“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” - Galatians 6:9 (NRSV)
It has been over five months since the great COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 gripped our nations and closed our church doors. But, as has been often pointed out in the weeks and months since, there is a difference between closing our church doors and closing our churches. As my colleague Ted McCulloch stated out so eloquently last week, we need to practice a theology of faith, not a theology of building.
Most of our churches have found ways to continue to worship in new and creative ways: online via Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube; in person on church lawns and church parking lots; “hybrid” worship including a small, masked, socially distanced sanctuary fellowship and a larger online presence. I am impressed with the creativity and resilience of our congregations and leaders.
It appears that the pandemic will persist and continue to pose health threats in church gatherings well into the fall and winter. For some, this is too much to bear. They fear that if the church doesn’t resume its normal routines then there will be a permanent loss of members and money. So, they pressure the pastor or session to resume large indoor gatherings, to sing hymns, and to hold face-to-face meetings despite the clear medical danger this poses.
Some, influenced by misinformation, dismiss the virus as a political hoax or an overhyped threat. I cannot stress enough the importance of obtaining sound, impartially researched, medical and scientific advice. We are beginning to find that the residual damage caused by this virus is severe, even in young and otherwise healthy persons. International databases show that for every COVID-19 death there are 19 hospitalizations, 18 cases of long-term or permanent heart damage, 10 cases of long-term or permanent lung damage, two cases of long-term or permanent neurological damage and two additional cases of cognitive impairment. Other research suggests that even these figures may be low.
What are we to do then? Let me offer some suggestions:
1. Seek out and share reliable scientific data. The scientists researching this disease have dedicated their lives to saving lives. They rely on peer-reviewed research to obtain the most accurate and reliable data. To clear up misinformation, we are hosting an interactive panel discussion on Covid-19 and Congregations: What You Need to Know on Tuesday, August 25 at 3:00 p.m. It will feature two experts who bridge the medical-scientific and church worlds: Lisa Allgood, a research immunologist who is also the Transitional General Presbyter in Cincinnati Presbytery, and Jon Baker, our Commissioned Pastor at Rosebush Presbyterian Church who is also the administrative director of Sparrow Labs, serving hospitals in the Lansing area. Jon is also a frequent guest on “Friday Fake News,” a webcast of Hillsdale Hospital which sorts out Covid-19 fact from fiction. Registration information can be found elsewhere in this special edition.
2. Embrace the challenge as an opportunity. The pandemic is forcing the church to adapt in directions that the wider culture has already been moving: increasing our online and digital profile; discovering 21st century methods of stewardship; moving out of our buildings and into the community; rediscovering the power of partnership among congregations and with the presbytery. We might long for “the way we were,” but if we are serious about reaching new members and younger generations, going back is going backwards.
3. Live into the freedom of mission without walls. For the past three and a half years I have been writing and speaking about the 21st century church that is “inside-out, upside-down, and sticky.” Now is the time to live it. How better to become “inside-out” when all you can be is outside? Like the disciples on the mountaintop in Matthew 28, we have no building, just a commandment and a promise: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… and remember I am with you always” (Mt. 28:19-20). How better to discover the joy of serving “upside-down,” like Jesus, than by tending and caring for the most vulnerable of your members and neighbors? What better opportunity to form new “sticky mission” relationships than when all our relationships have had to be reframed?
Some of our churches are already discovering this freedom and stretching their faith in new adventures of mission. It may well be that the pandemic, for all its destructiveness, has blessed the church with an opportunity to be reborn for a new generation. Our buildings, as meaningful, sacred, and beautiful as they may be to us are just tools of God’s reign, not the reign itself. They are the pretty boxes in which we have received our gifts for ministry. Let us not confuse the gift wrap with the gift itself.
The coronavirus may have burst the wineskins of the old order. Now is the time to find the new wineskins for the wine of the Spirit as we serve Christ in the new day.
Dan Saperstein, Executive Presbyter