COVID and Church Online

I got distracted last week and neglected to finish my thoughts on where we are and what we’ve learned as churches during COVID.

First, we’ve learned that temporary emergency measures can become standard operating procedure in a church if we’re not intentional in our communication, reflection, and practice. We didn’t as much learn this as it’s just been reinforced. During the early days of the pandemic, most churches complied with government recommendations and shut their doors to the Lord’s Day assembly. For the first time in history, healthy people in the United States were not allowed to worship God in their church building on Sunday. Most of us scrambled and began livestreaming our assemblies online so, at least, we could sing and pray, listen to a sermon and eat a communion meal in a virtual gathering. We understood that we were spiritually connected. And it was appropriate and good in this unprecedented emergency situation.

But now, nearly two years later, church online has become an acceptable and even sanctioned option for Christians and their churches. For a lot of disciples, the livestream service is normal now. It’s like the communion meal. I suppose there was a time when those “rip n sip” individually packaged communion kits were appropriate. But now, way past the emergency, many Christians and churches are still using them. (For my thoughts on communion during COVID, what we’ve lost with the “rip n sips,” and why we need to return to passing trays and “breaking bread,” please click here.)

The problem is that our language around the livestream was normalizing. We spoke in the very beginning about church online like it was already permanent. Instead of emphasizing that the livestream was a temporary, emergency procedure, we went out of our way to reassure the Christians who were staying home. Instead of saying that folks who are going to work, the grocery store, the gym, and restaurants should also return to the Sunday Christian assembly, we welcomed the online church and assured everyone watching that they were doing what was best by not coming to the building, even as a lot of those watching were attending football games and going out to eat.

The issue is that church online is not church. It’s something, certainly; it’s not terrible, of course. But it’s not church; it’s something else. By definition, church is a physical assembly. Flesh and blood people coming together in one place for a common purpose. Real, physical people gathering to worship God and serve one another together. Men and women and children, in the same place at the same time, being transformed together as they accept and forgive, bear with and love, compromise and laugh and cry with one another in the name and manner of Jesus.

Our faith is an incarnational faith in our incarnational Lord. God did not come to us virtually, he came to us in our flesh and blood. He didn’t send a text or a video, he sent us his Son. Our spiritual connections are important, but they are incomplete without our physical connections. Our Sunday gathering is not just any meeting that can be attended or substituted on a whim or out of convenience – it is the very Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is something that can be seen and heard and touched. Church online is a disembodied virtual experience. It’s not church.

Can you imagine being married and never going home to your spouse? I’ll just call her every night, it’s the same thing! Can you imagine telling your kids and grandkids at Christmas, “Don’t bother coming over for Christmas lunch and presents, let’s just Zoom it. It’s the same thing!

Of course, we all know it is decidedly not the same thing. What’s vital for some – the shut-in, the sick, those who work on Sundays – should not be normal for most.

But it’s normal now. It’s not surprising that something as convenient as online church would quickly become normal. If you’re out of town or on vacation, it’s much easier to hop online from your hotel room or your lake house and “do church” with your own congregation virtually than it is to hunt down a real live congregation of flesh and blood Christians and worship with them. To be shaped by the experience. To encourage other Christians and to be encouraged by meeting other disciples in a different place. To physically participate with the physical Body of Christ in all of its transforming power. We used to do that.

Maybe the compulsion to never miss church was misguided when, a few decades ago, we never dared skip the assembly. Certainly it was – a lot of us grew up believing that church attendance was the truest sign of faithfulness. The uncritical embrace of online church has exposed our shallow theology about church. As I’ve said before, the reasons online church is normal now and so many Christians opt to spectate from home instead of participate in person are three-fold: One, the pull of the culture toward individual consumerism is stronger than the pull of the Body of Christ; two, we’ve done a terrible job of teaching and communicating what’s really happening when God’s people come together in his presence, in the name of Jesus, and by the power of the Holy Spirit; and, three, our people have never really had a transforming experience in church. It’s all three.

The livestream should be done well for those who need it. And we would do better to address this from the pulpit on Sundays by saying things like:

“We’re so glad to make this livestream available to our sick and shut-ins; we pray it blesses you. For the healthy and mobile, please don’t let church online be the extent of your connection to God and to his people. Please come join us in person on Sundays and participate in all that God has planned for you through the Body of Christ.”

