by John York
Covid-19 has created a crisis point in the life of our churches. As we navigate social distancing, sheltering at home, and the world of virtual relationships through technology and social media, the way we do church has necessarily changed. While we adjust to the new normal, we also wrestle with many questions about the future. How long will this last? When will our past routines and practices return? How will we best use technology now? How can we remain financially stable or viable as a church? And how can we best support our members?
There are other questions as well: What is God up to in this present crisis? How might this crisis-season in the church’s life open us to new possibilities for our future? How are the people of God being called to mission during this time and how will that affect our vision and our future?
There is a third set of questions that we could also ask: Could God use this crisis to transform how the church lives out her calling in the world? Could this be one of those pivotal moments in Christian history that opens us to becoming something other than what we have been for the last 250 years?(1)
Have you entertained any of these doubts as we’ve stumbled through these difficult days?
- We’ve made church complicated when it should be simple and basic.
- We’ve been asking and emphasizing the wrong questions.
- Our obsession with Sunday mornings has not equipped us for a COVID-19 world.
- Church leadership (defined as meeting and deciding) must change to be more relevant to basic human spiritual needs.
- Singing songs and sermons suddenly pale in importance when we miss simple contact and touch.
- Is “church” (at least the way we’ve been practicing it) even relevant in times of fear, isolation, and uncertainty?
A Wrong Turn in Western Christianity?
At the core of church practice and identity prior to Covid-19 was the American understanding of “church” as a competitive business. Popular writer and lecturer Richard Rohr is credited with this historical overview of the Christian faith:
In Israel during 1st Century = A movement based upon an experience (risen Christ)
In Greece Christianity became a philosophy
In Rome Christianity become institutionalized religion
In Europe Christianity became culture
In America Christianity became a business
Within our own tradition, Churches of Christ have been in a quandary for the last 4 decades because we knew that the business was changing and we couldn’t figure out how to change with it. Our church-of-dreams was built on the mythical premise, “if we build it they will come”—the right youth program, the children’s program, the right song service, the right preacher, the right gym facility, etc. We’ve been most interested in finding our niche in the Sunday smorgasbord of worship assemblies. Church as business or buffet is rooted in works-based identity. Our value to the community is based on what we do – the goods and services we offer that are (hopefully) better than the goods and services of the other churches in town. We grew tired of the phrase “worship wars” but could not escape the need to follow attractional models of church.
The loss of our assumptions with Covid-19—physical presence, physical touch, bodily participation in shared group identity and activity, Sunday morning “church”—is having a radical impact on the people who belong to our churches:
- a recognition that little of the manner in which we’ve done church was meaningful or useful to us in the first place;
- a deep awareness of how much we really do need other people and how much we miss the group parts of the activity called church;
- a profound realization of just how much we need meaningful relationships, but an equally profound uncertainty that the Sunday morning worship assembly is where we experience this best. We are looking for more.
Covid-19 gives us an opportunity to re-imagine group and communal identity at a critically important juncture in history. Western culture has oversold individualism, and Western versions of Christianity have too easily bought into that self-centered, self-serving identity.
- Personal salvation replaced communal identity in Christ. (“Jesus died for me!”)
- Spiritual experience has been privatized. (“I have a personal relationship with Jesus!”)
- Rather than the creation story focusing on the communal God (Creator, Savior, Sustainer) creating communal humans (male and female) in the image of God, we opted for self-contained identity. (“God made me special!”)
- Others became objects, used or manipulated for personal agendas and advantage, instead of valued partners on the journey and persons we “honor above” ourselves.
- Hence, power over others (and power structures to control others) became the great idol of the church’s making. A striving for power has been at the heart of our business model of success and is what leaves us so fragmented, segregated, and unwelcoming of all those not like us on Sunday. (“You need to do it my way.”)
In the roots of our heritage, there are strong hints of a more Christ-centered, communal-God (Father/Son/Spirit) way: the unity of all believers; the priesthood of all believers; shared leadership models (e.g., elders and ministers) rather than solitary Pied Pipers; a body of which we are all necessary members; a Bible we can all read and understand.
If we can build on those roots, the future invites us into new and renewed understandings of the shared life and communal discernment of what God is doing in us and through us in the already-inbreaking Kingdom of God. At the heart of Christian faith is our belief in the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. That suggests that as the church, we are followers of Christ with every breath we take; that there is no Sacred/Secular divide for those who are in Christ. Likewise, identity is always communal rather than simply individual because we are inseparably linked as the living body of Christ through the Spirit.
Covid-19 gives us a chance to reimagine: to reimagine identity beyond tribalism and beyond cultural identity. How are we using this time “safer at home” to connect with first loves: with ourselves, with our children, with our neighbors, with our world? How are we using this experience to reorient time and space so that all is sacred because we are dwelling in the sacred space of Creator/Savior/Sustainer God.? How do we offer new eyes to our communities that show Christian identity as something more than a building and people and experiences I enjoy on Sunday (and maybe Wednesday!). And how are we living into (or out of) our relationship with Creator/Savior/Sustainer God? What are the teaching/equipping goals for living into our Christ identity? How might we rethink that in the context of a significantly altered world?
Perhaps we start instead with questions like these:
- How does Sabbath rest or Wilderness Wandering (whichever image fits how you feel at the moment) prepare us for God’s promised life? How is the Holy Spirit working in this moment to transform how we see ourselves and the world around us?
First steps: Identify practices in your life that reflect hunger for God. What are three practices in your life that reflect complacency/self-satisfaction/boredom.
