Let’s face it. Most people have believed for some time that things in the church have needed to change. We all know the data…decline, institutional stagnation, and shrinking numbers. More gray hair and fewer kids, not to mention structural albatrosses made of stained glass and bricks. More than a few churches would meet the criteria for organizational clinical depression (is that a thing?). So why haven’t we made the necessary changes, you ask? I would argue that it is because few of us are able to muster the momentum and the courage to throw ourselves into uncertainty and loss when the present, while not ideal, feels like a comfy and worn-in sweater. The devil you know and all that. So I would never wish the plague of a global pandemic on even the Egyptians of Moses’ day, but it has presented some interesting opportunities for churches to reframe their thinking and reboot their vision.
A wise person once said that we won’t get the right answers if we aren’t asking the right questions. For many of our legacy churches, our questions have circulated around maintaining physical structures, getting more butts in the pews and bucks in the plates, and tweaking what we’ve always done in ways that appeal to younger generations. These tactical questions have kept us stuck in myopic ruts that Edwin Friedman calls “imaginative gridlock.” Broad vision is hard when you’re looking down. So the pandemic implosion of church-as-we-know-it has provided opportunities for us to ask new questions and rethink some of our fundamentals.
As our worship has gone remote, many churches have had the unanticipated surprise of finding that attendance has expanded, not constricted, and that the gathered community is geographically scattered to the ends of the earth. In one transient military community, an extra hundred viewers who once attended, loved the church, and moved away, have gotten their church back due to the advent of online worship. In another church for disenfranchised members of gay and lesbian communities of color, those logging on are finding a likeminded community so esoteric that only a national and virtual reach can provide such specificity. In many others, shut-ins, the sick, the vacationing and non-morning people, who had previously chosen the extra sleep and the New York Times over Sunday worship, have reconnected in meaningful ways. Many a visionary church is wondering how we maintain this expanded definition of community once we no longer have to adapt to a virtual world and what koinonia is in an age when people in faraway places wish to participate in the life of a church.
Everything in our lives seems to be on-demand these days. From our television streaming and access to breaking news to our ability to download any book or song in real time onto the device in our pocket. From every kind of fast-food to having groceries delivered to our front door. Life happens on our timelines. It is no longer the other way around. The church has simply not kept up with this cultural shift.
As I hear pastors talking about their desire to get back to church, the primary reason is their anxiety that people are ‘getting out of the habit’ of church. They’re afraid that people have gotten used to having their free Sunday mornings and have started enjoying a slower pace. I don’t think their fears are irrational, but habit strikes me as a less than ideal driver of participation. As people settle into a slower pace of life and find that their weekends are times of real rejuvenation (dare we say actual Sabbath?), they just might be questioning the trade-off with a one-time-only church experience. But instead of setting ourselves up in competition with Sunday soccer, Covid invites the church is to ask a more visionary question: Can we catch up with this societal phenomenon of on-demand content delivery? Richard Rohr’s daily emails meditations are a great example of this, as are Facebook daily prayer posts and pre-recorded worship to be consumed at your leisure. Of course, this raises questions about what is lost in a consumerist model of church, and in what ways it is appropriate to allow the church to be transformed by the world instead of the other way around. But those are the right question for such a time as this.
In The Great Emergence, one of her last books prior to her death, Phyllis Tickle suggests that every reformation was preceded by a change in modes of information delivery. Whether through the advent of the printing press or the creation of a world-wide web, church life gets flipped upside down and inside out when the ways we interact change. Obviously, we have been in one of those times for the last 20 years or more. But Covid has been an accelerant. As our pastors have been forced to learn to use technology in ways inconceivable at the end of 2019, we are faced with new questions about the interface of technology as a tool for ministry. The questions and their implication are vast and multi-systemic. One Presbytery brought on an IT expert to resource churches in their ministry. One congregation bought iPads for shut-ins. Another church finally moved its paper newsletter online. Many churches have been willing to sacrifice their preferred aesthetic by bringing technology into the sanctuary in order to increase the flexibility and quality of worship.
These are just a few of the questions I hear leaders asking these days. As Ron Heifitz says, good leadership today is about holding people together while they ask the questions for which there aren’t easy answers. Even plagues bring opportunities, and getting some new questions is one opportunity of this moment. Given that the life of faith is measured in centuries, only time and experimentation will be able to more fully answer these questions. But asking them is half the battle.