“We hope you are blessed by watching our worship service online. We also hope that you can join us here in person next Sunday.”

“If you are unable to be with us physically this morning, we’re grateful to be with you virtually. We understand that church online does not provide you the connection and the transformation that happens with the Body of Christ in here – but we hope this is beneficial. If you are able to be here but you’re watching online, we would encourage you to come join us in person next Sunday. Don’t let watching online be the extent of your engagement with God and his people. We would love to welcome you here to participate in what God is doing in us and through us together on Sundays.”

To be clear, I do believe there are benefits to livestreaming a worship service. Other than the aforementioned blessing for the congregation’s sick, shut-ins, and those forced to work on Sundays, I believe a livestream can be a wide on-ramp for people in your city. Folks in your community can be introduced to God and his people in your congregation through your livestream. But it must go beyond that. Strategies must be devised and resources must be deployed to engage those viewers and invite them into the physical assembly. We can’t be content with “hits” and “viewers;” we cannot mistake “time spent viewing” with engagement with Jesus and his Church; we must work hard to connect those online to the physical flesh and blood Body of Christ.

Finally, it’s on church leaders – shepherds, preachers, pastors, worship ministers – to teach and communicate better what God is doing during our worship assemblies, and to plan and practice so the holy community and transforming encounter of church is experienced on Sundays.



One and Done

Scattershooting while basking in the glow of one of the more delicious Cowboys playoff losses in quite some time.

Back on September 9, I wrote in this space: After the Cowboys last loss of the year, “Jerry Jones will say this is the most disappointed he’s ever been in his professional life.”

On October 20, I wrote in this space: “The powers that be are right now devising the most excruciating, gut-punch way for the Cowboys to get humiliated in January. Again.”

On December 12, I wrote in this space: “The Cowboys have won the NFC East and will host a Wild Card playoff game. But it doesn’t matter. Dallas is not even in the same universe as the other playoff teams.”

When it happens every year for a quarter century, this stuff just writes itself.


The Cowboys are sloppy. This team was the most penalized outfit in the NFL this season. No team has ever committed more penalties in a playoff game than the Cowboys committed yesterday: 14 penalties total, half of them of the pre-snap variety. No discipline. No focus. The penalties nullified big plays by the Cowboys and kept drives alive for the 49ers. This is not a new problem for Dallas. It’s been an issue all year and going back for several years. In my view, it’s a reflection of ownership and coaching. Since Jerry fired Jimmy and brought in Barry, there’s been an “anything goes” culture in the locker room, on the practice field, and during games. Players are not accountable to their coaches, they are accountable only to Jerry. They know it and the coaches know it. And it manifests in a lack of preparation and concentration on Sunday afternoons.


The Cowboys have a loser mentality. They blame the refs for all their losses. They’ve been doing it all year. They did it again last night. The coaches and players do not take responsibility for their own mistakes, blaming outside forces for their errors in judgment and focus. That umpire who bumped into Dak after the final play? He was doing his best to HELP Prescott and the Cowboys! If Dak had spiked the ball before the umpire spotted it, it wouldn’t have counted. It would have been an offensive penalty and the game would have ended. The umpire was attempting to help cover Dak’s mental lapse in a critical moment. He ran through Dak and the offensive line because it  was the quickest way to do it. He was trying to save it for Dak, trying to get Dak the last play he wanted. Blaming the umpire in that situation, which is what both McCarthy and Dak did after the game, is a loser response.


The delicious thing is that Dallas always loses in a way you never expect. It’s always something crazy and controversial, something you’ve never seen before, something that will be shown a million times and dissected and analyzed for months. When Dak took off on that quarterback sneak with 14-seconds left and no timeouts, you thought it was insane. I know you did. Every football fan in every living room and bar in America knew it was the wrong call, everybody knew it wasn’t going to work. Watching Dak run up the middle of the field while watching the clock run out was a truly surreal thing. Add the umpire bumping Dak while trying to officially spot the ball for the next play that wasn’t coming – I’ve never seen anything like it. And you haven’t either. Cowboys fans today are blaming the umpire and claiming that had Dak been given the opportunity to “clock it,” he would have thrown a 25-yard touchdown pass and Dallas would have won. Really? Yes, I know. And Dez caught it, too. Running the ball up the middle in that situation is an indefensible and absurd call.


