“Will Your Church Survive?” Coronavirus Diary, March 18, 2020

“Will Your Church Survive?” Coronavirus Diary, March 18, 2020 March 18, 2020

Will your church survive?

Not in the form it is in now. Some budgets cannot recover, mainly if we stay in recession mode for a while. Unpaid mortgages could easily lead to many buildings going back to lenders, although most lenders will probably make drastic moves to keep that from happening. Church staff will see massive layoffs. And people will discover the joys of relaxed Sunday mornings.

newspapers newspaper

As I continue with my morning habit of reading the print news, I’m swamped by the unrelenting tough reports.

In today’s print version of the Wall Street Journal, an article about the situation in Italy (experts suggest we are about ten days behind them unless we take drastic action now), I saw the saddest sentence of all:

Doctors taking a break at the Papa Giovanni [hospital] swap stories of woe, including the call from an elderly care home reporting suspected virus sufferers who were over 80 years old. The hospital said the elderly residents had to stay put.

The hospital had planned to send severe cases to Bergamo.

“But we got indications that, if patients are over 65 or 70, they won’t get intubated,” said Davide Grataroli, one of the hospital doctors. “So, we’ve chosen to manage them here as best we can.”

In other words, anyone around my age and older will probably be left to die if it goes to the severe form of pneumonia that needs intubation for an extensive period for survival.

Dire news for church survival from the financial world

The financial news fills the airways with dire warnings about massively rising unemployment and the coming economic crash when people no longer have any discretionary funds to spend, not to mention funding just basic things like rent and utilities.

The US economy is heavily dependant on consumer spending. And that brings me to the question that weighs equally as heavily on my mind today: will the US church, and particularly my beloved United Methodists, survive this?

Think about this with me for a few moments. I’m going to focus on UM’s as I know it best, but much of what I have to say here applies across the board.

Will Your Church Survive? Not with an opening bell like thisThe most faithful givers in the church are the senior, or near-senior, members. Younger families, for the most part, barely making ends meet. They give what they can, and bring much new energy, freshness, and great ideas into our churches, but they rarely take the role of financial backbones.

Right now, the retirement funds of nearly everyone have been severely affected by the precipitous drop in the stock market. See that photo? That was the opening on Wednesday, March 18. Since then, I just got a notice that the trading went through the bottom, causing an automatic halt.

Unfortunately, what we have now is a self-reinforcing loop. The less we spend, the less robust the economy becomes; the less robust the economy becomes, the more the pension values and payouts decline.

We can no longer obey the biblical command to gather together in the ways we have done

And now, very few can gather together in the one thing that church can do that no other organization can. Only we can engage in corporate worship. The importance of singing in our worship together can never be over-emphasized. (see video below). Only we can confess our sins and receive the graces of forgiveness through the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Only we can go forth in the common commands to be the light of the world.

Now, I don’t include listening to sermons here as that can easily be done in isolation, but the other parts of worship really do demand physical community.

For, likely, an extended period of time, we may not gather together.

More and more school districts are now closing schools until the end of the school year. Churches dare not resume services under those circumstances.

Will Your Church Survive? What happens with the habit of churchgoing ends?

And now for some full disclosure. After I retired, December 31, 2013, I spent the next year, at the request of the editor of the Denton Record-Chronicle, visiting as many different churches as possible and then writing what I experienced for my weekly column.

Here is a quick summary of what I experienced as well as links to many of the columns I wrote during that time.

At the end of that year, I sat down with my editor and told him I had to stop. I was turning into a cynic. It saddened him as it was an immensely popular column, but the state of my soul demanded it.

I saw and experienced too much.

Since then, my husband, a cradle Roman Catholic, and I have tried on several times to find a church home. But three things intervened.

Will Your Church Survive?

One: he was utterly horrified by the lack of care with which most UM clergy handled the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Much of the liturgy skipped, what little left raced through, no time for serious contemplation of the state of our souls and the utter delight of the depth of the forgiveness offered, and communion servers who had no idea what they were doing or why they were doing it.

Two: I, on the other hand, was utterly horrified by much of the preaching. I am a life-long student of the Bible with years spent seeking greater awareness of the cultural contexts in which the texts were written. With that background, I sat through sermon after sermon from pastors who grievously misused the texts, twisted them to say what they wanted them to say, and, on too many occasions, were sadly unprepared to offer to their churches words from the Holy Scriptures.

Three:  we, with our large and scattered family, and with time to travel both to see them and to take extended trips to places we’d never seen before, thus gone on many Sundays, never took the time to dig our roots deep into any local community.

This third issue was our problem, and I own it. I also discovered, for the first time in my adult life, the extreme relaxation of Sunday mornings at home. Zero pressure, leisurely breakfasts with my husband, sitting outside in good weather with my cup of tea and the Sunday papers, quietness, stillness, time to pray my way through those very newspapers, think, meditate on the nature of God and the complications of living in a very unsettling world.

And the loveliness of those Sundays may be the undoing of the church in the time of necessary isolation.

I hope not. And its survival depends now upon the creativity of the clergy and the kind of institutional support that the UMC can offer.

If your local church members already have healthy connections to each other and to your community, this is the time to call upon every one of them to BE the church to their neighbors, helping out in whatever ways they can in the name of Jesus.

The more healthy and fit can run errands, mow lawns, take out trash, etc. for their older neighbors. One person can shop for several others, and leave the food on doorsteps.

Those gifted as teachers can help supply parents suddenly faced with home-schooling their kids.

Those gifted as administrators can help coordinate all these things.

The financial wizards can offer suggestions for keeping depleted finances on track.

All can be done without face-to-face contact, and all in the loving name of Jesus to hold the community together. Why? The community may be the only thing that brings people back.

Human beings function poorly in isolation. Prisons are finally figuring out that solitary confinement makes everything worse.

We must see and preferably touch one another. Since touching is essentially forbidden, we’ve got to up the “see” opportunities. Simply broadcasting a preacher speaking to an empty room (and that will affect the quality of the preaching for most) with a few back-up singers behind him/her will solve very little.

Will The United Methodist Church survive? Very likely not

Will your church survive? Not in the form it is in now. Some local church budgets cannot recover, particularly if we stay in recession mode for a while. Unpaid mortgages could easily lead to many buildings going back to lenders, although most lenders will probably make drastic moves to keep that from happening. Church staff will see massive layoffs. And people will discover the joys of relaxed Sunday mornings.

Will the United Methodist Church as a denomination survive? Probably not. We are so totally fractured that the core is now terminally unstable.

If, as most of us are expecting to hear soon, GC2020 is postponed, there may not be enough time to get everyone together to vote for the budget for the next quadriennial, which means zero bills can be paid, starting January 1, 2021.

The time has come for great leadership on every level.

The time has come to rethink everything the church is and is about.

The time has come for radical love and learning how to feed the five thousand with almost no resources.

If there is any single place that can happen, it is the church. But it will never look the same. Like it or now, we are in for a significant, never-look-back reset.

Photo Credits: Free photos from Visual Hunt; TV screenshot, March 18, 2020; the fantastic David Hayward, used with permission.

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