Where were you when you heard that John Kennedy was assassinated?” It was the question that shaped the calendar of an entire generation. Thirty-eight years later a new question shaped a new generation: “Where were you on 9/11?” It was such an important moment in history that the year is almost never mentioned.
And now, 21 years later, there is a new question, a new event, that will shape generations to come: “What was life like before COVID-19?” We know the basics: coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.1 The Western world had heard of SARS before, and watched on television as many in Eastern countries wore masks. Never in our wildest dreams would we have imagined that face coverings would become a regular part of life in the West.
As I write now in February of 2022, we are two years removed from the start of COVID-19’s effect on the United States. Just now, many restrictions are being lifted. I have heard a question repeatedly: “Pastor Holland, when will church be back to normal?” I have thought about this question many times. As I attempt to answer that question, the Lord has convicted me that I must write from my heart.
In March of 2020 my wife and I had just returned home from a trip to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, where we met with the local Adventist church to discuss evangelism in the North. I had been paying close attention to the news, and knew that there was talk of COVID-19 coming to the United States. I had no idea that in just a few weeks everything would change. Churches would close, the General Conference building would close, Zoom would become a new synonym for meeting, and there would be a complete disruption of everything we consider “normal.” It has left many wondering: what will the “new normal” be? What will the church be? What can the church be?
What I write about COVID-19 specifically addresses COVID-19 and its effect on church life and the future of the church. Millions have died; millions more have been affected negatively by the disease. At a time like this the church must know, more clearly than ever, what it is and ought to be and do; how it relates to challenging circumstances. We must have and share God’s answers to the specific issue of COVID and its effect on His church.
To those who have blamed COVID-19 for the challenges, problems, and deficiencies of the church in this moment, I humbly respond that COVID-19 has rather exposed and exacerbated existing problems. Here are my own top three:
COVID-19 has taught us that retention is an even bigger problem than we realized. Here’s the sad reality: many people stopped attending church in March of 2020; we may never see them again. This sad reality has been studied and talked about for years through several different entities, most specifically the world church’s Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, as will be discussed later. But the need to focus on the Great Commission and making disciples is absolutely essential.
COVID-19 has taught us that many of us long for human touch and interaction. In Haymarket, Virginia, at the Living Hope Seventh-day Adventist Community Church—where I’m head elder—we were able to reopen earlier than other churches in our area. Because of that, we had an explosion of visitors. Right now, our attendance is regularly 50 percent visitors, many of whom are Adventists whose current churches haven’t opened or still have many restrictions.
COVID-19 has taught us the importance of being effective and engaging in the digital space. Many churches were already streaming their services. For those not online, COVID-19 provided the opportunity to get online. During the past 10 years, consumption of media through mobile applications has grown 460 percent.2 To reach a new generation, we must engage in social/digital media.
What Will the Church Be? The big question facing local churches, conferences, unions, and divisions is “Where do we go from here?” While I make no claims to the prophetic gift, I believe the best years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church can happen in the context of a post-COVID world. Our churches have been good at adapting. Many of our congregations have done a good job of getting online and attempting to stay connected through online services. Zoom has helped keep our various committees functioning despite the pandemic. What can the church be?
What Can the Church Become? We don’t know whether or not the societal changes brought about during the COVID pandemic will be a “new normal,” or if many of these changes will disappear. We don’t know whether a new virus will bring on a new pandemic. We simply can’t answer those questions. What steps can the Seventh-day Adventist Church and local congregations take, despite what we don’t know, to become all God wants the church to be? Here are my own top four:
1 We must study and understand God’s appeal for His church today. The church is, literally, “the called-out ones”, (Greek ἐκ: “out”; καλέω: ”call). It is a description of people who have been called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. Too often, when we use the word “church,” we think of a structure or a building. But the church is the people. John McVay, president of Walla Walla University and former dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, writes that there are five metaphor categories of the church.3 Those categories are the church as a body, the church as a spiritual building, the church as a field (or other agricultural metaphor), the church as an army, and the church as a family/bride. While space does not permit a review of every metaphor, we may summarize the lessons learned through those five metaphors as follows: The church is a living, healthy body of believers who are trained for a mission that is founded by God, and grown by God, as everyone actively participates in planting seeds for the gospel harvest.
2 We must experience a revival of the responsibility of being personally involved in mission. Ellen White states in The Ministry of Healing: “There is need of coming close to the people by personal effort. If less time were given to sermonizing, and more time were spent in personal ministry, greater results would be seen. The poor are to be relieved, the sick cared for, the sorrowing and the bereaved comforted, the ignorant instructed, the inexperienced counseled. We are to weep with those that weep, and rejoice with those that rejoice. Accompanied by the power of persuasion, the power of prayer, the power of the love of God, this work will not, cannot, be without fruit.”4 God has a vision that His church will not be filled with spectators and consumers, but rather with active participants who weep for lost souls. While pandemics may close buildings, they cannot close our homes to smaller, more personal work.
3 We must become intensely intentional about discipleship. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 contains only one imperative: “Make disciples.” Everything else in the commission is a subordinate participial phrase. This means that disciples are made while “going,” “teaching,” and “baptizing.” Because of a lack of intentional discipleship, among other things, our retention issues continue to be a challenge. Intentional discipleship provides an opportunity for new believers to be integrated into the body and live out a fruitful Christian experience. Discipleship doesn’t happen through osmosis, but through intentional processes of development. The book Simple Church is predicated on a study of the fastest growing Christian churches in North America. The key among all of them? There is a clear, simple, and evident path of discipleship in each of these churches. The Discipleship Handbook,5 along with other appropriate materials, provides wonderful resources to help you and the church in that journey.
4 We must have our buildings become centers of influence for their surrounding community. Through each member actively involving themselves in the community, the church will be keenly aware of the needs of that community and be able to provide for those needs. Once again Ellen White states: “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “Follow Me.”6 This process is easier said than done. Yet it is the model that will bring “true success.” And meeting the needs of a community will ultimately prepare us to help in times of great crisis. However, Gary Comer warns, “We are mired in an outdated, ineffective way of thinking that is not sufficient to bring the people of today from where they are into the faith. . . . To awaken, however, we must radically change our whole approach.”7 We cannot hire professionals to do the work that God has called each one of us to do.
There is so much more that can be said. However, I emphasize that none of the vision of the future of our church should be detained until a General Conference vote, a division policy change, a union session, a local conference executive committee, or even a local church board vote. Remember: the church is not some collection of bricks and wood. The church is you. The church is me. God’s vision of His church can and will happen when each one of us takes personal responsibility, takes time in prayer, humbly submits, and allows Him to work through us. What will the church be? What can the church be?
The answer is up to you.
2 https://www.visualcapitalist.com/ how-media-consumption-has-changed-in-2021/
4 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), pp. 143, 144.
5 https://adventistbookcenter.com/discipleship-handbook.html; https://www.growingfruitfuldisciples.com
6 E. G. White, p. 143.
7 G. S. Comer, Soul Whisperer: Why the Church Must Change the Way It Views Evangelism (Eugene, Oreg.: Resource Publications, 2013), p. 12.
Chris Holland is senior evangelist for Hope Channel International and president of the Living Hope School of Evangelism. He is married to Debbie.