Mike McCarthy is not a good coach. His clock management and other in-game decisions are seemingly always a factor with this guy. Another glaring example yesterday was his decision to kick a field goal with twelve minutes left, changing it from a two score game to a two score game. The Cowboys went from needing two touchdowns to, after the field goal, still needing two touchdowns. Brilliant! Only the Cowboys can pull off a successful fake punt and get called for delay of game on the next play. Only the Cowboys would call a quarterback sneak with fourteen seconds left and no timeouts. If Dan Quinn and Kellen Moore both leave the Cowboys to take head coaching jobs elsewhere in the league, Dallas will be stuck with just McCarthy. My bet is that Jerry Wayne will keep Moore in Dallas by inking him to a contract that pays him more than McCarthy. Then, halfway through next season, Jerry will fire McCarthy and make Kellen the head coach and just Jason Garrett the Cowboys and their fans to death for the next decade.


AT&T Stadium is the only football stadium in the history of football – junior high, high school, college, pro, the vibrating electric field you played with as a kid on the dining room table – that is situated east-west instead of north-south. It’s the only football stadium – ever! – that purposefully puts the late afternoon sun directly in the line of vision of the football players on the field. The west end zone is made entirely of  glass and Jerry Wayne refuses to admit his gargantuan error and cover it with large curtains or something that would fix the problem. Every year there are three or four games in which that ridiculous stadium configuration is a factor. Yesterday it was a wide open Cedric Wilson on third down, actually ducking his head when a perfectly thrown Prescott pass came his way because he couldn’t see anything. Jerry’s personal obstinance in this matter is one more example of why things aren’t going to change.


Nothing’s going to change. The Cowboys went 6-0 against the NFC East, the worst division in football. They went 6-6 against the rest of the league. They lost a playoff game to a wild card team that did not win its own division. At home! They have the second highest paid quarterback in the NFL, the third highest paid running back, and the fourth highest paid receiver. They had the NFL’s top scoring offense and number one offense in yards. They’ve got the NFL defensive rookie of the year in Trevon Diggs and an MVP candidate in Micah Parsons. All that, and they’re not even close. The Cowboys were 13-3 in 2016 and lost the Wild Card game. They were 12-4 in 2014 and lost the Wild Card game. This is pretty much the story of the Cowboys for the past 26 years. What do you see that’s going to change the narrative?


Jerry’s actual quote from the tunnel after yesterday’s loss: “I am extraordinarily disappointed. Very disappointed. I can’t remember being more disappointed by a loss.”


There are six teams in the NFL that have not a won a divisional playoff game in 26 years. They are the Browns, Bengals, Deadskins, Dolphins, Lions, and Cowboys. Dallas is not just one player or one coach or one lucky break away from the Super Bowl. They are the Lions and Browns.



With Evie in Lubbock

Our favorite gymnast was competing in Lubbock Friday night, so Carrie-Anne and I made the quick drive up to watch her completely annihilate the competition in three different events. Evie Granado is our sticky buddy from our time at the Central church in Amarillo and she absolutely dominates her age group and even those above her in every single category of tumbling and gymnastics. Friday it was tumbling, trampoline, and some kind of vault thing. Three events, three gold medals. That’s Evie.

It was so great to get caught up with Andrew and Stephanie while we cheered for their sweet daughter. Lonnie and Debra were also there, as expected. But Paul and Kristin Brown also showed up with their young son Michael, a very pleasant surprise and a reunion of half of our covenant group in Amarillo.

Keep your eye open for Evie. She’s a nine-year-old fourth grader and she rules. Carrie-Anne and I are making sure we stay on the Evie Granado train. Thank you to all the Granados for allowing us to intrude and root on your dynamo daughter and granddaughter.

Keep killin’ it, Evie. We’re looking forward to seeing you compete/dominate here in Midland in March!



