Has COVID-19 Killed the Church?

By Mark A. Kellner | Posted June 29, 2020

The up-and-down prospects for reopening America in the wake of the months-long national quarantine triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak seem to take a hit with every news cycle. In states such as California, Florida, and Texas, once-lifted restrictions are imposed again as reported cases of infection spike. Moreover, the virus is expected to surge again in the autumn as temperatures drop, experts say.

A June 23 news report by Religion News Service says “64% of Americans said they were ‘somewhat uncomfortable’ or ‘very uncomfortable’ attending in-person worship.”

This survey, conducted May 21 to June 5 by the American Enterprise Institute, notes that “even among those who reported their congregations offered in-person worship in the past week, 56% of respondents said they chose not to go.” The group most eager to attend in-person worship is “white evangelicals.”

The report also states, “In the South, where cases of coronavirus have surged in the past few weeks, that ambivalence about reopening is palpable.” The article quotes Tennessee Baptist Mission Board spokesman Chris Turner as saying, “The ones going back are smaller churches where the gathering size is easy to control.” Still, due to the fact that there’s no vaccine yet, concerns have arisen about gathering in groups at all, even in those that are practicing social distancing.

A Coming Religion Recession?

It’s one thing to have a temporary decline in worship attendance, but will the pandemic accelerate a “hollowing out” of America’s houses of worship? Scholar David Gibson, who heads Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, views this as a distinct possibility.

After surveying the ebb and flow of faith during past global pandemics, Gibson notes that “in past upheavals, Americans have not sought long-lasting comfort in local communities of faith. And the bonds of faith are weaker than ever.”

He adds, “When my own Catholic diocese shuttered its churches to avoid spreading the coronavirus, a friend of mine quipped that our fellow believers ‘will never go back once they see how nice it is to sleep in on Sunday mornings.’ The barb has the sting of truth.”

He then cites the observations of political scientist Ryan Burge, who specializes in religious behavior, concluding that those who attend religious services sporadically, such as for major holidays like Christmas and Easter, are those most affected by crises: “When those people leave, they don’t return. That’s the current danger zone for religious congregations.”  

Gibson asserts that this ever-increasing emptying of churches is due to much more than the novel coronavirus: “In the past, religion remained the context in which the vast majority of Americans worked out the meaning of life, and the afterlife. Not anymore. … It all seems to point to a future in which religious distancing increases even as social distancing ends.”

The Future of the Church

So what does this ominous foreboding mean for the future of church? Let’s see what the Bible has to say.

In Matthew 16, Jesus and His disciples have an exchange about who people believe He, their teacher, is. The disciples answer that some believe Jesus to be a resurrected John the Baptist—already beheaded by King Herod—or the return of Elijah or Jeremiah or another ancient prophet.

Jesus then asks, “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15).

One disciple responds without hesitation: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16).

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah,” says Jesus to the disciple, “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (vv. 17, 18).

Those verses have been used—and, frankly, misused—over the past two thousand years. One prominent church asserts that the “rock” to which Jesus refers is its founding disciple, Peter, therefore giving that church supreme authority over all of Christianity, no matter the denomination. But is this really the case?

Massive rock

Two Greek words are at issue here: Petros (in some renderings Cephas) or Peter, the other name that Jesus gave to Simon Bar-Jonah, and petra, the rock on which Jesus will build His church. Petra is widely interpreted as a “huge mass of rock,” while Petros means a “separated stone.” In other words, Jesus is saying Peter’s personal faith was rock solid, but only because it hung on the confession that Jesus “is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus—not Peter—is the “huge mass of rock,” “the Rock of our salvation” (Psalm 95:1), the foundation stone on which the church would be built.

Who is Peter to Christ? The belief that Jesus is the Messiah has provided “the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20) of faith for billions of people throughout the past two millennia. Indeed, from a core group of 12 adherents in the dusty plains of Judea burgeoned one of the most widely practiced religions in the world—Christianity.

As Jesus said, the “gates of Hades” will not defeat His church. So why should we tremble at the thought of a pandemic’s impact on church affiliation? Whatever reverses may happen, Scripture tells us that the preaching of the gospel will go into “all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). That means that the church will—despite anything that comes against it—survive until Christ’s second coming.

Check out Pastor Doug Batchelor’s free online Bible study Peter and the Rock to answer your questions on what the church is—and isn’t. Compared to the current news, Jesus has more hopeful prospects for His church!

Mark Kellner
Mark A. Kellner is a staff writer for Amazing Facts International. He is a veteran journalist whose work has been published in Religion News Service, The Washington Times, and numerous computer magazines.

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