Covid-19 and Church: The case for churches to stay ahead of the curve in order to flatten the curve (and why I don’t think livestreaming is a solution during a shutdown)

// Read in Estimated reading time: 14 minutes // // by // Comments Off on Covid-19 and Church: The case for churches to stay ahead of the curve in order to flatten the curve (and why I don’t think livestreaming is a solution during a shutdown)

In my last post I mentioned that I thought churches should act ahead of government advice, and so ahead of the curve, in our response to Corona Virus. I’ve been asked to expand on this point.

At the same time, I’ve been watching churches in Australia (mine included) embracing the technological solution of livestreaming services to help people stay away and not miss out. Technology can be great; but long time readers will know that I’ve often argued (following Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman) that technology isn’t neutral. Technology is ecological; the technologies we introduce to the ecosystems of our lives and relationships change our lives and relationships — sometimes in ways we don’t notice. I think livestreaming is a good temporary solution — to aid people in making the decision to self-isolate from churches now, but I don’t think it is a good long term solution — either beyond the pandemic, or in an extended shutdown through the Aussie flu season.

So here’s two further thoughts on church during the pandemic.

  1. Shut large (and even medium) gatherings earlier than the government tells you to to flatten the curve, and keep Christians healthy for acts of service in the community.
  2. Don’t live stream a service the whole way through a long shutdown because of a theological commitment to church being a gathering of people (not an event where people come together to consume the teachings of a priest).

Here’s a good place to start figuring out how to live in a world affected by pandemic conditions.

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.

1 Peter 2:12-14

Peter, up front, reminds us that our patterns of life aren’t those from the world — they aren’t sinful desires — but a world lived as people removed from the ways of the world because we are no longer exiled from God. As God’s people we’re meant to live observable good lives; lives that mark us out as different to our neighbours (otherwise, what’s the difference that makes them ‘such good lives’ not just normal ones). And we’re to submit to human authorities (there are versions of that submission that will look more like martyrdom at their hands than obedience).

I read this morning that the government is considering reducing the number of people gathered in static events from 500 to 100. This will be a threshold moment for lots of Aussie churches — but we shouldn’t be waiting. Waiting would be a normal good life, not a remarkably good life. Waiting would also embrace a particular pattern of life that is motivating the decisions being made about shut downs.

Flattening the curve requires early action — and while it’s been great seeing lots of churches taking action around live streaming and making hygiene a priority on Sundays, there are still quite a few churches committed to soldiering on through the virus. This assumes that the best way for us to soldier on, as the church, through the crisis, is to hold Sunday gatherings that bring an entire church community together. Rather than proactively loving our neighbours by staying away from each other and minimising disease.

The government has a particular view of human flourishing that will form the basis of its decision making about social distancing measures. It is not solely interested in the medical health of people. It is interested in economic flourising. Decisions to delay social distancing measures are constantly being weighed up against economic imperatives (decisions about who should be treated in publicly funded hospitals are weighed up against the same measures, ultimately, and perhaps especially in the sort of crisis Italy finds itself in). Approaching the issue in economic terms — with the health crisis assessed based on its financial impact (see Trump, Donald, ‘Response to the Corona Virus’ in future encyclopaedias) will have us asking questions and making calculations like the one asked in The Australian newspaper today:

It’s unedifying but governments do put monetary values on human life, implicitly. That’s why we don’t have double the number of ambulances or hospitals — because the additional people that would be saved aren’t deemed worth the diversion of resources from other things. State and federal governments spend about one sixth of GDP keeping us healthy and safe. A 2014 Australian government document put the “statistical value” of a life at $4.2m, and the value of a year of life at $182,000. “The value of statistical life is most appropriately measured by estimating how much society is willing to pay to reduce the risk of death,” it stated.

If 1000 more people died but we avoid a 1930s-style depression, would it be worth it? It’s a hypothetical question because governments can’t know how effective their health measures are in advance. There’s no neat menu of policy options and trade-offs.

Hospitals have a particular measure of human flourishing too (medical health), my last post touched on the idea that Christians kickstarted hospitals by caring for vulnerable people other medical professionals wouldn’t touch for both medical and economic reasons (these non-Christian doctors in the Roman Empire would only try to heal those who might survive, pay, and benefit their careers).

These aren’t the questions we ask in framing our response. Our questions are something more like: “what is the most loving thing we might do that show we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and love our neighbours as we love ourselves”?