After “The Catch”

How many times have you seen it this week? “The Catch.” They started showing it the minute the Forty Niners beat the Rams last Sunday to secure their trip to JerryWorld to play the Cowboys this weekend in the opening round of the playoffs. By “they” I mean every local, regional, and national sportscaster and commentator and highlights show. And they have shown it constantly.

Third down from the Dallas six-yard-line. Joe Montana rolling right. Too Tall Jones  and D.D. Lewis in pursuit, chasing Montana back and to the sideline. Montana looking downfield and raring back. Jones and Lewis stretching out their arms and jumping to deflect the desperation heave. Everson Walls’ bad angle as Dwight Clark cuts across the back of the end zone. Montana’s pass is too high to catch. Clark miraculously grabs it from outer space as Walls and Michael Downs helplessly watch. Clark comes down in bounds and scores the touchdown that defeats Dallas and sends the Forty Niners to Super Bowl XVI.

How many times have you seen it this week? How many times have you thrown up?

“The Catch” famously changed the fortunes of both football franchises. The Forty Niners went on to win four Super Bowls in the ’80s while the Cowboys went on to win their division only once in the next seven years, leading to the sale of the team and the firing of Tom Landry. Entire documentaries have been produced around “The Catch.” It’s been analyzed to death. Was Montana attempting to throw it away and live for fourth down? If Too Tall hadn’t left his feet, would he have sacked Montana? If Benny Barnes were playing Clark instead of Walls, would the veteran have taken a better angle?

It didn’t help that Monday was the 40th anniversary of “The Catch,” another excuse to show it in slow motion HD from all three angles for the zillionth time.

My 15-year-old self was as depressed and dejected over “The Catch” that afternoon as Michael Downs looks in the original footage. And every single time I’ve seen it since then, during these 40 years, my stomach sinks into my socks.

But I’d rather watch “The Catch” again than what happened during the last 51-seconds of the game.

See, most people have gone through the past 40 years assuming “The Catch” was the last play of the game. The way we’ve minimized that game down to that one play has left us  with a collective amnesia. That Sports Illustrated cover has become the whole story.

“The Catch” gave San Francisco a one-point lead, but there were still 51-seconds left and Dallas had two timeouts and a really good kicker in Rafael Septien. Do you remember what happened?

Can you handle it? What did you have for lunch?

Timmy Newsome returned the bouncing kickoff to the 25-yard line and, on first down, Danny White zinged an absolutely beautiful precision pass across the middle to Drew Pearson for 31-yards to the San Francisco 44-yard line. Butch Johnson called timeout. And Candlestick Stadium was stunned. Dallas was back in control. They needed only ten more yards to kick the game-winning field goal and they had 38-seconds and a timeout to spare. Septien was warming up on the sideline. Landry appeared confident. So did Randy White and Bob Breunig on the Dallas sideline.

First and ten at the San Francisco 44 yard line. White drops back to pass, standing in the middle of the 49ers logo at the 50. Dorsett runs a safety route to the left flat while Ron Springs stays in to block. Six Cowboys are blocking four San Francisco pass rushers. And they sack White. The pocket collapses, White goes down. This is bad. The ball pops out. This is a disaster. It’s a fumble. Jim Stuckey recovers for San Francisco and the game is over.

Go Youtube that and find out how nauseated you can really get.

It’s sickening. It’s another in a long line of “almosts” for the Cowboys and their fans. If the Cowboys had won the Ice Bowl, the Super Bowl trophy would be named after Landry, not Lombardi. If Jim O’Brien hadn’t made that field goal with 13-seconds left in Super Bowl V. If Jackie Smith hadn’t dropped that third down pass in Super Bowl XIII. If Lynn Swann had been called for offensive pass interference. If it hadn’t been so cold in Philadelphia in 1980. If Tony Romo hadn’t fumbled the snap against Seattle. If the referees had ruled Dez Bryant’s catch a completion. As Dandy Don used to say, “If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ was candy and nuts…” That’s the story of the Cowboys.

But we forget about Danny White fumbling in San Francisco at the 49ers 44 yard line on first down with 38-seconds to play. The focus has always been on “The Catch.” Between now and this Sunday, when the Cowboys and Niners renew their great playoff rivalry, you’re going to see it another 73 times.

And it’s just as well. The alternative is so much worse.



