A Comparative Examination
The question was posed online in a private forum: “Will Conservative Evangelical churches fare better than Mainline churches during the COVID-19 crisis?” Let’s wander through the question together.
Mainline churches are those Protestant institutions of American Christian experience: Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, American Baptists, Congregationalists, and my own United Methodists, amongst others. Mostly, we are churches where people sit close together in pews—not on the front row, of course!—and sing from hymnals, recite liturgies written before sliced bread was invented, and enjoy big choirs that sing the faith. There’s at least one in most every town and there always has been.
While there are certainly conservative evangelicals in mainline churches, the question was about independent conservative evangelical churches and megachurches. The worship wars of the previous generations separated the free-flowing praise band megapreachers from the formulaic choral worship and liturgy of mainline churches. Do the independent or congregational conservative evangelicals with contemporary praise music in a big box auditorium have the same problems as the small <100 attendees churches that dot the landscape of many mainline denominations? I’ll note that some of these style of churches reside within the mainline denominations, so I’m including them as well in this category.
It turns out that both types of churches are and will deal with very different effects of the COVID-19 crisis. Let’s examine some of them…spoiler alert, it may seem that Conservative Evangelicals will not be as effected…until we get to the last point.
Worshipping Alone, Together
Even as both mainline and conservative evangelicals are reporting higher attendance online in these past few weeks (however you count such things?), in my circles, smaller mainline congregations are struggling mightily with their congregants feeling disconnected from the worship service. My claim in this section is that the majority of conservative evangelical churchgoers are not feeling the same isolation as mainliners because the form of worship they are used to already isolates and depersonalizes the faith experience.
While I know they are struggling, conservative evangelical megachurches have already taught their congregants to live in isolation. Writing about megachurches, Bob Hyatt draws out the “depersonalizing ability of the church to fit more and more people into one giant room to be preached at by someone on a screen” (Wikiklesia, Volume 1). He means the larger the crowd, the easier it is to disappear into it.
Megachurch sanctuaries have better technology than gyms and auditoriums of nearby public schools and even local theatres. This pursuit of technology (which I appreciate, being a technophile) is an embrace of culture that has the effect of individualizing the faith. John Reagan and Scott Sexton comment in the same volume:
“Megachurches have advantages, but they may also be unintentionally replicating some dangerous cultural trends. In a church where people are barely a face in the crowd, let alone a face with a name, it is easy to attend…or not; participate…or not; grow spiritually…or not.” (Wikiklesia, Volume One)
Aside from the emotional rush of a concert-like atmosphere, worshipping online at home is not much less personal than in a big box auditorium. Are there more interactions and connections in person? Yes. But megachurches have trained their flocks to handle depersonalized, mass appeal Christianity…and the Mainline has not.
Mainline churches are so utterly embodied that they struggle to replicate the worship experience at home. Congregants in the vast majority of the mainline congregations scattered across every town and metropolis alike sit in pews (not rows of chairs with arm rests), share hymnals with each other, and enjoy in-person singing and preaching that names them rather than digital distractions and sermons geared for broadcast appeal. There’s no apps to fix that (although my local church has had great success with digital choirs, we are an outlier due to our strong musical and AV people, geeky pastor, and unwavering commitment to traditional worship) and many churches are feeling the pinch.
In short, conservative evangelical churches have an ability to retain their memberships better than the embodied mainline churches…because they’ve already trained them how to worship alone, even in a crowd.
Choirs versus praise bands
And then after this season of worship online, what remains when we return? Again, it would seem the conservative evangelical megachurches are better suited for COVID Christianity.
There is extensive research being done that choirs are super spreaders of the virus and therefore choirs should not proclaim the Word in music, and congregants should not sing back. For mainline churches that sing from dusty hymnals (the United Methodist hymnal begins with John Wesley’s Rules for Singing, which include “Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength”), bans on choirs and congregational singing are bitter pills to swallow.
Both of those restrictions have less impact on conservative evangelical megachurches (and smaller independent churches), who already have praise bands with only a few people leading worship. Even if they built plexiglass enclosures like a drum cage for each musician, they could do it. It’s simple math: if only 6-8 people are speaking or singing in a conservative evangelical worship service (and one of them is the pastor for 40 minutes), then they need fewer adaptions than my mainline worship service which regularly has at least 25-30 people on the chancel.
As well, megachurches already have song leaders lead the room—and they are necessary! The complexity of the praise songs, with bridges and choruses and meters moving around, written by modern musicians, are much harder to internalize than mainline hymns that typically have four set stanzas. I’m sure there is research showing that people actually sing praise songs more than hymns, but that’s not the point: the point is that conservative evangelicals can still lead worship by only tweaking the praise band…and mainline traditional worship services will not be able to lead in the way they have.
The embodied aspects of the mainline church—turning the pages of the hymnals, the choirs, the hands dipped in the baptismal fonts as you walk in—will be hardest hit by the COVID-19 restrictions, even when we are back in our sanctuaries again.
Science versus Saber-rattling
But finally, we get to the great equalizer. There’s a stark difference between mainline and conservative evangelicalism regarding the credibility the local congregation has when it comes to honoring the public health concerns of COVID-19.
Mainline denominations, headed by bishops and denominational authorities, have been very strong to embrace both faith and science. Their credibility is high because the public proclamations are not in conflict with the science from our public health authorities. Mainline churches, more or less, are more likely to be closed longer than other churches out of care and concern for their congregations, and will not reject social distancing restrictions out of hand—or feel too pressured to open because the decision might be outside the local congregations’ hands.
That’s not the case with the conservative evangelical churches. It was a group of conservative evangelical churches that sued Oregon to remain open (they won). And with the Republican executive branch spurring on this dissonance, more conservative evangelical churches will open, believing in the Deep State conspiracy. As more conservative evangelical churches reject public health restrictions, we can expect to see an uptick in COVID-19 diagnoses as the science of contagion overcomes their strongly held beliefs.
I’m proud of the way how my denomination does not issue statements that are in conflict with—much less in open antagonism to—public health. Perhaps the mainline dinosaur knows a thing or two about extinction-level events, and their insistence on aligning polity with public health will lead people to be attracted to their balanced wisdom and ancient practices again.
While mainline churches may have a problem with a difficulty to worship in the traditional ways, conservative evangelical churches will get their people killed, or at least lose credibility when they prioritize inflexible worship over sensible congregational care, informed by public health.
Unequal burdens, Shared Future
Conservative evangelical megachurches have a values problem, and mainline churches have an environmental problem. It’s built into both of their DNAs, and so both limitations will be very hard to overcome as the mainline has to triage its traditions and conservative evangelicalism has to reconcile its antagonism to science and public health.
We should be in prayer for both and hope that both can learn from each other to find a blended way forward that carries the wine of faith and science together in a new wineskin of worship. May we be bold and persistent in discovering what that is to be.
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