If I had to guess one of the most pressing problems facing Christians in the aftermath of this accursed pandemic, I would guess that it won’t be an active dismissiveness or “I don’t need that” attitude about the local church. Instead, the struggle is likely to be the exhaustion and sense of futility from fighting the digitalization of all of life. It’s not, I think, that scores of evangelicals will suddenly think they don’t need the church because of YouTube livestreams. It will be that scores of evangelicals feel like their efforts to be “tech-wise,” to swim against the tide of life-by-internet and prioritize analog and physical experiences, have been mostly pointless. We were trying to live more in the embodied moment, and then a virus happened and we saw just how necessary the protection a screen creates really is. Even if we want to overcome that, how could we?
In other words, I think we’re going to be facing a post-COVID malaise rather than a post-COVID revolution. This malaise has already been given extra strength by the inexplicable determination of certain health officials and journalists to talk the vaccines down—a determination that has almost certainly slowed the national recovery and created vaccine hesitancy unnecessarily. I know beyond a doubt there will be millions of Americans listening to that and reasoning that their days of going to church are over—not because they don’t want to, and not necessarily because they’re afraid, but because they don’t see the point. If the dangers hover over you the second you leave your house, no matter what you or your neighbor does, there’s only so much you can endure that emotional and cognitive burden. If a coworker knows you went to church, would they be upset with you for “creating risk” (what a slippery way to use words!)? Besides, you can probably listen to the sermon more attentively at home.
The post-COVID malaise may sound like a test of what we really believe about local congregations. But I actually think this is somewhat misleading. The malaise will be more of a test of what we really believe life is supposed to feel like. Fighting through this kind of malaise is going to feel, at many different times, like you’re doing life wrong. Fighting the omnipresence of screens, the immediate answers they offer and the stress they seem to offload, is going to feel like strenuous exercise when you know you’ll be dead of cancer in a week. The nagging feeling that you’re not supposed to feel this low level anxiety and self-doubt about everything will translate to, “So why do you choose to feel it?”
And this is where we have to remind ourselves of something very important: This world is broken and fallen, and living and become the way our Creator meant for us to live and become often feels difficult in a broken and fallen world. Becoming “tech-wise” isn’t about impressing Christian neighbors or appearing like sophisticated parents. If it is about that, it’s not worth the kind of trouble that the post-COVID malaise will bring us. But it’s not. It’s really about living as image-bearers in proximity with other image-bearers. It’s really about keeping our souls open to knowing and being known, over and against the anonymity and digital obfuscation of screens. It’s about putting social anxiety, insecurity, and even shame before the gentle and lowly Jesus who heals. It’s about fighting the good fight of faith.
So how do help ourselves and each other fight the post-COVID malaise? Right off the top of my head:
- Don’t assume that those fearful or slow to come back to church just “don’t get it.”
- Get vaccinated when you can.
- Invite people to your home
- Protect relationships, not time.
- Delete social media apps and set defined parameters of use.
- Watch movies with family and friends, not YouTube by yourself.
- Try something like what Brett McCracken calls the wisdom challenge.