At first sight, the prospect of Christian Churches in full lockdown across Ireland might seem like a religious disaster for Christendom on the island, but in reality, it has forced denominations and fellowships to redefine what is the Church, and how can the Church prepare for evangelism in a post virus society?
The key concept which the virus has challenged the Church to face up to is that ‘church’ should no longer be simply viewed as a physical building.
Until the virus triggered the full-scale lockdown across the island, the generations’ traditionalist view was that ‘church’ represented an actual building with a pulpit, pews, and walls. Coming to church was a habit, often only one day per week dressed in your Sunday best.
But the post virus ‘church’ will be about the spiritual community rather than the physical building. For a start, many churches have embraced the digital revolution and are using social media to broadcast their services.
Some churches already had an online presence, but that contact of togetherness is all the more important in this lockdown period, with tough restrictions on meetings, social distancing and self-isolation.
With the vast majority of people now working from home, using new technology to spread the Christian Gospel will become an increasingly important tool for evangelism.
The churches can now develop online Bible studies and prayer meetings. Perhaps, new religious channels will emerge on Youtube, as well as online Christian radio.
However, there will be two hurdles which the modern-day Christian Church will have to overcome if post virus technology is to be effectively used as a pro-active form of evangelism.
Firstly, the fundamentalist traditionalists who view any form of media - even social media - as ‘being off the devil!’ In the past, I’ve referred to this section of the Christian Church as ‘the hat brigade’. These are people for whom the trappings of religion and the image of the Church are all that matters.
‘The hat brigade’ would never allow a woman to join a church unless she wore a hat to worship; insisted that men tone down the colours of their ties, and decreed that only piano or organ could be used in praise - acoustic or electric guitars, drums or any other worldly musical instruments were a huge ‘no, no’.
Such traditionalists will need to waken up and smell the coffee in evangelism terms. With church buildings shut under the lockdown, how can these fundamentalist traditionalists guarantee that when - maybe even in several months’ time - when the buildings can reopen that the entire flock will return to church?
With the overwhelming majority of worshippers having to praise God from the isolation of their homes, perhaps they have deliberately or accidentally found an online service and concluded - there’s a real spiritual blessing to be had from attending that church!
In practical terms, a situation could arise that folk get such a blessing and enjoyment from the online services that they either continue to worship at home on Sundays, or they abandon their traditional family church and begin to attend a new church once the religious lockdown is formally lifted and the buildings can reopen.
What about the churches which have shut under the lockdown and have made no online arrangements to broadcast their Sunday worship? They could suffer numerically once the lockdown is lifted.
The second hurdle which modern online evangelical outreach has to clear is the stereotype created by American-style so-called tele-evangelists that the only reason they are broadcasting is to encourage people to give cash donations to that church or evangelist.
The money-grabbing image of a few so-called tele-evangelists has severely dented the image of those genuine preachers who want to use the medium of moving image to spread the Gospel message.
While many churches are combatting the effects of the virus by live-steaming their services, there is also the danger that the online services become a competition between churches as to who can broadcast the liveliest service as opposed to providing a spiritual nourishment for the flock.
How long before we see websites or social media producing a Top Ten Online Services in Ireland page? Likewise, churches also need financial support to survive - how will people get their tithes or donations to the church so that the buildings can be maintained until the lockdown is lifted?
Similarly, churches and preachers of the Gospel have to be very careful how they phrase their evangelical messages. Clerics have to be watchful ion jumping on the bandwagon that the coronavirus will cause a death toll of Biblical proportions.
Yes, this deadly virus is killing people by the thousands across the globe as the battle to contain it, and find a workable vaccine continues. But do sermons suggesting the virus is God’s punishment on a nation actually encourage people to embrace the Christian faith?
The ‘Turn or Burn’ method of communication may have worked very effectively during the famous 1859 Ulster Revival, but is the Hell-fire preaching style working in 2020 Ireland?
This is not to suggest that clerics should avoid preaching about the realities of Hell and Eternal Damnation in the lake of fire, but it has to be communicated in a manner that the population and audience can fully understand and appreciate their meaning.
There is the real danger that the Church could create the impression of ‘too much religion and not enough Christianity’. But what is in no doubt is that the Christian Church now has a terrific opportunity to grasp the technology of the internet during the lockdown and spread the Gospel message.
That will give the Church a firm foundation for when it will emerge from the virus lockdown. ‘Seize it or lose it’ may well be the challenge to the Church in these dark days.