Church attendance has been on thin ice for some time with many Millennials asking, “Why should I go to church at all?” One often-repeated comment about church is, “I love Jesus. It is church people I don’t care for.” Church life hasn’t produced the kind of character young people desire. Now COVID-19 has further changed Sunday attendance. Many people are asking, “Why should I go back? Isn’t virtual church enough?”
Pastors in Colorado know that when the weather is good, hiking, biking, and skiing draws members outdoors on Sundays. Families go to the mountains for a Friday through Sunday mini-ski-cation. I (Michel) was an elder and pastor of spiritual formation in a large church for sixteen years. We offered a “virtual service” along with four “in-person” services. On ski trips, families could watch a church service before heading to the slopes. What could be the harm in that?
Some people gave up in-person church in favor of a virtual experience. Although the actual percentages were small, we talked about the trend with staff. “Does virtual church accomplish the purposes which Jesus gave to His church,” we wondered? Yet what seemed a fringe trend then has now become a government-mandated reality now.
Will people come back to church once social distancing is lifted? Is there real spiritual value in being face to face? We must answer why meeting in-person is needed. Our answer will depend upon what we chose to measure. Brain science provides a surprising perspective on Scripture’s answer. How the human brain changes our character brings sudden clarity to the differences between virtual church and meeting face to face.
Understanding the basics of human character change also explains my (Michel) inconsistent results as a pastor of spiritual formation. I agreed with Jesus and Paul that the church’s central responsibility is to grow people into the character of Christ. Jesus described this as “teaching people to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Paul described this central responsibility as equipping people “for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature” (Ephesians 4:12). I understood WHAT I needed to do but, even when we met face-to-face, I didn’t know HOW.
I (Jim) spent 40 years as a counselor – the first 20 not knowing how the brain formed and changed character. I experienced the same intermittent success developing Christian character as Michel. In the late 1990s, advances in neuroscience revealed how to teach the brain in the way that the brain learns best. Physical brains change more in response to who we love than what we believe. Who we love shapes our identity and character. Loving Jesus creates far better character than believing in Jesus.
What is really unexpected is that relational love:
- Grows best where there is joy on people’s faces (joy because they are together)
- Leads to permanent life-long relationships
- Requires a “group identity” in people over 12 years of age
- Is shaped by correction from the people who love us
The four essential practices above flourish in face-to-face (real-time) interactions. These “best practices” for character change (in the brain) are suppressed in a virtual environment. Quite frankly these four practices are also suppressed in typical churches which explains Michel’s intermittent success with spiritual formation. The modality in which that truth was conveyed needed to be changed.
The Apostle John records that Jesus surprised Judas (not Iscariot) by saying that He and the Father would only reveal themselves to those who loved them. (John 14:19-22) John’s epistle adds that we cannot love God whom we cannot see if we cannot love those we can see. (1 John 4:20) John then writes to his beloved church that he would rather see them face-to-face. (3 John 1:14) Why is “seeing” so central to this disciple Jesus loved? Jesus and the Father reveal themselves as we learn to love God’s people in a way that yearns to be face to face. Loving Jesus also means loving His people.
Online dating reveals that having virtual, fantasy relationships is easier than sustaining love in person. Spiritual formation is not a fantasy love. The character of Jesus develops in a transforming sequence that builds relational joy, creates permanent relationships, and forms a people who lovingly correct each other’s character. Relational love needs human faces and real time interactions to change the human brain. This entire transformational chain needs people to be together. We need each other’s faces and personal presence if we are serious about becoming a new people in a new Kingdom.
Michel Hendricks and Jim Wilder have written The Other Half of Church about full-brain training in Christlike character. The four soils detailed in the book grow mature disciples of Jesus and provide the basis for the transforming sequence described in this article. Both authors and their families live in Colorado.