- How will I be present in local community now that I’ve been given access (albeit virtually) to national and international community? There is an opportunity to break through the tribalism and competition and rediscover the unity plea that once was the heart-slogan of our tribe.
First steps: In what ways is my language and demeanor keeping anyone from hearing or experiencing community that is Christian?
- Who are the essential people and what are the essential relationships of our lives? The daily activities of our lives are always ‘parts of the whole’. It seems to me the literary idea of synecdoche (the part represents the whole) can serve as a great device reminding us of the member/body relationship: the individual and the family system; the neighborhood and the city; the local church and the world-wide body of Christ.
First steps: Make a list of the essential relationships in your life that allow you to physically function and grow emotionally and spiritually. Then walk your neighborhood meeting and greeting your neighbors. In what ways is my language demeanor keeping anyone from hearing or experiencing community that is Christian?
- How can we love ourselves well in this time so that we have the resources to love others well? I don’t mean self-centered, self-serving narcissism—I mean living into the true-self, image of God we were created to be. How is my current circumstance an invitation to be open to God’s fresh work in my life?
First steps: Read your interior life. What crops to the surface as you practice silence and solitude? What parts of your identity have you been ignoring or covering up (perhaps your entire life)? Then try this: Identify 5 ways you were God’s image bearer last week and then identify three new ways you have experienced God during the pandemic. Thank God for His work in you.
- How can Eucharist (The Lord’s Supper) return to its roots (Luke 24, Acts 2, Act 4) where mystery of the living body of Christ is experienced in all of our common meals. Imagine all of our prayers over meals being invitations to experience afresh the mystery of Christ in us! No, this doesn’t have to be the end of our experiences on Sundays (though those will certainly be modified). But there is a paradox of incarnation at work that must not be missed. What happens in our eating and drinking of bread and cup isn’t just a Sunday reality. We are invited to live incarnationally with every other human being with whom we interact because of the Spirit dwelling within us.
First steps: Now, in this time of virtual church gatherings and family efforts to participate in bread and cup—the mystery of participation in the body and blood of Christ—begin your next meal engaging your thoughts and/or conversation around the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence.
- How can our body of Christ live into God’s call to unity and oneness (Galatians 3)—beyond race/gender/class/denomination or any other means by which we create categories of us/them? In the old system, church on Sundays remained the most segregated hour in America, and often the most male-dominated hour of the week. Now is our chance to break down the power-grids class/race/gender/denomination and join God in the reconciliation of all things.
First steps: In the quietness of solitude—leaders and members alike—ask God to open your awareness to any and all of the ways self-interest leads to classifying and valuing some human beings more than others. Search out the categories of us/them and the power grids that are derived from self-interest.
- How might the mission of the church (announcing the good news of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God) become a collaborative effort among all Christ-followers rather than a doctrinaire competition that creates competing door-to-door sales? And how do we break down the false dichotomy of social justice and evangelism? For Jesus, they were always one-and-the-same.
First steps: Today (just today), take moments at noon and bedtime, to reflect on where you experienced the work of God in your life—from creation itself, to interactions (virtual or otherwise) to the spaces you inhabited. This is more than “count your blessings.” This is a way to hone sensory skills to the kingdom of God in your midst. Spend time reflecting on how much you have in common with other believers in Jesus-as-Lord … the way God is obviously at work in other tribes and traditions of believers … the fact that God is bigger than our narrow perspectives. Read John 17. Read it again. How can you lead your church from critiquing other groups of believers to encouraging them, praying for them, and celebrating what God is doing among them?
- How can we encourage and express our support for the notion that those who lead should be measured first by their ability to discern the world and the work of the Spirit? To let scripture be Living Word rather than doctrinaire mandate? To emphasize the story of God’s love for creation and his desire for new creation in all of us?
First steps: Choose a passage such as Luke 10:1-11 or II Corinthians 5:11-21. Commit to one month of daily reading the passage out loud, imagining yourself in the scene. Listen each day for the word or phrase that catches your attention and be attentive to what God may be trying to teach you.
- How can the vulnerability currently being experienced by all and the connection to the rest of the world we are feeling in this moment be retained moving forward rather than eliminated as quickly as possible?
First steps: Leaders and members, take clues from our 12-step recovery friends about safety and transparency and accountability. Create circumstances in which all can find community in such groups.
- The land matters, but not for the reasons we have traditionally assigned. It’s not about a corporate entity owning property with a building on it that people drive to a couple of times a week. It’s about kingdom locations and outposts that serve the world in multiple ways through the week.
First steps: Identify three ways to reorient the building and church campus toward mission seven days a week rather than the definition of “church on Sunday.” Strategically think about building use and location as kingdom outreach and effectiveness rather than church membership maintenance and attraction.
Finally, how can “church” in this country discover Grace—God’s unmerited favor for a socio-cultural system that otherwise has lost its way? I believe God is saving church through this pandemic by taking away the many things that made us more nationalist than Christian, more social club than relational community, more doctrinaire and dogmatic than Spirit filled and Spirit directed. I believe new definitions of Gospel and Kingdom of God community are possible on the other side.
First steps: PRAY—ask God to open us to different metrics and measures for what “success” means, and ask for a greater sense of God’s Holy Spirit presence at work in us and through us for the sake of the world.
 If you primarily are interested in logistics questions for navigating the digital age or figuring out how to serve communion when more than 100 people are allowed to gather again, what follows is not helpful. Or if you are pain-and-risk averse and just want the routines to return as soon as possible, now is a good time to read the other Covid-19 materials available. But if you want to dream about a different strategy for living into the mission and kingdom of God, what follows are some hints and suggestions for rechanneling our energies and imagination.