I know a Christian friend who could only return to work from her hometown at the end of March after being trapped at home for two months because of the pandemic. For those two months, she couldn't attend on-site church worship services except log in to live streaming services or refer to official accounts.
Reflecting on the online service she experienced, she told of how it has altered her previous perceptions about on-site services and her identification with her church.
Usually, services are on-site. She would sit somewhere to focus on the pastor who was delivering sermons from the pulpit. At that time she was cut off from all other means of communication. In her words, she was fully engaged in the service at the moment. When it was over, she would do various church things: greet fellow believers and ask about their past week; plan on the following week’s Bible reading or home visiting schedule with her cell team leader or arrange a family dinner with better-connected believers. On-site services could allow her to focus all the attention on her church.
Now, she no longer needs to get up early for the services. Instead, she can sleep as long as she wants. After washing-up and having breakfast, she'd first watch the news about the pandemic if she liked. Then she’d open her church’s WeChat account to attend a service. As all the online service content is uploaded in advance, she doesn't feel pressed for time. Rather, she can click open a sermon to listen to at any time.
Yet, while listening she can do other things such as having breakfast or snacks or talking and having fun with her little niece. In her words, she is not being focused enough on the Sunday sermon, as if she was being disrespectful. Surely, the relaxing home environment prevents her from being fully attentive as she used to be.
In addition to this, the way of communicating with fellow Christians has changed too. There is no interaction with them after the online service. What is left for her are all-similar messages or comments posted on the platform which make her so bored like never before.
However, there is an important discovery. She can now listen to sermons from other churches or pastors plus that of her own church. This was impossible in the past.
In the past, nearly every church was very sensitive to cross-membership, going to or serving at more than one church. This would have been questioned by the pastors as an issue of the loyalty of believers. It was even more of a taboo for churches to pull people away from each other, which is known as “stealing from another’s herd”. Now the situation is completely different as she can even compare the advantages and disadvantages of the various pastors’ sermons.
At the moment, she likes to listen to another pastor's sermon because the teachings appear more down to the earth. Such accessibility was completely impossible in the past.
The pattern of interaction with fellow believers is changing. Now the believers she interacts with are no longer confined to the people of her church. The lack of participation in such public activities as home visits, reading groups, and family dinners has further expanded her interaction with more believers. The shift from activity centeredness to sermons, theology and even social issues has allowed her to reach believers beyond the scope of her church. The groups of believers she knows and interacts frequently with come from several different churches and even from different cities.
This service model, which she calls “skipping school”, shifts her focus for the first time from the traditional concepts like churches, chapels or gathering points to looking at the wider horizon and focusing on more interesting issues. Yet, it brings about another issue--she doesn't want to give her financial offering.
Under the traditional model, she would put her enveloped donation into a donation box. That's because she felt it was a matter of getting saved by donating to her church.
Now online preaching resources and hyper-church interactions have downplayed the idea of specific church involvement and thus affected her identity with the original church. She’s able to make a comparison across various churches through available sermons and communication with other believers.
A recent incident reinforced her opinions about her church.
The recently exposed problems of South Korea's Shincheonji cult reveal its efforts to pull people away from Christian churches in China. According to her fellow believers, it is highly likely that one of the church's recently joined believers is an undercover from Shincheonji. Analyzing and comparing the newbie’s various behaviors against online reports about the cult led her to be convinced that the new believer was a member of Shincheonji! In the interest of the church's safety, she immediately informed the chief pastor of the situation and her speculation.
It was thought that this would attract the attention and acknowledgement from the pastor, but to her disappointment, the pastor insisted this was simply impossible and even thought she was being hypercritical.
In her view, the pastor was disrespectful to her and the stubbornness could even put her whole church under the danger of Shincheonji.
She anticipated that for financial reasons the pastor neglected her report because the newbie took a donating-to-the church approach to winning the acceptance of other believers. In addition to regular donations on Sundays, the member supports many other activities of the church and quickly earned the hearts and minds of others.
On the basis of these factors, she is considering whether to change churches. But in any case, in her words, the church she once served doesn't matter to her anymore.
Her experience may not be an isolated case but be the norm. The online service model will inevitably lead to changes in devotion that shakes the believer's identity with their own churches. So when facing practical problems, believers will no longer hold the previous level of patience with their pastors and even their churches. This wavering of church devotion is ultimately reflected directly in the financial devotion of the believers.
This is the church’s crisis that the pandemic outbreak has brought while changing the church service pattern. The crisis is spreading and becoming the basis for the collapse of the traditional Church model. Traditional churches must be well prepared for the loss of believers and reduced economic devotion.
- Translated by Charlie Li