Has church become a spectator sport?: Ps Benny Ho on the 1-year mark of the pandemic
Pastor Benny Ho // February 19, 2021, 4:41 pm
Pastor Benny Ho at a pre-Covid marketplace talk, exhorting the crowd to place their priority on people, not possessions. Photo by Salt&Light.
Hard to believe, but the world is now passing the one-year mark of the pandemic.
In the past 12 months, the Covid crisis has revealed weaknesses both on a personal front as well as the institutional front. In the light of these revelations, how can we effect real change?
Pastor Benny Ho, Senior Pastor of Faith Community Church in Perth, Australia, shares his thoughts on how Covid-19 could have positive outcomes both at the personal level and the Church level.
How have relationships been affected by Covid?
One thing that is very important is this – crises reveal faultlines in our lives and relationships.
Prior to Covid, people could always give excuses for not having time to do this or that. For example, we could say: “I’d like to have a personal walk with God, but I travel a lot.” Or: “My work keeps me so busy and holds me to late hours.” So that is why I can’t have a personal walk with God, or that is why I don’t have time for my family.
Now that people have time, it does not necessarily mean that they will actually enjoy time with God or their family.
But we now actually do have time to spend with God and with our family. So the question is – are we doing it?
I have discovered that, now that people have time, it does not necessarily mean that they will actually enjoy time with God or their family.
The reality is that even though our excuses have been taken away, those faultlines were already there. The fractures that we have in our relationship with God and our relationship with family were already there. We just used our “busy-ness” as an excuse not to deal with it.
But now that everybody is locked in and locked down, we have to face the reality of those exposed faultlines. For some families, where the faultlines are already there, now it really gets exposed and it erupts.
You find that there are cases on both sides: Those who are already healthy, they become healthier. But those who are not so healthy, now the relationship really dismantles. So you have a lot more marriage issues, a lot more family fights and things like that. They become very obvious because the faultlines are being exposed now.
How did you help church members experiencing relationship crises?
We told them that it is okay to face up to the faultlines that were already there. It was just that they had never had to deal with them before. Now is a good time.
I think God exposes these faultlines, not to condemn us, but so that we will deal with them and get them fixed.
We opened up a lot more counselling facilities, so that people could quickly get counselling, receive ministry, and deal with their issues.
The real root of restlessness is often a sense of purposelessness.
We also increased our family life courses. This was a good time to do so. Because husbands and wives were not traveling all around the country; it was a good time to go through marriage and parenting courses. We took this time to resolve those family issues, and resolve those marriage issues.
Another positive thing we can do during this time is to go and get help. Mental illness has come to the forefront for so many. People are locked in and they can’t distract themselves with traveling.
So we need to encourage the church to say: “It’s okay to be not okay. Go get help.”
We tell people where to go, where there are people who can help. We give people resources where they can get, not only counselling, but also psychiatric help if necessary, so that they can deal with all these faultlines.
One more faultline is the inner restlessness that we all have to face. When we get locked down long enough, this inner restlessness will come up. Sometimes we think that it’s being caused because we don’t get to travel, so traveling will fix it.
But the real root of the restlessness is often a sense of purposelessness.
Now that you cannot distract yourselves with all kinds of activities, you have to face up to the fact that there is an inner emptiness that you have to deal with.
The exposure of these faultlines gives us opportunities to effect real change.
What other challenges has Covid brought to your church?
Crisis always brings challenges.
I’m dealing with the after-effects of staying online. We’ve really had to deal with it in three stages.
They have tasted the waters of the online church. And they actually find that it tastes quite sweet.
Stage One was when the lockdown happened. And our challenge was to move the whole church online. That was very difficult, especially for the older people who are not so used to technology. They really struggled. It took us some time to coach them into going online, so that they were not totally disconnected from the church. Teaching them to navigate the online platform was stage one.
Stage Two was when people settled down into the online platform. They have tasted the waters of the online church. And they actually find that it tastes quite sweet, and it is actually quite nice to stay online. It’s so convenient.
You can get up at 10 o’clock in the morning, in your PJs, and watch the service, not needing to get dressed up and all that. So that was stage two, people settled down into the online thing.
Then came Stage Three, when the government started to lift the restrictions and we are now allowed to gather at half strength. That means if your church capacity is 100, you can have 50 people. In our building, our capacity is about 1,400 so we can bring back 700 people. That’s where we are now.
What has been the response of your congregation?
