more likely that it will be one more ratcheting down in the now decades old attendance decline trend.
In that regard, the claims that some are making that there has actually been church growth at this time would appear to be highly problematic. This is because the metric generally used to reach that conclusion is how many views there are of Cyber services on church websites. Clearly, as my straw polling confirms, there are many people viewing multiple websites on the same day, and views are often fleeting. Measuring such is not anything like a measure of ‘attendance’!
A second factor is the loss of income from members’ giving (Tithing). A report from the Religion News Service in the USA said that-
A “State of the Plate” survey released Wednesday (April 22) by the National Association of Evangelicals found that a third of churches — 34% — reported that giving had dropped between 10% and 20%. About 1 in 5 churches (22%) said the decline was between 30% and 50%. Almost a tenth of churches (9%) reported a drop of 75% or more in giving to their congregations.
There is evidence that this is happening also here in Australia. For while many today give electronically, quite a number do not, particularly in small to medium sized churches and those with older congregations, where plate-giving forms a major component of total income. Many of the ‘plate givers’ are the fringe members who have a ‘user pays’ mentality towards giving i.e. they give only when they turn up, and of course in the current situation that is exactly what they are not doing! Many Australian churches I have knowledge of are already experiencing a serious reduction in giving.
Compounding this, and probably an even greater threat to ‘business as usual’, is the national economic downturn which will outlast the Pandemic Crisis. This is likely to have a serious additional negative impact on church incomes. Given that a return to ‘business as usual’ is a return to THE most expensive model of church there has ever been, with its expensive buildings and expensive staff remuneration packages, this is likely to have very serious implications for church staffing levels and the programs that can be supported, both in the short and medium terms. It is likely that it will also threaten the very existence of some churches that were already financially ‘one the edge’ of viability.
A superficial examination of many Sunday congregations will suggest that they are quite healthy because ‘the numbers look good’. However, one reason for this is that the average attendance figures are made up of significant numbers of fairly infrequent attenders. Yes, it is true that as individuals they don’t attend that often, but there are a lot of them, enough of whom turn up each week to keep the averages up and the offertory up also. This tends to convince Ministers that the congregation is reasonably mature. However, I think that Covid-19 is exposing a different reality, one that has always been there, that of widespread spiritual immaturity, previously masked by an uncritical focus on average numbers, but now exposed to a harsh reality check.
My limited research so far exposes the reality that, freed from the discipline of attending one particular congregation at a particular time, many church members are engaging in what might be called ‘Pick and Choose’ on-line surfing. That is, they will visit, at least part of, several on-line services each Sunday, or indeed on other days, rather than the on-line offering of their own church. Even if they do visit their own church’s site, they will pick and choose which bits to actually watch.
This reflects and exposes the low spiritual temperature of many (most) congregations, that is a reflection of the low level of commitment of many church members. This in part accounts for the ‘Dead Hand Apathy’ to mission that is a characteristic of many congregations as I have previously written.
Should a return to ‘Business as usual’ be the aim?
My full answer to this can be found it the booklet Something Completely Different (also downloadable from the Resources section of this site), the general thesis of which can be summed up in this statement which I see no reason to amend since I first wrote it two or so years ago-
‘Unpalatable though it may be, the current local church (parish) structure has not been for over 20 years, is not, nor can it be made to be, capable of achieving trend-reversing missional goals’
If this is true, and all the statistics on church membership and attendance, as well as census data on Christian affiliation over several decades, indicate that is, why would anyone think it is a good idea to return to it?
To just attempt to return to ‘business as usual’ (which is sadly what I fear will be the case) will be a tragedy, for it will be a failure to use this ‘Kairos time’, this Virus-forced season of opportunity to re-imagine the church to be an appropriate entity for its mission in a future cultural landscape, the chief characteristics of which will be accelerating change and uncertainty.
