I caught myself reflecting this time last year I got COVID. Mine was a mild case. But it was bad enough. Kathryn and a few of our friends and relatives got really bad cases of it. Thankfully, no one died. I should add the words so far. The same thing can be said about my congregation. So far, no one has died with the COVID-19 virus. I thought the new vaccines would help us overcome this disease. But now I find myself wondering if churches in America will. I don’t really mean the disease. I wonder if the churches in America will overcome the insanity we went through over it. My own fight with COVID was not so much about my own health but the health of other people.
Reflecting On Shutting Down
All the churches in our Annual Conference were ordered to suspend in-person worship services in March. It was not a surprise. Schools and other places were closing temporarily. We thought it would be for 2 weeks. It was during Lent. It wasn’t like we would be closed on Easter or anything. Then we closed for Easter. The rest of the year felt like an interminable Lenten fast.
All church leaders scrambled to develop an “on-line presence.” Some churches were better positioned to do this. Many churches had no on-line presence before April 2020.
Anxiety led many otherwise good people to do awful things. Panic-buying and hoarding started. Conspiracy stories were getting news media attention. People wound up having too much time on their hands.
Pastors were threatened with loss of income and jobs by disgruntled church members. It is a bizarre thought. Pastors usually compete with all kinds of activities on Sunday mornings. Lay people often consider “faithful attendance” to be a couple of Sundays a month. But here these same people were clamoring for churches to reopen.
Gradually Trying To Open
Church business did not end. Ministries changed. I only did one home visit during that time to pray with the family of a dying woman. I received a new appointment to a congregation. We worked together to plan for a reopening in July. We opened for one Sunday and shut down again. Then I got sick.
Still I wrote and delivered messages on-line isolated in my study. Once I got better we began meeting as a congregation out of doors. We did this until we received permission to reopen the building for worship. We plodded along trying to be in-person and on-line. Reflecting on this, it is still a struggle. What did we learn?
Reflecting On What We Used to Say
What I have learned is this. Most of the assertions we once confidently made about our faith did not hold up in the face of difficulty. Here are a number of things that were revealed.
- Right-wing Politics has also corrupted the Mainline denominations. People normally balk at doing things differently in church. But wearing masks and social distancing were defined by many as political concerns and not health and safety concerns. Church people have always been prone to conspiracy-thinking. But the phenomenon became and is worse than ever.
- People are so polarized that non-Right-wing people rose to the bait. Many church people who wanted to wear the masks and social distance responded as though they too were taking a political stance. We all should have explained that we were doing something for another person. But too many did so in a condescending and scolding manner.
- Worship in homes is not being done. Discipleship is not an everyday practice even among the best church attenders. It should have been easier for people to understand on-line worship is meant to be a supplement to and not the whole worship experience. Evangelicals failed at this too.
- We need to build better quality fellowship. It is important to make time for other people in our lives. The isolation many people felt would not have been so bad if we talked to our neighbors more. We say “love your neighbor as yourself” is the second greatest commandment. But we have not practiced it in so long that we forgot how.
Reflecting On The Fight
“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) I am not unpacking all that is said in this one verse. I wish to be clear that our fight is not against a tangible enemy. But, our fight has tangible results. How do we make the world better? How do we make churches better?
Progressive Christians have given a lot of “prophetic warnings” about our negative social trends. I want to begin the process of rebuilding churches in America that has suffered the worst devastation since the Civil War.
My father once told me to get along in life I needed the ability to walk into a bar and claim, “I can beat any man in here.” When I got tossed out, I had to dust myself off and go back in and ask, “Who’s next?” We have an opportunity to demonstrate this kind of chutzpah. My question is, “Will anyone do this with me?”