Back when the Covid lockdowns started, I told a Southern Baptist friend that this crisis was going to be devastating for the churches, which would probably see a lot of people in their congregations not coming back, having gotten out of the habit of church on Sunday. I also predicted that a number of Evangelical churches, lacking a strong sacrament-based ecclesiology, would embrace online church as a normative model. Why not? After all, if you see the individual believer’s relationship to the church as primarily about the reception of information, what’s the argument against it?
My friend, a theologian, said that Southern Baptists would never go for it.
Over the weekend, that same friend e-mailed me to say he was wrong. This story just appeared in Baptist Press. You should know going in that Robby Gallaty is a very influential young Southern Baptist pastor. Excerpts:
Robby Gallaty, pastor of Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., said he views the impact of COVID-19 on ministry not as an interruption, but instead as a disruption to the way things have typically been done in the local church.
Long Hollow staff see changes that track with larger changes in culture and life as necessary for faithful stewardship of the ministry God has given them. The most immediate, tangible change, according to Gallaty – and this is something he doesn’t anticipate turning around anytime soon – is attendance at church gatherings.
Before the pandemic, Long Hollow’s in-person attendance was significantly larger than viewership for its online services. The church, which ranks among the largest in the Southern Baptist Convention, has resumed in-person meetings. But its online participation is now three times larger than in-person attendance.
The shift is not unique to Long Hollow. Some expect decreased in-person attendance to be permanent.
In recognition of the new reality, Long Hollow has begun the process of creating an intentional, permanent online church ministry – which includes hiring an online-specific pastor, finding ways to facilitate membership remotely, as well as conducting the ordinances and small groups in cities hours or even states away.
“The churches that are predominantly dependent upon a building are going to have a hard time transitioning into the future,” Gallaty said. “People say, ‘I just want to go back to the way things were before COVID,’ but I really don’t think that we will ever get back to that, particularly in the area of numbers … as far as in-person attendance anytime soon.”
The online approach for Long Hollow is not just a livestream of the in-person worship gathering, according Collin Wood, operations pastor at Long Hollow. Instead, in a general sense, it functions as its own “campus.” Wood said individuals and small groups of people are participating online from multiple cities as close as Chattanooga, Tenn., and as far as Portland, Ore.
Attempting to minister equally to those participating online as well as those who come in-person to the church’s physical campuses in Hendersonville or Gallatin, Tenn., is vital, Gallaty said, calling it a “both/and” approach.
“That’s the future of our church and if we say, ‘No, we’re not going to reach them online, they’re just going to have to come for in-person only,’ then I think we’re going to miss where people are,” Gallaty said.
One more bit:
Change is constant, Gallaty said. But as the body of Christ, there must be a willingness to do what it takes to reach as many people as possible even if it’s uncomfortable and different.
That last graf is the tell. What’s interesting about the way the Baptist Press story is written — and this seems to reflect faithfully the position Pastor Gallaty espouses — is that it takes this particular innovation for granted as the next big thing, and as an unproblematic accommodation with the way technology has changed the way we live.
This idea — that we should accept online church as normative and necessary because that’s what allows us “to reach as many people as possible” — is completely impossible in a Catholic, Orthodox, and/or Anglican world. Our liturgies and ecclesiologies are built around the Eucharist. You cannot receive communion online, nor is the Eucharist merely symbolic of Christ’s Body and Blood.
(I’m not entirely sure about how Anglicans see it theologically, so I’m just generalizing. I am also unsure of particulars in various Mainline Protestant churches.)
The point is, Gallaty’s new practice is impossible for sacramental, liturgical churches. Many of them have had online services because of Covid, but that is understood as both temporary and defective. Some may continue to have online services for shut-ins, as they did before, but again, this is not and cannot be normative. The traditional idea of what the church is forbids it.
I haven’t had the chance to discuss this in depth with my Southern Baptist friend, but I know that he feels very strongly that the Gallaty move is going to be destructive within the broader Southern Baptist ecclesia. I’m not sure why — I await our conversation. If I had to guess — and I welcome more informed speculation from you readers who are Southern Baptists or other Evangelicals — it would be because to neglect the gathering together in the flesh would be to neglect an essential act necessary to formation and discipleship. It’s very hard to be a community if you only know each other online.
One thing I’ve never quite understood about our Evangelical friends is why they are so susceptible to trendiness. A reader of this blog with whom I corresponded earlier this year told me that she and her family recently left their Evangelical megachurch to join an Orthodox congregation. A big part of it was that the church fell all over itself trying to accommodate the Next Big Thing in worship trends, and theological trends, to keep growing the church, and to keep people interested so they wouldn’t leave. Discipleship was neglected, and theologically, it became decadent. Though my correspondent is non-white, she became frustrated at how this multicultural megachurch’s leaders began putting race consciousness at the center of that congregation’s life. But then, that’s the contemporary trend.
To be fair, it is entirely possible within a more liturgical, sacramental church to have an impersonal relationship — for the church to be a community of strangers. Back in 2005, when my wife and I were in the depths of a spiritual crisis that ultimately resulted in our leaving the Catholic Church for the Orthodox Church, the loneliness of Catholic parish life was one of the things that broke us. Catholicism, at least in the US, is only formally united. Within many parishes, it is common for people — we were certainly guilty of this — to regard one’s participation in the parish as transactional. When I became Catholic in my mid-twenties, I was not prepared for how alienated I would be within parish life, as a believing Catholic, because I believed what the Catholic Church taught.
