At the end of Acts, Paul is in Rome, after a long and challenging journey. He is under house arrest, yet the apostle’s circumstances are better than could be expected. Paul “welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30-31).
The mixture of challenge and success is very much part of the narrative of Acts. For good reason, readers will realize the irony that the same Greek word for “witness” is also where we derive the word “martyr.” These stories tell of the fulfillment of Christ’s mission to take the word to the ends of the earth, well beyond Jerusalem and Judea, yet these early followers live against the grain of Empire and a religious establishment not receptive to their word and ways.
Paul himself is part of that ironic story. First introduced in the narrative as Saul, the great persecutor of Christians, he experiences conversion and becomes a great proclaimer of the Gospel of Christ crucified. As the story of Acts draws to a close, it will be that “second” wave of believers (those who were not with Jesus in his earthly ministry) who will continue the narrative.
As the present inheritors of the Acts narrative, 21st-century Christians find a good word about what happens when adversity is more prevalent than any visible metric of success. The Spirit fans into flame a nascent group of followers into its first steps toward becoming a body of believers. It is a story two millennia old that reminds us that no matter what, we are a people in Christ, in “whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
This Pentecost Sunday, some churches may be returning for their first or second time to worship in person since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our sense of “normal.” The pandemic is not over, despite our wishes to the contrary. (I spent Holy Week this year dealing with COVID myself, despite the last two years of being careful, as the current wave’s higher transmissibility still battered away at the three vaccinations I have had at this point.)
We are wearied by the marathon nature of this pandemic. A few colleagues have admitted that this summer might be the first chance they have to take a vacation, which they have keenly felt missing over the past two years as the needs and demands multiplied and personal/professional balance went by the far distant wayside. Keeping up with the new normal of livestreaming worship harried many colleagues, who lamented that the pews filled more slowly for “in person” worship. And our often-aging buildings seem to be less relevant as we learned we could be church without being exclusively within the familiar four walls. Are we willing to explore even more hard decisions after all of this?
In a May 5, 2022, email from Faith Communities Today, I read the summary of a new report entitled “Congregations’ Largest Source of Concerns and Pride” from Faith Communities Today. Co-authored by Dr. Jonathan Wiggins and Maria Andronicou, M.A. of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and Dr. Patricia Tevington of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the researchers shared findings from their survey of 15,000 churches. The report resonated with my own conversations with colleagues near and far. Among the concerns cited, churches noted (by percentage):
- Challenges associated with membership and growth (25%)
- Financial difficulty and monetary concerns (12%)
- Demographic change and decline (9%)
- Congregational facilities and properties (6%)
- Leadership issues (5%)
But I am greatly encouraged by what these surveyed churches could affirm as they were asked to cite the experiences they are most proud to share:
- Service to the local community and those in need (12%)
- Inclusivity of the congregation (11%)
- Caring for and loving one another (9%)
- Growth experienced by the congregation (7%)
- Level of dedication to members (7%)
Earlier this spring, co-author Dr. Patricia Tevington noted one aspect of the survey data affirmed:
“While the pandemic has hit churches hard, many have risen to the occasion and significantly expanded or created new ministries in response to the challenges introduced or worsened by COVID-19. There is a great deal of good being done ‘on the ground’ by religious communities, even in the midst of devastation and disruption. While the future is uncertain, many churches feel equipped to continue helping their communities.”
Reading these survey results, I see the blessed narrative irony of Acts still at work. Deep within the DNA of Christian ecclesiology is Acts 2:42-47 where we have the first expression of being a gathered people under the Gospel of Christ and moving in the power of the Spirit. While the concerns of churches slowed and buffeted by a global pandemic resound with me, the self-identified sources of pride from these same churches reflects the same willingness and resilience we find in the Book of Acts, whether it is at the edge of peril and disruption or the euphoria of sharing the gospel in word and deed alike.
This year at Pentecost, we may gather in person, hybrid or online only, but we can affirm that God is good, Christ’s gospel fuels us, and the Spirit of God (whether we like it or not) is bringing us into new challenges and a hope-filled future.
Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.
Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash