Carl Trueman has written an article at First Things in which Protestant Christians are asked to consider COVID-19 and the meaning of the term apocalypse.
“Apocalypse” is often associated with the end of the world, depicted in films as a cascading onslaught of geopolitical chaos, natural disasters, environmental decay, unstoppable global disease, and, maybe, the unleashing of evil spiritual forces. Think of The Book of Eli, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z, 12 Monkeys, End of Days, Soylent Green, Mad Max: Fury Road, Doctor Strangelove, I Am Legend, The Day After Tomorrow, Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, Children of Men, The Road, The Matrix, 28 Days Later, or Wall-E. Ghostbusters really nailed it. Long live Peter Venkman.
In the New Testament, the Greek term apokálypsis means an uncovering or unveiling. Revelation 1:1 begins, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.” That word translated “revelation?” That’s apokalypsis.
A hidden thing is revealed. That’s an apocalypse.
Look At All These Rumors
Trueman has been hearing that Protestants fear that the pandemic has not only decimated budgets and worship services, and uncovered stresses and strains which exist in the relationship between church and state, but that online worship services and habituated non-attendance will lead to a massive reduction in church participation. Trueman writes:
In conversation with many ministers, I have noticed one key concern again and again: How many Christians will return to church once COVID has stabilized? It is anecdotal at best at this point, but the figure often cited in my presence is 30 percent: Three out of every ten pre-COVID worshipers might stay away for good. One friend told me that his denomination’s leadership has informed its ministers that a third of its congregations might close within the next few months.
Theology nerds will find Trueman’s claims about Catholic/Protestant arguments for meeting physically together worthy of contemplation. For Catholics, Christ meets with his people in the Eucharist. For Protestants, Christ meets with his people through the preached Word.
But really, it’s the last paragraph which provides the Scorpion uppercut punch:
So what will be revealed if vast swathes of Protestants do not return to physical church when COVID finally settles down? Surely that the theology of preaching as God’s confrontational presence in and through proclamation has at some point been supplanted in the minds of many by a notion that it is merely a transmission of information or a pep talk. And that listening as active, faithful response has correspondingly been reduced to a passive reception, of the kind that televisions and countless other screens have made the default position. To put it another way, it will reveal that preachers have become confused with life coaches or entertainers, and congregations have been replaced by audiences and autonomous consumers. Such a scenario will be apocalyptic. And in both senses of the word.
Let’s say, for a moment, that churches do experience a thirty percent reduction in active participation in weekend services once this storm passes. Trueman may have nailed all the causes.
But has this pandemic been truly necessary to reveal these things to be true? Or will the pandemic only make these matters even more plain, pushing those remaining in denial about the overall health of Protestant Christianity in North America to finally face the reality that cultural forces, including those within the church, have weakened our efforts at discipleship?
No Need for Anxiety
Long ago I gave up hand-wringing over matters like this. I’ve faced the fact that we are in decline, and that there is work to do. The monastics taught me to remember that God draws people unto himself and into community, and while I might be called to intercede for the world and to call upon God to bring the lost to saving faith, I am not called to be anxious about the future of the church. The Father sovereignly prunes the vine to foster future flourishing. I trust the vine dresser.
Dallas Willard once said “The greatest challenge the church faces today is to be authentic disciples of Jesus.” Indeed, that is a great challenge. But it echoes the commission given to all disciples of Jesus. Jesus has been granted all authority in heaven and on earth and has promised to be with us to the end of the age. Those are reasons for confidence, and hope.