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September 23, 2020
Like most people, I can’t wait for the day when we can open up the doors of our churches once again. I miss the community, the opportunities to connect with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and worshiping together as a united body of believers.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Larry Osborne, one of the senior pastors at North Coast Church in San Diego and a pioneer in doing church online.
I asked him what it would take to return to church after COVID 19 and what it might look like when we do. What he had to tell me was both shocking and encouraging, but I think it’s something we all need to think about.
“At North Coast, we're going to come back when the experience on the campus is better than the experience online,” Larry told me. He then shared with me three things that will need to change before live services actually work better than a virtual church.
If you’ve ever been to a service at North Coast Church, you know that Larry and his team do a phenomenal job of creating a high-quality worship experience. That is intentional. They actually see their beautiful campuses—all seven of them—as part of their ministry strategy. “I love them because they allow us to reach more people, creating a ‘come-and-see’ environment,” Larry said. “We have always seen the weekend as the being for ‘the crowd,’ and small groups as the church gathering. But if you were to take away our buildings forever, that does not end our ability to proclaim the gospel and get people into community.”
With social distancing, what was once a dynamic, energetic worship experience becomes rather sad. The rooms would be sparsely filled—and that’s a problem.
Larry explained: “You've been to a comedy show in a half-filled theater, haven’t you? Nothing's funny. No one laughs. Have you ever tried to communicate to a scattered crowd? It’s very hard to do.”
The bottom line:
When you have a church auditorium with lots of empty seats, it’s hard to make the experience a great one.
These days, many parents simply do not feel comfortable dropping their kids off in a church classroom to play with other children, many of whom will be strangers. So, children’s ministry in the current climate has become a nearly impossible undertaking.
Having kids in the service would also prove difficult. How in the world will we keep these kids from running up and down the aisles of our sanctuaries? That’s part of the quality issue Larry highlighted.
One thing we’ve all learned in the last few months is that small children do not practice social distancing. I know I’ve tried it with my three boys, and it’s basically impossible. There’s simply no way of keeping children from getting too close to other people. And that will cause plenty of adults to worry.
Sure, there are parents who will try to enforce a six-foot rule with their children, but most of them will find the effort only makes the whole family miserable. Larry had this to add: “I can guarantee you: most of the kids are going to come out in tears, saying, ‘Mom and Dad, don’t ever make me go there again!’”
According to the news reports, the coronavirus has been most contagious in three places: nursing homes, cruise ships, and choirs. Think about singing for a moment. Better yet, put your hand in front of your face and belt out a few lines of “Amazing Grace.” Do you see the problem? It’s so easy to spread germs while singing.
In order to worship together, we’d need to sing with social distancing rules in place, while also wearing masks. All in all, congregational singing will create a highly contagious environment, increasing anxiety for everyone in the room and diminishing the quality of our services.
North Coast does not currently have a team working to get weekend services “back to normal.” “If we did,” Larry said, “they’d have to make sure we were getting all the medical equipment for sanitizing surfaces and taking temperatures, all of that sort of stuff. We’d be spending all this time and energy to create a bad experience.”
Larry told me that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he would have described North Coast as a church with seven campuses that also offers online services. But his team has had to shift. North Coast is now an online church that has seven physical locations. And I am sure Larry and his team are not the only ones having to change their thinking.
One day, we’ll open the doors to our churches again, but I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way things were. If we’ve learned anything from these strange times, it’s that discipleship doesn’t require a church building. Thank God for that.