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.
- 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.
- 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.