No one likes a pandemic.
I mean, really. Did I even have to say it?
The economy is fractured, hospitals are overflowing, people are dying. This thing is really bad. But it’s bad for another reason.
COVID-19 is bad for the church.
For clarity, this global pandemic that has forced everyone inside isn’t all bad. Rivers and oceans seem to be regenerating, pollution levels are almost at zero, and families—in many cases—have reconnected in deeper ways. There is a silver lining to this whole mess that, I believe, has been orchestrated by God.
But if you’ll let me rant for a second I’ll tell you why this is bad for pastors, why pastors are struggling and how this may reshape the global Church in negative ways.
The spread of COVID-19 has rightfully shut down the gathered church around the world. In response, churches everywhere are going online, learning to use new technology to connect with people in their homes. And there are unseen consequences of this shift to the fractured, embattled hearts of pastors, who at one time were generally satisfied to shepherd a local church with generous anonymity.
That has all but changed. Perhaps forever. Now pastors are teaching, connecting, and required to shepherd people virtually. The church building located at 123 Suburb Avenue, Nowhere, USA is essentially closed, and what is left in its place is an unsuspecting pastor wandering in a desert, unprepared for what is coming. Thir ecclesiology (how we do church) shaped by generous biblical study and anchored in church history is now being reshaped behind the iron curtain of COVID-19.
Many pastors have no idea that their brains are being rewired by perpetual social media pastoring. This is much like what happens due to prolonged use of pornography—the new online pastor quickly finds that what used to satisfy his simple heart of service to a humble congregation now requires much, much more.
I am nervous that what is meant to be a temporary placeholder in light of this international crisis will take on unintended permanency that will hurt the church in the long-term. What I mean is this:
Pastors don’t need any more reason to scratch the itch of narcissism.
This is happening in a thousand ways, but I suspect for every pastor who has deep wells of humility and isn’t really interested in the praise of men, there are ten of us who—given the chance—would try their hand at being famous. I know this because I know my dark little heart, and I spend much of my time with other honest pastors. Pastors don’t need a bigger platform. We just need to be faithful with the little platforms we already have.
Pastors are willingly dividing their best energy to feed the machine of online metrics.
Believe me when I tell you that this is a conversation pastors have been having with their staff or in their heads every week since the church world has ground to a halt. “How can we get more people to watch what we’re doing? How can we stir up more shares or likes or engagements?” For clarity, these are not bad questions in themselves. But if the law of diminishing returns is true, the novelty of online church (especially post-Easter) will quickly fade, which means that pastors must employ more tactics to keep people watching.
This is dangerous because the job of the pastor ultimately isn’t to gather a crowd, but to shepherd those who are hungry for the gospel. I understand the complexities and enjoy the conversations around attractional church models versus traditional church models. It’s silly to demonize either. But it’s also just flat out stupid to lay on our pastors the yoke of being a social media magnate, or even worse, a gospel circus carnie.
Church people love a king.
Most disheartening in this online universe we’ve been shoved into is the reminder that church people love a hero. We love to see our guy on a screen. Our hearts are oddly (demonically) warmed as we see hundreds and thousands of people watching our particular brand of church over others. We cheer and champion for a king, much like the early Israelites who wanted to be like the surrounding nations and demanded that God take his place in the shadows.
In this era of church leaders like Chris Hodges and Craig Groeschel, who have a distinct gift and calling to large platforms and, from my little place in the kingdom, seem to use it with integrity and humility, there are a hundred other pastors who are clearly out for their own ego boost. Those listening closely might recognize the siren song of death to pastors, drawn to ministry to the masses when they once were effective and satisfied by faithful service to the few.
For those pastors who lead and will once again be actively engaged in the in-person, incarnated, face-to-face variety of church when this crisis ends, this is kind of a scary prediction. I hope I’m wrong. I hope the shaky mirror that I’m using to look around the corner isn’t reflecting back what I think I’m seeing. I’d be more than happy to recant these dangerous thoughts. I’m definitely not a fatalist. God can use this for the good of his people and the purification of the church.
I’d suggest a few things we can do during this season to ease the transition back into the next season:
Pray for your pastor.
He or she is frail and insecure, just like you. Your pastor longs for affirmation and praise, just like you. Pray that your pastor would find his deepest joy in the affirmation of his heavenly Father, not from the masses online.
Guard your own heart by limiting the amount of technology you use in this season.
Technology isn’t the problem. Our hearts are the problem. But by nature, we always take the path of least resistance. And technology does us no favors when what our hearts are made for is real, human interaction. I’d suggest getting off Facebook or Instagram for a few hours. Journal, pray, take a walk. Remind yourself that the real world is something much more than on a screen.
Stop feeding at the cheap buffet of internet pastors.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of pastors who are now online. While there is tons of A+ content at the touch of your keyboard, I would encourage you to stop watching. Yep, I said it. Turn off Andy Stanley, Joel, Platt or whoever you tend to reshare. Refocus your heart on your local church. Your pastor, with his or her shaky camera and online gaffs, is the one who knows you and is there for you.
I don’t long for the good ole’ days. That ship has sailed. I just long for a moment to pastor people face-to-face. I long to lay down the angst of online metrics and comparison-driven Christianity. I miss my people and deep down, I am happy to be forgotten among a thousand internet personalities.
Jon Quitt is the lead pastor of Vineyard Community Church