We discovered that not everybody may want to come back, because now we have to get them out of their homes again. They need to make the effort to come, and that is a challenge.
There will be some who may not come for reasons ranging from being afraid of the health situation to really liking the convenience of staying online.
The issue we have now is of “convenience versus commitment”.
The challenge we are all going to face, across the world, is the issue of “convenience versus commitment”. It brings this question to the forefront now. Will you bow your knees to the god of convenience and just stop gathering?
Watching church online for too long has turned Christianity into a spectator sport. It’s just like watching soccer on TV. There are thousands of people watching TV, and they’re watching just 22 men exercising in the field.
We are just passively watching and we think that after the game, or the service, we have already exercised.
I found that that when the people came back after a few months of the lockdown, our worship engagement dropped. Our receptivity of the Word – meaning whether they will respond to an altar call after hearing the message – has dropped. It takes longer for people to respond. We are too used to just watching passively now.
That’s the challenge that we will face, that Christianity will become another spectator sport. Instead of engaging, we just end up passively watching. It seeps into even our worship, and the way we respond to God’s Word.
We need to intentionally wean our people away from that.
What are some practical examples of weaning?
We intentionally make sure that after every session, we give an altar call, just to get them to respond again.
Before our worship leaders start the worship, they will take a few moments to encourage everyone, whether online or onsite, to really engage in worship. It’s no longer a given. You have to bring it up again.
We intentionally challenge the people, because if not, engagement will drop. It’s easy to become passive now.
We also really challenge the people to come back in to service, and see the benefits of the onsite church. We had to make that very clear and invite the people to come back.
These are new challenges, but I am sure that we will overcome them. It will take time and effort.
How do you personally stay encouraged when faced with these faultlines?
I want to say that crisis brings new opportunities.
One new opportunity is evangelism. During the lockdown, it was a great time to do things like Alpha Online, and to engage people in conversations. People were a lot more open through Alpha Online.
One new opportunity is evangelism. During the lockdown, it was a great time to do things like Alpha Online.
I talked to the people at Alpha, and they told me this amazing story: When the Covid lockdown happened in UK, people thought that Alpha was finished. The reason was that the strength of Alpha is in the meals people eat together, and without that they thought the programme was done.
But the staff and leadership decided to take the course online. Some thought it would never work, but they gave it a go. And to their surprise, they had thousands of Alpha groups started. It was more successful than they imagined when they moved online.
I was so amazed that I said: “I’ll give it a go here.” And we did. We tried to run it with a few groups in the last few months, and a lot of people came to Christ.
I discovered that it was an opportunity that we could seize, because people found the online course convenient. So that’s something for us to think about.
How can we make on-site church more attractive?
If we want our people to come back to the onsite church, then there must be things about the onsite church that are attractive, that can’t be duplicated online.
So that means our welcome must be truly strong. The worship must be really, really engaging. It forces us to actually take a good look at how to build the depth of the service on site. And this is healthy.
The online church has effectively helped us to reach a global audience.
At the same time that we are building onsite depth, we can build our online reach.
The online church has effectively helped us to reach a global audience. So that’s also very good. It’s really worth the effort of going online.
So I’m now challenging our team: Let’s build both the onsite depth and the online reach internally and very powerfully.
This crisis also creates a new opportunity for us to look at our own neighbourhood. Because now that we cannot go too far from our home, we can actually look at our own neighbours. In time, we can think about running street parties and things like that.
The lockdown could happen again anytime. Let’s build these relationships so that, if we go to a lockdown again, we can reach our neighbours.
The last opportunity I’ll talk about is church decentralisation. It’s a good chance for us to spread out.
There must be things about the onsite church that are attractive, that can’t be duplicated online.
Even now that we are back and meeting together, we still want to encourage different zones – for example, if you don’t come to the main church, find another spot where you could get together as a zone and watch the online stream. As people get together, and build smaller groups within the bigger group, these can become platforms to plant new churches.
We actually planted one new campus during the lockdown. We know that it can be done and we will duplicate it in other places. It’s an onsite campus, so we have begun to decentralise a lot more.
In the event a crisis happens again, and we have another lockdown where you can no longer gather in big numbers, we can easily get in small numbers of a hundred everywhere.
It’s an opportunity to church plant, an opportunity to decentralise, and so that’s something I see as a positive. We are trying all these things now, and they are great.
This article was first published in Brave, and is republished with permission. Read the first part of the interview on reordering our priorities below: