In the past decades, more and more believers used to go to a spacious church building for Sunday services. However, the 2020 pandemic very often interrupted their on-site events. As a result, environmental changes brought a great impact on this practice.
A few days ago, Pastor D in eastern China discussed how he had experienced the hardships and learnings for the past several months. The COVID-19 pandemic made him see how the church needed to transform in the post-pandemic era: shifting from the main Sunday gathering mode to the mode of online, group, and family worship. It was also the change experienced by his church. At the same time, however, he found that the believers showed obvious maladjustment to this change, which gave him a clear insight that the tension between the two needed to be properly faced and guided.
Pastor D said that before the pandemic, believers came to the church lobby for Sunday services, but the pandemic changed the normal way as on-site gatherings were often interrupted. Consequently, online, group, and family worship gradually formed. The background of this change was closely related to the "necessity" brought by the pandemic, so both pastors and believers would have to accept the new gathering mode, but many believers were still only used to Sunday services.
"Many believers still can't accept services without a lobby because, without a gathering place, people would feel that their church has come to an end. This is how I perceive it." Pastor D said, "I have compared and summarized the situation of the church with or without in-person gatherings during this period. I found that although there were no physical gatherings during the pandemic, there were a small group and family gatherings, and online Sunday services, but they were in no way to replace the mode of ‘church gathering’ because many people can't adapt to the change."
He added that as early as a few years ago, his church began to prepare for cell groups, which were a good supplement to Sunday teachings. After all, large gatherings could not, in many aspects, cover individual needs.
"Every careful preparation the pastors of our church made for Sunday sermons took time and energy. However, after each Sunday service, the pastors couldn’t get feedbacks such as how much their members learned from their sermons. Therefore, from 2016, I tried to change the mode - there would be a cell group meeting in the middle of every week. Then the previous sermon would be handed out for discussion so as to help the believers practice the teachings. Because many people can't keep up after listening to it, so it will be better to follow up in the middle of the week from the previous Sunday service."
Pastors were always ready to remind believers at the end of a Sunday service, but when the needed day came, it was found that believers still did not think of it, and their mentality was not ready. It could be said that there were drawbacks.
"Family-style gatherings are far from being as effective as that of church services." Pastor D said: "The tolerance and acceptance of believers are also a problem. After being dispersed into a family group, many believers began to complain and said, 'You don't have a proper service here,' so they went to this or that place to meet."
His church lost nearly two-thirds of its members during the pandemic.
What hurt him most was that many believers had been lost to various heretical cults, such as the Discipship Home, the prosperity gospel, and the Eastern Lightning. Pastor D said that there were no church gatherings, which made believers feel that small group gatherings could not achieve the effect of Sunday services.
"If there is no church gathering here, they will go to other heretics."
"Believers can't accept small group gatherings. According to an analysis I made, I think there are three main reasons." Pastor D said, "First, many believers are migrant workers in cities, and their living conditions are average, so it is not very convenient to get together at homes.
"The second is that the small group leader's qualifications are not up to the requirements. Although it is advocated that every team leader should be a pastor and they also have enthusiasm for caring for people, caring cannot rely solely on enthusiasm because it is a continuous effort and process, which lasts for several years and requires great energy. Team leaders can persist for a year, but it is difficult to keep going. Therefore, the group leader's administrative energy and equipment for truth are not enough, which puts great pressure on themselves. Therefore, there will be great problems in small group ministry."
"The third is the mentality of believers. Believers have become accustomed to church gatherings, and they always feel that there are very few people who have small group gatherings at home. It is not like a proper gathering, and they are more eager and likely to go to the usual gathering places and churches to gather and worship."
He recalled the history and said that in Jewish social cognition, the temple was the worship center. Later, because of the destruction of the country, people were displaced and found themselves far away from the temple; so in order to worship God, the synagogue system came into being. The synagogue system was still a continuation of the temple-centered worship and management mode. The narrow nationalism of Jews was caused by the temple as the center. Jesus claimed to break this temple-centered theory by worshiping in spirit and truth. Nowadays, the traditional Christian church, with its worship mode and group identity, also continued the temple centralism, only replacing the temple with a church.
He appealed, "Back to Jesus' teaching. Jesus did not limit the Christian connection to the church. The way of church gatherings can be in a specific period, and different gatherings and living styles should be adopted. It is time to revise Jesus' teaching."
The pastor stressed that this was not against church gatherings, but against Temple centralism. "The model initiated by Jesus was the model of a free union of Christians, which was unlimited in number and gender. It could be two or three people or more than a dozen people. In this way, in a more meaningful way, several people learned to grow together, changed themselves, changed their families, and made the world a better place. 'This is my command: Love each other.' (John 15:17)"
- Translated by Charlie Li