A pastor mused recently “I have spent so much time telling people what they cannot do, that I forgot to tell them what they can do.” Have you had an “ah-ha” moment where you realized that may be exactly what you have been doing?
Starting in the middle of March we all wanted to do everything reasonable and feasible – and a few things unreasonable and unfeasible – to protect one another and especially ourselves from becoming infected with the coronavirus. We knew too little about it and it was spreading fast. It appeared many Americans were in favor of doing unusual things to flatten the curve. While 100,000 deaths are 100,000 too many, just think where the numbers would be if we had not taken the steps nationwide to flatten the curve.
As a result, our focus for the first two months — until around Mother’s Day — was primarily about what we can’t do. We can’t go to church for worship and gather in our small group. We cannot shake hands, hug one another, and kiss each other on our cheeks. We cannot gather as two or three in close contact praying with one another about in-depth concerns. We can’t go to the hospital unless we are the one who is sick. We can’t go to nursing homes unless we are the resident. We can’t celebrate baptism. (Although I still think a dunking booth baptism could be really cool and actually could have been done with great celebration.) We cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper in the manner in which we typically do.
Outside of church and ministry arenas, we can’t go to work. We can’t go to school. We can’t go to the store for toilet paper because there isn’t any. We can’t go to our favorite restaurant for a meal. We can’t go on vacation. We can’t be around people – even if they are members of our family – if they work in a hospital or nursing home. We cannot go to the park. We cannot let our children have “play dates” with friends. We cannot be close to people with whom we are not already staying home and staying safe.
We can’t. We can’t. We can’t.
Suddenly around Mother’s Day a critical mass of people decided “we can’t” needed turn into “we can”. We had been thinking about it for a long time, but now we decided to do something about it. Was it because we decided to say positive things, or because people in thousands of communities around the country demanded that the rhetoric shift to “we can”? Or was it because we became convicted that if there could be a safe way to bring people together for worship we should do so?
Or was it because we were losing touch with our congregation and felt we needed to gather them again to restore a true sense of community? Or was it psychological and even spiritual in that people felt they could no longer express genuine love and community without being in close contact with one another? Or, for some of us as pastors was it because we were tired of preaching to a camera instead of real people? (We could not hear people laughing in response to our jokes. Oh wait a minute. They never laughed at them when we had live, on-site worship.)
We ought to hope the church really is about person-to-person community. As a key book that has become more popular recently tells us — the analog church is much to be preferred over the digital church. The digital church has its place. For some people it will be the church expression they know best. But the gathered church means close (not closed) communion with one another. “I was glad when they said to me, let us go into the house of the Lord.” (Psalm 122:1– slightly paraphrased)
Let’s also consider a counterpoint. The COVID-19 Pandemic has given Christians a great opportunity to be the scattered church. Many social media posts and articles have emphasized the point that the church has not closed, rather the church has left the building. It is so amazing to see that even people we would consider to be the most devout Christians do not actively participate in ministry as the scattered church until they are put in a position where they must do so.
It is important to think about how we have used this forced scattering opportunity to express the love of Christ in our community context. For many people, this has been slow coming as they have primarily been huddled in their homes. For some people, this was an open door of opportunity to the figurative wind behind them blowing them out the door. As pastors, church staff person, and lay leaders it is important to ask yourself how you have been the people of Jesus scattered throughout your community context during this time. Or did you totally miss this opportunity and not learn any new habits of missional service?
George Bullard, BullardJournal@gmail.com, June 6, 2020