Our metric as churches is not predominantly economic or medical/physical flourishing — though because we believe people are embodied creatures, our vision of human flourishing includes the economic and the physical. Our vision extends to the mental and spiritual wellbeing, and sees worldly wealth and the value of human lives in different terms to a state that ultimately will make all pandemic decisions based on utility; based on limiting harm but defining that harm as a balance between the economic and the physical. We believe lives have value because people are made in the image of God, with a created vocation to represent his life, nature, and character in the world he made. We don’t assess flourishing in purely material terms; and especially not with economic ones on top of our hierarchy. In an age of radical individualism, and a nation built on individual freedoms, Christians also have good reason to believe that community, and relationships, are part of human flourishing. I’d suggest our hierarchy should put the Spiritual first, the physical next, and while the economic is important, it’s certainly not the priority for our gatherings (like it might be for schools and workplaces), and then I’d put our responsibility to others above self-interest in a decision making matrix (ala Philippians 2).

We have a very different economics built on our very different picture of flourishing (do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but treasures in heaven… if your neighbour asks for your cloak, give them your shirt as well… that sort of thing… you know, the teachings of Jesus). Our ultimate picture of the flourishing life is one connected to God, by his Spirit, through Jesus, participating in the renewal of all things — seeking, as Crouch said, ‘shalom’ — life in God’s peace; his kingdom; in relationship with him.

We also have a different ethical framework to the ethical framework government applies. Christian ethics are not utilitarian but are virtuous, that we are called to make the right decisions based on the right thing to do — based on questions of virtue and character rather than predominantly about results on some bottom line or other; that we act as people shaped by love of God, and love for neighbour.

We should do the loving thing; not the least disruptive thing. So, we are to love sacrificially, and not find our value in our own physical or economic health, but instead are to trust God to provide, and have faith the the hope of the Gospel is real. While governments (rightly) have a role to play in determining shutdown parameters that will effect the economy, the education system, and the health system (and all of those inter-relate, and all of them are impacted by government decision making), our parameters for deciding what to do about how we operate as churches are very different, and we should act quicker because our priorities are different.

Now, I can see a case to be made, from a Christian framework that is a little more gnostic than I’m suggesting — where the health of the soul trumps all other forms of flourishing, that might suggest we keep doing Sunday church services come hell, or come highwater, trusting that God will work through the proclamation of his word. But I don’t think this rightly values the embodied nature of human life — our own wellbeing, or that of our neighbours. Not looking after your own health would be a way of ‘loving your neighbour as you love yourself’ — that is to say, a not very wise or sustainable way. And it would also be not a great witness to the very physical nature of the kingdom of God; the one that culminates in a physical new creation where we have physical resurrection bodies, brought about by the physical incarnation of Jesus into a human body; that same Jesus who cared for the physical needs of those he met and healed as a picture of their spiritual needs (the same loving kindness that motivated the beginning of public hospitals in the western world).

If flattening the curve is the best way to love our neighbours (wisely balancing economic, physical, and spiritual health) then we should model not putting the economy first and take steps to stay ahead of the curve. We should do the right thing not out of economic imperatives, but a fuller sense of human flourishing. This is why I think churches should stop holding big, Sunday, gatherings before the government directs us to, but that we should ensure that people are still having their spiritual well being, and need for community, met. If our priority is living and proclaiming the Gospel — and the priorities of the kingdom — in the midst of a crisis, I don’t think our most effective way to achieve that is to hold big gatherings that appear to be unloving (see the discussion around Hillsong’s conference on Twitter, for example). We have an opportunity to display the values of the kingdom in how we participate in the world during this crisis; with lives marked by sacrificial love for others and different priorities, and words soaked in the hope of the Gospel. While I’d hope these are markers of our gatherings on Sundays at “church” every week, they don’t exclusively have to happen there.

Live streaming a service is a great interim measure to flatten the curve and transition towards a social distancing period, but I don’t think it’s a very good medium term solution (because it is a terrible long term replacement for church). Live streaming is probably, I’d say, better than continuing to meet, either disregarding government directives or waiting until the last minute and taking no initiative in flattening the curve.

“Church” by its nature is the gathered people of God — a church is an expression of the body of Jesus; there’s an embodied, incarnational, nature of church that is fundamental to existing as that gathered community in the world. Gathering is important. Gathering to encourage and equip one another, and, in my Presbyterian context, for the ministry of word and sacrament, to take place is important. Andy Crouch’s excellent piece made the point that gathering for corporate worship is fundamental to a Christian view of human flourishing. I think he’s right. But (despite my Presbyterian heritage, and the Westminster Confession’s position on worship), I don’t think ‘corporate worship’ is located in the Sunday service, but in us Christians together (you plural) offering ourselves as a living sacrifice. We can do that in all sorts of expressions of a gathering. So I find myself with the theological convictions that the body of Christ is expressed in physical gatherings, where people are using their spiritual gifts to sacrificially love and serve one another (and together serve outsiders) as an expression of God’s presence in us by his Spirit, and that we meet ‘in Jesus name’ through the ministry of the word and sacrament (the proclamation of the Gospel, and our participation in it). You can’t really do most of this digitally. It’d be a really bad idea for us to establish this as an option that becomes either a norm, or a desirable/more convenient alternative. Call me an idealist, but I believe a crisis is exactly the time to turn to theological principles, and even push further towards them, rather than to find convenient solutions that don’t integrate with those principles. ‘Digital church’ isn’t actually a thing; and most churches have alternative structures that are closer to the nature of church than anything where teaching from someone outside a gathering is mediated by a screen.

