As the COVID-19 virus disrupts more of our lives across the planet—our health, travel, work, play, friendships, family, housing, and more—tradeoffs (and outright losses) will increase. We will have to make do with the second best for a season. How can church leaders cope, adapt, and even thrive?
Pastors and other church leaders want to educate, nourish, encourage, and equip members of their church, to draw others into Christian fellowship and to be salt and light in their neighborhoods and the world. They are accustomed to pursuing these godly goals through the use of a church building for worship and other activities, having face-to-face meetings, making home and hospital visits, staging church events, and more. But now, physical proximity has been taken away from us by the pandemic—except in rare cases. Nevertheless, the mission of church leaders cannot change, for it is founded on the living and active Word of God (Hebrews 4:12). What can be done? We can again turn to the Bible.
Letters as Second Best
Paul’s letters to the church in Ephesus, Philippi, Colossi, and his letter to Philemon were probably penned from prison. Paul was likely under house arrest in Rome, having been wrongly penalized for following his divine call to preach, teach, lead, and mentor in the name of Jesus. The Apostle longed to be with the saints face-to-face, life-on-life, but he could not be. We find this desire in the book of Romans, a letter he did not write from prison. Near the beginning of this great Epistle, he writes:
I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles (Romans 1:11-13).
The Apostle John expressed the same passion near the end of both 2 John and 3 John. He would rather be with the recipients of his letters than write to them. All of these letters are sacred Scripture, but all are, in a sense, second best. These instances are just a small sampling of the biblical value placed on embodied presence—all of which flows from the central truth of reality—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).
Of course, the world is immensely enriched as a result of Paul’s and John’s letters, since letters, preserving for generations essential truths of the Christian faith otherwise limited to those in face-to-face meetings. But the inability to be with people did not stop Paul and John from making the best of their situations, even if doing so was second best. We now need a theology of the second best when so much that is best is snatched away from us. Before developing this theology and applying it to two areas, let me rule something out.
By second best I do not mean settling for mediocre, substandard, or slipshod work when one could do better without making an undue sacrifice. I do grant G. K. Chesterton’s quip that “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” insofar as he meant that we should not be hobbled by perfectionism. For example, preaching a decent sermon—but one that will not win any homiletical awards—is better than leaving your congregation without any sermon because you were not happy with your preparation. (And how many preachers have felt that way? I have at times.) Moreover, many pastors may lack adequate preparation time because of pressing needs in their congregations. An emergency visit to the hospital on Saturday evening may well crimp one’s sermonic ambitions. But so be it. The shepherd ministers to the wounded sheep as well as to those who are well.
However, no theology of the second best should countenance mediocrity born of laziness, sloppiness, nonchalance, inattention, or worse. Consider a gifted preacher who can prepare a better-than-average sermon with just a few hours of study. Given this person’s gifts, such a performance is second best. More time and effort invested would have meant a superior sermon (see Titus 2:7-8). So, having ruled out second best in the sense just described, let us consider another sense of second best or the best we can find under conditions of want, distress, and scarcity
What Is Second Best and Why Is It Needed?
Living in a fallen world means we must count the costs of our activities and engage in trade-offs, weighing the good against the bad, relative to situations. The Cambridge online dictionary gives this definition and example of a trade-off: a situation in which you accept something bad in order to have something good: For some car buyers, lack of space is an acceptable trade-off for a sporty design.
With no trade-off, a car would have a sporty design and ample space for the driver and passenger. But the trade-off gives the second best option, which is perhaps the only option short of nothing. We are always constrained by being finite, but we may be especially constrained by major catastrophes (like plagues) and other ills that force us into extraordinary situations. We may, in fact, have to innovate simply in order to find an option never before needed. Before exploring one approach to the second best for the church, let me state the basic principle.
Since we live in a fallen world where the ideal is often impossible, we must strive to do God’s will as the situation allows. But we should seek to accomplish God’s will (1) without sacrificing anything that is within our reach, (2) without violating any biblical principles, and (3) without becoming content with the second best if or when the best becomes again available.
Let us reflect on the church service specifically in light of this principle.
Doing Your Best at the Second Best
Given principle 1, putting services online should be done as well as possible. We should not sacrifice anything good within our reach to minister to others. That may involve trial and error, especially for smaller churches with fewer technological resources. We wouldn’t want poor production values to hinder whatever good can be done online. At the same time, church members should be patient as their leaders make these changes. Perhaps a church would allow for new spending in these areas, at least for the short run, given the present distress.
However, given principle 2, churches should be careful not to violate any biblical principles by putting a service online. Since video differs from radio or other voice-only technologies, it tends to privilege the image over the word. Given what can be done with visual effects, video productions often marginalize or “humiliate the word” (in Jacques Ellul’s pungent phrase). We should never let an online service (or an off-line service) become mostly entertainment, especially since Americans are already “amusing ourselves to death,” as social critic Neil Postman put it thirty five years ago.
Given principle (3), leaders should emphasize that putting services online is second best and should not be the norm. It is an expedient for extreme times. It is second best and should not be considered a replacement for the church meeting together regularly for services. When moving to screens, we reduce our visual experience from three dimensions to two. We also see less of each person than we would face to face. And, of course, we lose physical proximity.
We should all pray and hope that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” when it comes to assembling as the Body of Christ. We should miss greeting one another, singing together, praying together, and taking the Lord’s Supper together. We should lament these losses, all the while hoping for the return and renewal of our embodied practices. While someone at home can see and hear what parts of the service are put online, not being there is a loss that can never be compensated for by even the best technologies.
Yes, it is convenient to take in a service at home, given the flexibility we have in the privacy of our own homes, but that should never replace our gathering together socially for worship, edification, and fellowship. Putting services online may help churches reach new people, which is a reason to give thanks. Perhaps these souls feel desperate and frightened and want to experience something of a religious service to find hope. Yet they, too, should be encouraged to participate in proximate fellowship when that time safely comes.
Two Cheers for the Second Best
The theology of the second best needs to be applied in many other aspects of ministry beyond the church service—and beyond the life of the church as well. But perhaps these reflections will spur the reader to do some heavy theological lifting in our troubled times. We should remember that, as Jesus said, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26)—even effective ministry during a modern plague.