Current on-line offerings of churches are very often little more than streamed or pre-recorded versions of what they normally did in pre-Covid-19 times. This strongly indicates that this is what leaders have in their minds as to what ‘is church’ what they assume they will return to when permitted. Sadly, this does not indicate any changed mind-set as to what a church for the 21st century should look like. Yes, some are doing more creative things on Sundays, but they are still Sunday-Centric, and remaining Sunday-centric is one of the major causes of the church’s longstanding missional failure, not a solution.
I don’t envisage that Christian fellowships meeting in Cyber space will be the way of the future when the ‘Pandemic’ has gone, except in special circumstances, nor should it be. However, the question remains, what will the church look like in the ‘Brave New World beyond ‘Covid-19’? There would appear to be two roads to travel.
1. Reinvent ‘Ecclesial Humpty’
It is a depressing tragedy that the church is responding to a forced necessity rather than any sudden and long overdue realization of the need for radical change for the sake of the gospel mission in the 21st century. Putting all the above together, the signs are not good for any re-imagination of church and mission and the most probable future is an attempted return to ‘business as usual’.
This is however likely to be a diminished version of the pre-Covid-19 church, for like an ‘Ecclesial Humpty’ it will not be completely able to be ‘put together again’, for reasons of lower attendance and diminished income, i.e. reduced resources, as canvassed above.
However, the main reason there should not be just a return to ‘business as usual’ is that with diminished resources, there will be a great temptation to take the conservative option and just retreat into, hunker down into survival mode, and preserve what there is. This is, amongst other related issues, a point addressed by Eric Hatfield in his article ‘The Church After Covid’. The result will be that even less resources will be devoted to rescuing those drowning in an ocean of spiritual darkness.
2. ‘Carpe Deim!’ (Seize the Day)
I expanded on this my previous post, It’s a Crisis So ‘Carpe Diem’, so I will not repeat it here. However, the other road to travel is by far the most difficult, for it will require great creativity and the ‘Messy’ thinking required to develop and implement missional strategies likely to be effective in the current and ongoing 21st century cultural turmoil in order to take hold of the opportunity Covid-19 has presented.
It just may be of course, that the experience of Cyber church may have opened the eyes of some leaders and church members to the fact that there are other Biblically legitimate ways in which ‘Church’ can be expressed (a cursory overview of church history will quickly confirm this reality!), and so more may be open to ‘Something Completely Different’ in a post Covid-19 world.
Such an entity would be comprised of networks of Missional Communities (Micro-churches), each designed to be embedded in the mosaic of socio-cultural ‘Live, work and play’ universes where the lost spend their time, and where the ‘Church’ is most certainly not.
And a further irony. A major, and I believe not yet fully realised, constraint on reconstructing ‘Ecclesial Humpty’ is diminished and long-term diminishing church income. The irony is that if, as has been exhorted for many years, the church had sought to morph at least some of its operations into the ‘Missional Community’ network concept, it would have had a structure in place much better able to face the current crisis, not least in terms of finance. For one of the major characteristics of Missional Communities is that they are cheap!
The current Pandemic for all its bad effects, which I do not wish to downplay in anyway, is actually like a fleeting shaft of sunlight breaking through the clouds on a gloomy day, a brief flash of the light of opportunity. However, what we see is a failure to ‘Seize the day’ of opportunity that the forced cyberization of ‘Church’ opens up.
This may well be the best and ONLY opportunity that the traditional Australian church will have to arrest its decades-long decline, and reinvent itself to be a viable and effective missional entity, be actually adopt the usually ignored encouragement of the Apostle Paul-
‘I have become ALL things to ALL people so that by ALL possible meansI might save some’ (Author’s emphasis)
1 Corinthians 9:22
All the indicators are that what we will see is an attempt to return to the dismal land of a church landscape of chronically failed mission that Covid-19 has provided an opportunity (God give maybe!) to escape from. Such an attempt will, given the continuing frozen mindset of leaderships and reduced resources, put the church firmly back on the down escalator descending into the basement of even more missional failure than has been the case for decades, as well as gospel-irrelevancy on the ever retreating periphery of society.
Unless of course ‘Something Completely Different’ arises to take its place. The window of opportunity is very, very short. We must pray that some will be brave enough to take it.