This article was originally posted on January 27, 2021 by Lifeway Research.
The world as we knew it changed on September 11, 2001. Everything from travel to security to world economies was altered in a relatively short time. The season of COVID hasn’t been like that.
Rather than a sudden explosion, this season has been a slow burn that lingers on and on. And yet the feeling is much the same—that COVID has indeed changed a great many things but we do not know yet just how drastically.
It’s true for the economies and governments of the world and it’s true for the church.
To be sure, not all of what COVID has exposed is a bad thing. Churches have been forced to examine their methodology, programs, and priorities. They’ve had to reckon with what it means to truly be a church at all and with the commitment of their members.
There’s no doubt a redeeming quality to this self-examination. But through that examination comes a question that thus far does not have a solid answer: What’s the impact of the last 10 months on discipleship?
We don’t yet know—at least not in full. Nevertheless, we’d be wise to be asking the question now particularly in light of the fact that the season of COVID has brought a great sense of disconnectedness to the church.
While that was necessary as churches closed their physical doors and moved fully online for a season, it has indeed affected the spiritual life and development of our church members for at least one, simple reason: We need to be together as Christians.
The writer of Hebrews gave us a word about meeting together:
“And let us watch out for one another to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Of course, when these words were first written there was no other option than gathering physically together. So one might argue that as times change so does our understanding of a simple command like this. But society as a whole would beg to differ.
We’ve had no shortage of opportunities to virtually gather with others. We have done so through endless Zoom meetings, FaceTime calls, and Instagram Live sessions.
But numerous studies across a variety of different segments show us that even though we are virtually gathering, we are feeling, as a people, a great sense of isolation and loneliness. It’s just not the same. It’s not the same for birthday parties, work meetings, and family gatherings.
Why would it be the same when it comes to the church? This isolation, even in the company of virtual togetherness, is destructive to discipleship for at least three reasons.
1. Isolation is a denial of who we were created to be.
The first couple of chapters of Genesis give us the creation account. In that account, there is a unique designation in God’s intent for humanity:
“Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis. 1:26).
What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Many things, certainly, but at least this—being made in God’s image means that just as God is relational, so also were we created with a unique need, desire, and capacity for relationships.
Just as God existed from all eternity, and will exist through all eternity, in perfect relationship with Himself, so also are we made to experience communion with Him and with others. Indeed, the creation continues with God making the declaration:
“It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).
If we pursue a life of greater and greater isolation, then we’re denying who we’re created to be. We’re denying at least part of the image of God inside us, and ultimately, the very God in whose image we were made. It’s no wonder sin will creep up on us if we live in such denial.
2. Isolation is an outworking of inner pride.
The exhortation to not give up meeting together is built on the fact that we should be concerned for one another—that we should not let each other go our own ways, but instead we should push each other toward love and good deeds.
That’s because the writer knew something about human nature: We need each other to help us follow Jesus. We can’t do it alone.
Though we might not say it, there’s a subtle but destructive steam of pride that underpins isolation. It’s that small voice in our hearts that tells us we actually can do just fine on our own. Pride will lead to our fall. Always.
3. Isolation will make us drift from the truth.
We have the tendency to stay inside our own heads. We think about some issue in our lives—a relationship, a decision, a text message from someone else—and we analyze it inside our own minds over and over again. Our minds are an endless rabbit trail of insecurities, assumptions, and justifications.
Funny thing, though: When we actually start talking to someone else, all those fears, anxieties, and doubts we were so fixated on when we were alone suddenly don’t seem so huge. Brought into the bright sunlight of relationships, they are revealed as what they truly are.
When we isolate ourselves, we’ll start to drift from the truth. The truth that God loves us. The truth that God is generous to us. The truth that He really is in control. These are all things which we are reminded of in the context of our friends in Christ.
Even if these reasons (and others) aren’t stated, Christians have long known the importance of being together. But what we haven’t fully embraced is the necessity of being together for our spiritual development and discipleship.
The research into relationships in the church reveals that building relationships with other believers seems to come naturally to Protestant churchgoers. However, for many, those relationships are built apart from Bible study and spiritual growth.
The 2019 Discipleship Pathway Assessment study from Lifeway Research found 78% of Protestant churchgoers say they’ve developed significant relationships with people at their church, including 43% who strongly agree.
Unsurprisingly, those who attend worship services more frequently—four times a month or more—are more likely to confirm strongly they have developed such relationships than those who attend less frequently (47% to 33%). This in and of itself presents a problem because for the last ten months, church attendance in person has been largely eliminated.
You can begin to see the nature of the issue. If people develop greater relationships with greater frequency in church attendance, a lack of church attendance would have the adverse effect. COVID, it seems, has accelerated a trend of less frequent church attendance that was already in place.
According to the survey, 35% of churchgoers attend a class or small group four or more times in a typical month. Fourteen percent attend two to three times a month. Almost 4 in 10 (38%) Protestant churchgoers do not attend a class or small group in a typical month, while 13% attend once a month.
We might assume, though, that those who were frequent attendees were forming relationships as a means of promoting mutual discipleship and growth. But even in those frequent attendees this wouldn’t be the case: Fewer than half of churchgoers (48%) agree with the statement, “I intentionally spend time with other believers to help them grow in their faith.” This includes 19% who strongly agree. The same number (19%) disagree.
While we don’t yet know the full effect of COVID on discipleship, there are things we do know. We know that relationships are essential for growth in Christ. We know that the ability to develop those relationships around the faith has been compromised.
But we also know that even before the season of COVID, the relationships being formed in the church were growing less and less frequent and less and less centered on mutual discipleship. So what’s next?
There’s an opportunity to redefine what it means to be together. It doesn’t mean defining it in terms of location, however. It means defining relationships among Christians according to their true purpose.
It means helping people connect not only for the sake of mutual interest, but instead helping people understand that relationships among Christians are for the specific purpose of helping each other follow Jesus.
COVID has robbed us of many things, but it also presents us as church leaders with this opportunity—to help people embrace the nature of the true community of the faith.
Michael Kelley lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife, Jana, and three children: Joshua, Andi, and Christian. He serves as the Senior Vice President of Church Ministries for Lifeway Christian Resources. He is the author of Growing Down: Unlearning the Patterns of Adulthood that Keep Us from Jesus; Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, and God; Transformational Discipleship; Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life; and The Whole Story for the Whole Family.