COVID and Church

I was recently asked by the editor of a Christian journal to share with him my experiences with COVID and the Church, specifically the challenges of leading a church during the early stages of the pandemic, the shutdowns, and the re-opening of churches during the Spring of 2020. I posted my answer to his first question in this space yesterday. I am posting my responses to the other two questions today and then will elaborate a little more and process a little further tomorrow and Thursday. As a reminder, I was the Senior Minister at Central Church of Christ in Amarillo during that time. So my answers reflect the experiences in that setting.

What was the greatest success or unexpected blessing for your congregation that came out of COVID?

The most immediate blessing was that we were forced to think outside the box. The situation demanded creativity and allowed a flexibility to experiment with almost anything. We held an Ash Wednesday drive-thru service, we organized prayer parades that blessed our local missions partners, we did online talent shows and hosted livestreamed ten-minute “Word and Prayer” sessions four days a week. I began hosting a weekly podcast that highlighted our local missions partners and favorite “Passages and Prayers” from our elders. Some of the ideas were brand new and some were things we had talked about before but never had the space to try them out. Some of the things we tried failed terribly and others turned into meaningful events that will continue to bless that church for years to come.

With two-thirds of our church family participating from their homes on Sunday mornings and most all Bible classes and midweek activities canceled for a full year, we were given a wonderful opportunity to reimagine what we were doing as a congregation, and why. We had the space to rethink our priorities and the freedom to refocus our church programming and events. As shepherds and ministers, we developed criteria for using our time and resources on only those things that synced up with our congregation’s vision. We surveyed the church and put together a few focus groups to identify those things that truly transformed our members and brought them closer to God and to one another. We radically changed our Wednesday night programming, made significant adjustments to our Bible class and small groups structures, and refused to restart any program or event just because we had been doing it for twenty years – it had to match the criteria. We made the decisions to pour our church resources and our volunteer hours into fewer things that yield the most Kingdom and Holy Spirit fruit. We made things simpler and more streamlined to match our church’s twin values of transformation and mission.

What biblical passages or principles have taken on more importance for you – or have you seen in a new light – during and after the lockdowns?

The incarnation of our Lord and that same flesh-and-blood nature of his Church took a hit during COVID. As a society, we were already well down the path of increasing individuality and isolation. But the pandemic sped us along so that, somehow, church online has become a viable substitute for the physical presence of and in the Body of Christ. Our salvation is not a one-time event. Yes, we are connected to the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior when we are baptized. But our salvation continues – in fits and starts, with ups and downs, slowly but surely – in church. With people.

God’s Spirit transforms us in community. Our Lord changes us and shapes us into his image with other people. When we give and receive forgiveness. When we sing each other’s songs. When we bear one another’s burdens. In the hugs and during the meals. No matter what we’ve been told or what we’ve been doing for the past year-and-a-half, you can’t experience communion at a drive-thru or do church over the internet. We must work overtime, now more than ever, to reclaim the sacramental view of the Christian assembly. We are required now to teach and re-teach, to reassert and reaffirm the transformational purpose and effect in regularly meeting together in person. And we must work just as hard to make sure our Sunday assemblies cultivate the kind of life-changing transformative environments our God intends.



Congrats to Kristin

Kristin Rampton held off her challengers with last night’s Georgia win over Alabama to take first place in the inaugural GCR Bowl Challenge. Kristin is one of only three of us on the GCR church staff who, back nearly a month ago, picked the Dawgs to win the college football national championship (Crystal and J.E. are the other two) and it was crucial to her victory. Kristin correctly chose the winner in 20 of the 34 games we picked overall, and finished strong with seven wins in the final nine games.

I was glad to see Brandon here at the church building this morning. He and I were texting throughout last night’s game – he’s a hard core ‘Bama fan and I’m for whoever is on the opposite sideline of Nick Saban. Late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, when Georgia really started rolling, I stopped texting Brandon because I didn’t want to jinx it. When I went back to my phone at the end of the game, Brandon had turned off his notifications. I’m happy to report that he’s okay. And all the doors at his house remain firmly on their hinges.

Kristin gets her lunch and her dessert free at next week’s monthly staff lunch. We’re also buying lunch for the last place finisher, but I’ll let him or her divulge his or her identity.



« Older posts