As I reflect on church life in the time of the COVID-19 international crisis, the words of Mark Twain in 1897 come to mind: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”[i] For several decades now, mainline Christian churches in the United States have been in decline. And for many small churches, the economic challenges accompanying the shutdown are a clear existential threat. Yet, during Lent this year, with uncertainty and angst amplified by the great shutdown, signs of new life for the American church arose. Rather than remaining silent as our buildings closed, we found new ways of proclaiming the good news to the world for our time and place.
As we move through Eastertide, with spring and new life blooming around us, let us consider the signs of new and transformed life we see from churches in our nation. Using examples drawn from my personal experience as a pastor in the pandemic and observations from social media, this article discusses emerging signs of purpose, mission, tenacity, and creativity in the church as a reaction to the pandemic. Far from silent, empty buildings, we see the church doing new things and meeting needs in innovative ways as God is speaking to us in these trials.
Signs of renewed purpose
The closure of church buildings has forced us to examine the purpose behind many of the traditions we hold dear. We may find ourselves asking “what is it that people really need from Sunday services?” Similarly, we’ve had to think about what our various meetings mean to people and determine which of those are most essential to our community. Many recognize that a key purpose that we serve is through nurturing community spiritual development – and those events in our church rhythm that have remained active tend to be activities with those aims. Many clergy, unable to visit the sick and the shut-ins in our communities, feel that isolation has emphasized the importance of this aspect of the job. The distance has accentuated to us that our purpose is to be with our people in their spiritual journeys at every stage of life. While many would have said this before the crisis, our inability to connect in person has drawn attention to how truly essential this part of our religious life together really is. Our purpose is found in bearing with one another in our individual walks with Christ (Colossians 3:12-14), whether we meet in person or via technology.
Signs of mission
The very nature of the pandemic has forced us to deeply consider what it means to love neighbor as self. With so many congregants at elevated risk of the severe version of the illness, the best way to guard the health and safety of our neighbors has been to remain isolated from each other. The forced absence from each other has provided the opportunity to think about alternative ways we might care for each other. At the church I serve, one of our members set up a collection box for the local food pantry outside of our closed church’s back door, as a way of continuing this act of love for neighbor. Our deacons voted to make the process for small amounts of emergency aid smoother as the crisis continues. Beyond my local church, various organizations have pivoted from their usual work to making masks and other personal protective equipment for people on the front lines. Larger church mission organizations are strategizing as to how to best respond to the many needs that have emerged in the crisis. While the church doors may be closed, our sense of mission is alive and well, as the local and national church continues to work to meet people’s needs.While we collectively know that “normal” as we knew it may never return, we have signs that we will emerge from this crisis transformed.
Signs of tenacity
Because of the renewal of purpose and mission that has arisen in response to the crisis, signs of the church persisting abound. Clergy and lay people have used whatever tools they have at their discretion to keep their connections to congregants and the community alive. Those who had never broadcast their church services in any way took to streaming on Facebook Live and via YouTube, with whatever elements of worship they could offer. In recent weeks, we’ve seen worship services delivered with a skeleton worship team in sanctuaries, from clergy living rooms, from family pianos, from front porches, and more. Others, without technology, have adopted the practice of sending weekly mailing touchpoints, such as past sermon manuscripts or reflections, accompanied by caring letters. Churches that are unable to support a streaming service themselves are collaborating with those who can. In addition to worship services, churches have found ways to offer Bible studies via video conference platforms, as well as asynchronous conversations in church groups via social media. While meeting in a building may no longer be an option, we have been tenacious in finding new ways to operate.
Signs of creativity
With the traditional modes of worship unavailable during this time, many have sought ways of making their digital worship and meeting options engaging, while modeling appropriate social distancing. For example, my church’s Christian Education director started filming children’s moments to be included in streamed services, located out in nature. Hartford Seminary in Connecticut recently gathered a “virtual choir” to provide music for a community worship service. New poetry and music have been created and shared in response to the pandemic. These examples of creativity are signs of hope for the church as we wait to emerge from our isolation.
While we collectively know that “normal” as we knew it may never return, we have signs that we will emerge from this crisis transformed. The Church is demonstrating resourcefulness and creativity in continuing to serve our communities with mission and purpose. We recognize that the good news of Jesus Christ is as important today as ever – and that the message will find a way to be heard. As our Lord said in Luke 19:40, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Rachael B. Lawrence, PhD, is co-pastor at Second Baptist Church of Suffield, Conn., and assistant director at the Center for Education Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also a classical musician.
[i] Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2006. Page 317
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