If this shutdown period goes beyond Easter, I’ll be suggesting that we cease live streaming a centralised service with a talk from me (or another professional preacher) at that point, and that as more extreme social distancing measures kick in (the President of the U.S.A today asked people to limit meetings in the states to 10 people), we turn our energies and efforts to the small churches we already have in our midst (in most communities); that we change the dynamic of at least some gatherings of our small groups so that they actually function as small churches. If we’re going to establish a new normal through this period, let’s establish one that might see people growing in equipping one another for works of service (Ephesians 4), rather than one of people being fed content via screens.

If we are limited (or self-limiting) to gatherings of ten people, then I will be encouraging our small groups to function as churches who meet together to do what we would normally do on a Sunday in their small groups, but who also look beyond their own needs to serve others their community is connected to. In our system, this would mean that I would visit groups on a rotating basis to share the Lord’s Supper (probably a few times in a longish shut down), or that we get the appropriate permissions for others to conduct those sacraments.

It would mean growth groups take responsibility for the preaching of the word, and for figuring out what format that takes. There are plenty of church traditions where this is the norm, but one way that I would see us continuing as a larger church, who might come back together, is that I’d be encouraging our leaders to be teaching through the same material, and I’d meet with them during the week to help them prepare a church service. I’d rather reinforce that church is about the gathered people of God, equipping one another through works of service and through the ministry of the word and sacrament in the flesh than creating (or reinforcing) a consumer mentality that sees content from a professional preacher as the thing we come to receive when we attend church. Growth Groups might then invite members who are stuck in isolation or sick to stream in, virtually, to their smaller community, using the technology we’ve established in our preparations.

Livestreaming, for us, will take the edge off missing out on church while we are still meeting on Sundays, but it’s not going to be our solution beyond that point. I suspect this Sunday, or the next, will be our last services held or live streamed with a skeleton crew for some time, and that’s what I’m working towards. And I think on the whole, that’ll be a good thing.

Bible Reading: The medium is not the message (the message is)

Should we be using iPads, and presumably other forms of technology in church? Or does that undermine the concept of the word of God? Does it white ant the authority of the Bible?

applaunch

I don’t think so. But, this post went a little viral last week. It attempts to make the case against preachers reading the Bible from tablet devices.

“And yet I am finding that cutting-edge, 21st-century technology is subtly but quickly changing important, even indispensable aspects of Christianity. Consider just one example: the ever-growing tendency to substitute a physical, visible Bible (remember . . . the ones where you lick your finger and turn the pages) with a tablet in the pulpit.”

Conflating medium and message like this is dangerous. As is not understanding the importance of the relationship between medium and message. But the church would die tomorrow (or in this generation) if we did not adapt our mediums to continuously carry the message.

I’ve written some dumb stuff in my time, so I don’t like throwing stones at dumb ideas – but this post enshrines 16th century Reformation values as modern regulations in a pretty unhelpful way. Imagine trying to make this case for a physical, presumably leather bound book, in the early church…

His argument kind of boils down to the symbolism involved in the use of particular physical mediums – what they represent. What they communicate.

“Yes, this tablet contains the digital text of the Bible, but visually that tablet represents so much more. It is an icon of social media and a buffet of endless entertainment.”

And in trying to pre-emptively move away from the technological idol, he idolises the hard copy.

“In short, a print copy of the Scriptures in the pulpit represents something far more focused and narrow: a visible symbol of God speaking to his people, the master Shepherd feeding his flock.”

That borders on idolatry. The physical form of the Bible – I’m not talking the words themselves – but what they’re printed on as a symbol? No thank you. Unless you want to take me back to Greek or Hebrew characters scrawled on pages by scribes…

I reckon Augustine would be rolling in his grave at the argument that wrong use of technology – in this case tablets – negates any right use.

This is quite a ridiculous statement. When you think about it. The “problem” as described, may even be accurate… but is it caused by better technology? A hyperlinked medium? I doubt it.

“When the preacher says, “Turn in your Bibles to . . . ,” the layperson simply clicks on a link or enters the text into a search box. As a result, I am increasingly discovering as a professor at a Christian university that students do not know where books in the Bible are located, let alone how the storyline of redemptive history develops. Many laypeople do not possess the ability to see the text in its context. Consequently, these old-fashioned, basic, Bible-learning skills are being lost.”

