Friday, September 18, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: After COVID

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: I’m noticing a very common theme springing up in news organizations and on the internet right now. There are lots of articles talking about the changes to society that will persist after the COVID-19 crisis is over. For instance, ABC says the major things that will remain different will be: more automation and more work-from-home options in employment, increased telemedicine, stricter travel regulations and precautions, and more virtual education. Another media source predicts masks everywhere, no more handshakes, loads of anxious parents, closer cliques, more centralized government control, smaller cities ... and a whole bunch of other things. All that’s speculation, of course. But some of it’s probably going to turn out to be right.

It seems what’s missing from such articles, Tom, is any reflection on what all the shifts will do to local congregations of Christians. Of course they will be subject to the same changes as anyone else, for starters. But are there any special concerns that Christians should take note of? What trends do you see as either opportunities or ominous possibilities for Christians after COVID?

Possibilities and Opportunities

Tom: Well now, that’s an interesting subject. I’ve got lots of theories about the catastrophic social and economic consequences of all these sudden changes, and those could be significant for Christians as individuals. Christians in real estate, building supply and the construction industry may find themselves out of work when the leases on all these newly-emptied office buildings come up for renewal. Christians who own or work in restaurants or small business have already taken a serious financial hit. Christian teachers? The changes in education look to be significant, and teachers who can afford to get out may opt to do so. Full time Christian workers? I’m not sure yet how badly they’ve been hurt by this. They may have some cost savings from not traveling, but maybe a little less financial support coming in, recognizing that some of their regular supporters may have lost their jobs. I’m curious about that.

But, as you say, Christians are subject to the same changes as everyone else. It’s just that everyone else doesn’t have a committed community of like-minded individuals to support them when they are down, and Christians do. So there will be lots of opportunities for those of us who have done well during the last six months to be generous with fellow believers in need. We should definitely take those.

But you’re really talking about changes to church life, as opposed to the various effects on individuals, right?

IC: Well, individuals as Christians, plus the local churches, plus the climate of the world in which Christians are going to have to continue to be Christians. Maybe that’s a lot, but I think there are going to be a lot of important changes, too. We ought, at least, to note what’s happening. Call it “reading the times”, if you will.

Tom: Fair enough. Okay. So I’ve noted that individuals suffering from the changes that are coming as Christians are going to have some help available to them that few other demographics in the world will have. Or at least I hope they will. If you are not getting my hints in that direction, then let me be overt about it: Let’s take care of our own. That’s Job 1. Testimony, folks.

Zoom: The New Normal

But on to changes for local churches: let me suggest that Zoom is the new normal for older Christians, housebound Christians and sick believers. It is technology we can use to make the prayer time of marginalized folks at home informed and useful, and the great thing about it is that if they can’t hear what’s going on, they can always turn up the volume instead of missing out. I’m glad this crisis forced us into it. I’m sort of embarrassed we didn’t grasp the need and the available fix sooner.

So let’s make sure it doesn’t stop if and when the rest of us are back together in buildings, because local churches will always have members at home who can’t gather with us for one reason or another, but who love the Lord and his people and want in. It’s worth putting money into if necessary, including getting genuinely housebound Christians new computers and internet connections on the collective dime; that’s an insignificant price to pay for the value of letting all the Lord’s people participate to the max in what we are doing. It’s worth dedicating a technically-savvy believer to it on an ongoing basis to make sure the folks at home get the best possible participatory viewing experience we can give them, and that nobody is left out.

I’m right down with that.

Lower Finance

IC: Here’s another thing that COVID has changed. Have you noticed how we’re all making financial transactions suddenly?

Tom: Yes. No cash. It’s all credit card or debit. In other words, everything documented, everything digitized and preserved forever in a database somewhere. Every cent we receive and spend is now accounted for by the system. If you have a benevolent system, that’s fine. If you don’t, you’re done.

IC: Right. Remember what is said in Revelation? That there will come a time when nobody can buy or sell without a number? Did we just take a giant leap into the cashless world, a world where numbers are all that can get you anything? And nobody even noticed. We did it for the sake of protecting health. But now we’re there.

Tom: You’ll probably hear the argument that nobody’s taken the mark of the beast to get us there. And I’ve used cash numerous times in the last six months. But I understand your point: it’s possible to make gigantic changes to society without people pushing back provided you give them the right story. That story might even be a lie. So any thought we might have had that the changes to the world we see in Bible prophecy must necessarily take long periods of time to be issued in ... well, that theory just flew out the window. Everything prophesied in the Word could happen overnight, and we’ve just had that demonstrated for us.

So then, the State can now maintain a fairly accurate record of what we all spend, and where we spend it. That’s not promising.

The Lawfare Threat

But I’m actually more concerned about other kinds of documentation. Here again, we’ve done it to ourselves. In taking church messages and putting them all over YouTube, we’re giving the enemies of the faith all the documentation they need to load us down with nuisance lawsuits. If you live in Canada, the Human Rights Commissions at the provincial and federal levels are far worse than any court. Being taken before one of the HRCs is financially draining. Even one such claim could bankrupt a small church. And all it would take to file one is a single grudge-bearing citizen who doesn’t like something you’ve said and finds it “racist”, “sexist”, “homophobic”, “transphobic”, etc. There is no cost to initiate one of these procedures; it comes out of our tax dollars in the alleged interest of promoting “equality” and “fairness”. Moreover, the claimant can’t be charged if his claim is frivolous ... and the evidence to back his claim is right up there in the cloud just waiting to be transcribed.