It didn’t take long for me to discover that that is the default mode for most orthodox Catholics in this country. You’re probably not going to hear anything meaningful from the priest’s homily (count it as a win if it’s not heretical), so just sit quietly, just you and God, receive the Eucharist, and leave after the mass ends. If you have Catholic fellowship — and we did — it was in groups not connected to the parish. It wasn’t like this in every parish we attended, but it was in most of them. The parish was where you received the Eucharist on Sundays and holy days, and where you made your donations. I came to understand this as the Sacrament Factory model. It’s not bad when you’re young, but when you have kids, it becomes difficult to manage. Toward the end of our time as Catholics, it really put me in despair, because I would look around in church and realize that it was impossible to know what anybody here really believed. And it didn’t really matter to anybody in authority, either.
When we went to church at St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in Dallas for the first time, we were surprised to be urged to come to coffee hour after services. What? The coffee hour lasted about two hours, and it involved the congregation having lunch together in the church hall. I had never seen anything like it as a Catholic. My wife said to me,”Now this is having church. This is how I was raised.” She had been raised in First Baptist Dallas, where fellowship like this was a big deal. After we became Orthodox, I learned how important coffee hour following the liturgy was to building up a sense of church community.
I bring that up simply to say that a sacrament-and-liturgy-based ecclesiology won’t be enough to form a real community. You need more than that. You need to get together informally too. I didn’t really understand that until I became Orthodox. It is possible to be an Orthodox in good standing and ignore everybody in the church, and to leave without going to coffee hour. But it feels wrong. The Orthodox ethos conveys to you that you need to be at coffee hour too, because we’re all in this together.
I’ve never been part of an Evangelical church, but I’m thinking this morning of my wife’s beaming face on that surprising Sunday in 2005, after we had been at the Orthodox coffee hour for about 20 minutes. She had been Catholic for about a decade, and had not realized how much she missed things like this at church. I really, really hope that Southern Baptists don’t accept online church as normative. It will deform discipleship, no matter how high-quality the information transmitted from pastors over the Internet connection is.
It’s a big mistake to think of one’s church life as only receiving information about Jesus Christ and the Bible, and arranging your own thoughts and emotional reactions to it. Like I said, I was never Evangelical, but I pretty much lived that way as a Catholic — and I struggle not to live that way as an Orthodox. It’s the intellectual’s temptation: to live inside his head. The church is not the Disembodied Brain of Christ; we are the Body of Christ. Online church as a substitute for the gathering of the body forms Christian gnostics, whose minds are free from the prison of the body, from the “prison” of talking to their neighbors, from the “prison” of making an effort to get to church on Sunday morning, from the “prison” of coffee hour. Just you and Jesus, there on your sofa, with your coffee, and in your sweatpants. Download the sermon and listen to it in the afternoon, after you’ve gone golfing on Sunday morning. Optimize your consumer church experience.
“I can’t believe you saw this coming,” my Southern Baptist friend said to me. I told him that it wasn’t hard. Americans are suckers for technology, and for allowing the habitus of their lives to be dictated by technology; Christians are no different. We Christians in older churches have forms that protect us from the temptation to surrender to the convenience of online church. Evangelicals, in general, do not. I foresaw that they were going to start accepting this new mode of being not as a temporary concession to crisis, but as normal — and find a way to rationalize it. Thus:
But as the body of Christ, there must be a willingness to do what it takes to reach as many people as possible even if it’s uncomfortable and different.
Being the Disembodied Brain of Christ is the final step before the body dissolves into dust, and even the spirit is scattered to the winds.
UPDATE: A reader identifying himself as an ordained Southern Baptist minister writes:
First off, the most important tasks of the church in SBC-land is evangelism and missions. The “Great Commission” is top priority. Discipleship and formation take a back seat.
Success toward this goal is measured most often by numbers: baptisms (remember we are credo Baptist therefore a baptism represents a conversion), conversions, other decisions and re-dedications, and attendance. These days I’m sure pastors and leaders are looking at “views” as well. General rule is that a church that is not seeing an increase in its numbers is not “successful.”
The trendy aspect that you observed is a real thing. My branch of evangelicalism will jump on any trend that is not obviously un-Biblical that will help a church increase its numbers. Most fast growing mega churches are contemporary in worship style but if the trend switched toward a more high church liturgical style then you’d see churches move in that direction. Whatever you can do to get them to show up, do it. Rent a helicopter to drop Easter eggs? Sure. Build a basketball court in your worship space? Of course!
Another thing to remember is that in our world the sermon is always the most important part of the worship service. Everything before it prepares the congregant for the message and what happens after corresponds to what was shared. As you noted, it’s primarily about dispensing information. Life giving information but still information. As James K A Smith says, we treat people as “brains on a stick.”
The Lord’s Supper is an afterthought because it’s seen as a memorial meal. If it only helps Is to focus on Christ, we can focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus without the crackers and Welch’s grape juice. Many churches only observe the Lord’s Supper quarterly anyway. My church gave a how to guide for observing communion at home on Easter morning.
Virtual worship and growing a “virtual church” checks off all those boxes and many churches will give it a go. I don’t think it will build a healthy church because we aren’t brains on a stick. We need face to face interaction if we are going to be successful in spiritual formation. I just hope churches realize that before they spend too much time and money chasing this trend. But from my experience Southern Baptists like to chase trends.
This may come across as cynical and maybe it is. I am tied to my current church because of my employment. Internally, I fit more with the Anglicans these days. Maybe I’ll be able to move in that direction one day.