I want to suggest – and I’ll attempt to outline my thinking below – that this is an apt description of the modern “layperson,” and that the Reformers are a model for thinking about how this sort of technology could be embraced by the church, but that they wouldn’t be mounting arguments more at home in the Luddite movement than in a reforming church.

Here are a couple more quotes before we move on.

“And should an unbeliever walk in for the first time, would he know that we are a people of the book?”

Here’s where he displays his cards – I’d argue we’re people of God’s written word. Not people of the book. Being a person of the book makes no sense when books no longer exist (or before books exist). Honestly, picture a day in 50 years where nobody but a collector or a traditionalist is all that interested in physical mediums – what message are you sending in this post 1984/Farenheit 451 dystopia if you’re trying to insist on the use of a book? Is the gospel not relevant in this cultural wasteland?

Interestingly – media theorists – those who study the rapidly changing landscape of the things that carry messages – often chart the rise and fall of empires through history and note that staying apace with change is really important. Media Theorist Marshall McLuhan (who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”) said:

“Any change in the forms or channels of communication, be it writing, roads, carts, ships, stone, papyrus, clay, or parchment, any change whatever has revolutionary social and political consequences.”

The way the people of God have selected, used, and adapted mediums to carry the message of the Gospel has ensured the longevity of the gospel message. God’s communication agents, his messengers, have always kept pace with (and in the case of the Reformation – driven) changes in communication mediums. Preferring mediums that are easily transmitted in a way that breaks down physical barriers, or impediments, to messages spreading.

Consider the Epistle. A short letter that could be easily duplicated and ferried around a network of roads – rather than relying on one speaker on a tour, or setting up an impressive statue with a stone inscription…

Consider the Reformation. Luther didn’t just translate the Bible. He produced fliers that were designed to spread quickly, to start conversations, to stir controversy, to change minds. Luther also complained about the typesetting of some of his pamphlets – because good use of emerging mediums is important. Luther would love the iPad.

Look. If your evangelistic strategy depends on you carrying a physical Bible. I think you’re doing it wrong. And if you can’t think of ways to use the digital text of the Bible to start conversations with people. I think you’re doing it wrong. And if you think you need a book, a physical book, in church to be doing it right. I think you’re doing it wrong. I’m not sure “carry a book” was what Paul meant when he said, in Colossians 3:

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”

Richly seems a little bit more than the two dimensional written/spoken approach underpinning that post.

“… when the smartphone or iPad (or name your mobile device) replaces a hardcopy of Scripture, something is missing in our nonverbal communication to unbelieving onlookers. When you walk to church, sit down on a bus, or discipline one another at a coffee shop, a hard copy of the Bible sends a loud and bold message to the nearest passersby about your identity as a Christ follower. It says, “Yes, I am a Christian and I believe this book is the Word of God telling us who we are and how we should live.”

The medium should support the transmission of the message

This is kind of communication/media theory 101. The medium is incredibly important. The paradigm for this is, believe it or not, Jesus himself.

In Jesus, the word of God takes on an unprecedented three dimensional reality that is incredibly flexible (not simply rigid text). God’s word becomes rich in that Jesus could be experienced by those he interacted with in the flesh, with the senses.

Marshall McLuhan, said of the incarnation of Jesus:

“In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.”

I would say it is Jesus himself who is centrally important, and provides the pattern for thinking about the relationship between medium and message. Not the written word. This means being flexible with our use of mediums – not rigidly holding on to a “flexibility” developed in the Reformation.

Here’s what Paul says about Jesus approach to becoming a physical communication medium in Philippians 2, and how that seems to impact his approach to communication in 1 Corinthians 9.

Philippians 2…

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

1 Corinthians 9…

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

In Jesus, God sacrificially accommodated us, his audience. So that we could understand what he was communicating – try understanding an infinite God without God making himself human… the medium was one that we could understand and relate to. Paul works hard to be a medium those he seeks to reach can understand and relate to as he presents the gospel to them…

If we really want to become part of the world we’re trying to communicate the message of Jesus to, it’s no good hanging on to old fashioned ways of communicating the message – unless you want a church exclusively made up of nostalgics hungry for a tactile connection to God – and that’s probably idolatry… we should be at the forefront of thinking about how we can pair God’s timeless word with timely mediums. We should be looking to incarnate the message in new mediums in a way that accommodates those we seek to reach.


If we don’t adapt – we will die.

It’s only through speaking the language of the people, in forms they are familiar with, that we can start addressing some of the deeper literacy issues when it comes to the Bible – and I firmly believe that a greater ability to follow intertextual links along a thread (or trajectory) through the Bible is where we’re going to see a greater grasp of a Christ centred Biblical Theology developing.

So even the legitimate concern raised above is addressed by making the books of the Bible more intertextually linked – through actual links – than they ever have been before. And now it’s in your pocket. Not in a clunky old book that you have to lug around on a plane to start a conversation…