IC: On the one side, this has given us one new tool for preaching salvation. But there are problems with it. One is that the internet is full of so much stuff that a good message is easily lost among innumerable bad or frivolous ones. Another, though, is that if our churches become preoccupied with the idea that they now have an additional preaching window, that realization may encourage speakers to simplify their messages too much and to focus only on getting people saved instead of producing mature disciples, perhaps. This would be a case of the medium dictating the message, rather than of the media proving helpful. So we must be aware that the church’s biblically-defined core functions must remain the church’s core functions, regardless of the internet.

Tom: If we are going to use the internet at all, we need to be faithful about it. When I point out that putting messages on YouTube is an open invitation to civil actions from the unsaved, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it, but that we need to do it with our eyes wide open, recognizing that it could be a costly way to interact with one another in the long run. A heavily self-censored presence on YouTube might keep us out of the courts and HRCs for a while, but I wonder if that is a particularly faithful way to present the truth of God.

These are issues most of us haven’t thought through fully yet … we’ve just grabbed the technology available and run with it. Maybe now is a good time for local churches to give the possibilities some serious reflection and move forward in a prudent and intelligent way, rather than scattershot.

The Holy Kiss from Across the Auditorium

IC: Tom, what do you suppose our social interactions will look like after COVID? For example, is “distancing” and the discontinuation of any physical contact between people — handshakes, back pats, hugs, etc. — going to persist, do you think?

Tom: Can you do a “holy kiss” from across the auditorium?

No, seriously, if this distancing thing is going to persist, I’m already in major violation. I won’t invade anybody’s space without invitation, but I’m not changing anything about how I relate to people physically, provided they are comfortable with that. And most people are. There is a crying hunger for human interaction. It’s part of who we are. People want to sit close, touch one another, lean in, and all the normal things we do. In fact, as soon as it is perceived that the authorities’ backs are turned, we are already doing it. The owner of my favorite local haunt had his back door open throughout the early weeks of the lockdown. He would have gone under otherwise. But word of mouth got around, and pretty soon he was serving 10-25 people a night in the dark behind a locked storefront. Most of these folks are retired men in the “at risk” category, and none of them is the least bit concerned that they were in any serious danger. And the bottom line is that nobody got sick.

Choosing How to Live with Change

So no, I don’t think that change will last into next year, except in the case of germophobes and people with a level of paranoia that borders on mental illness. I’m more concerned about being forced to take an inadequately tested vaccine than about catching a bug from a hug. Mind you, if there’s an even more virulent “COVID-20” next Spring, all bets are off …

IC: Right. That’s what nobody knows, isn’t it? Is this the only real plague we’ll deal with in our lifetimes, as with the old Spanish Flu in its generation, or is this just the beginning of sorrows on that? Will there be a series of such plagues, and if there is, how far apart can this end up driving us? What happens to relationships and people when they lack physical proximity for a long time? How does one get opportunities for real fellowship, or real human contact with unbelievers if every event, every dinner, every casual meeting is fraught with somebody’s fear of infection? How does this end up estranging us?

Tom: As I say, there is an element of choice here, regardless of what rules are put in place. Israel has lived under the threat of terrorist attacks daily for decades, but the perfectly reasonable possibility of a bomb going off at the local restaurant doesn’t stop Israelis from going out for coffee. Most people will adjust over time. But you’re right: if large numbers of unsaved people continue to hide in their homes, they are going to be awfully hard to reach. We’re going to have to think about that.

Interconnected

IC: Here’s another thing, Tom. And this has less to do with COVID itself than with another trend that is paralleling it. One of my close friends was in a remote grain field in an African country. She was with a delegation of Westerners who had come on an aid mission … all businessmen with cell phones. Suddenly, a phone rang, and everybody reached for theirs. But it wasn’t any of those. A nearby farmer in a loincloth reached under his very limited apparel and pulled out his cell phone. The guy hardly owned anything … but even he had one.

In the end times, we are told “the whole world” will see and follow the beast. That is now, for the first time in history, a very easy thing to conceive. There are now very few people in the entire world that are not connected.

Tom: Very true.

IC: On the subject of massive connections, too, one thing COVID has brought to our awareness is that the world is now starting to act like one giant, seething sea of humanity. A trend, meme, news item or event in one small corner of the world can produce massive “waves” of reaction that are truly global in scope. Look at how one drug addict in Minnesota dies in custody, and people in England end up kneeling, or riots break out in Beirut, or Brazil or Sydney. Something very panicky and very big comes out of one incident now.

Coordinated Disinformation

Tom: Yes. There is an element of the problem that is due to our new “connectedness”. But that’s not all it is. This overreaction to the coronavirus could not have occurred without globalism and a mass media that is all beating the same drum, telling the same story, and disseminating the same disinformation. Left to interpret plain facts for themselves, some people would go one way and some another.

These “spasms” or panics are being caused by news presented as a monolithic, indisputable narrative. The evidence for that is the ruthlessness with which dissenting opinions about the dangers of COVID-19 from legitimate scientists, doctors and statisticians have been ruthlessly suppressed whenever they have deviated from the media narrative.

Did you ever wonder how the whole world could come to believe a lie? Well, wonder no more …

In Summary

IC: Okay, Tom, short summary … what do we foresee?

Tom: Okay, let me recap here:
  • Lots of Christians in need and a corresponding opportunity to be generous;
  • Ongoing Zoom interaction for seniors and shut-ins;
  • More government tracking of financial transactions;
  • A danger of increasing lawfare against local churches and a need for discernment about the use of the internet to share church meetings;
  • A need for sensitivity in social interactions;
  • Some unsaved may be more difficult to reach; and
  • More impact from fake news and the fallout from interconnectedness.
Does that about cover it?

IC: It’ll do for now, I think. I have a feeling we’ll be talking about this again some day soon.

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