So… what's church going to be like when this is over? what do you think our church congregations will be like once we start meeting in person again?
As a pastor and church leader, I’ve heard versions of these questions posed in so many text threads, video chats, discussion forums, and phone calls.
And, honestly, I have no idea what life is going to look like next-- none of us do. Nothing quite like this global pandemic has happened in our living memory. None of us can say definitively how this is going to change us or how long we’ll be coping with this altered reality or when we’ll see a new normal. There really aren’t any answers right now, and it’s unhelpful to pretend as if there are.
But, while I’m short on answers, I’m still so SO full of hope for the Church, for God’s Reign in the world, and for our whole human family and the community of creation.
Let me tell you a few things I’m hoping for in a post-COVID church life together.
I hope church leaders will adopt the humble posture of the midwife, rather than the “visionary fearless leader with all the answers.” The image of the midwife is scattered throughout our scriptures, and although it’s often overshadowed by other metaphors, it seems to me the most appropriate for this new reality. A midwife is one who witnesses and holds space for the work God is doing among us while "all creation groans in labor pains for new creation" (Romans 8). The midwife is a deliverer (as in delivering babies, and as in actual empire-resisting freedom-fighting like in Exodus 1). The midwife is a coach, a helper, a companion, a witness of life and miracles, paying attention to signs of life & health as well as signs of distress & danger (and what to do when things get real bad). It’s dangerous to try to lead with brash confidence when it's impossible to know what's next. Like in labor, you can't ever be attached to a specific concrete plan, because nobody really knows how all it's going to go down until it's happening-- you get as prepared as you can be, and then you lean into the process, pay attention, and interpret the signs as you go. I think this is what church leaders will need to do in the coming seasons-- surrender to the disorientation and discomfort and the inevitability of change, be attentive to the pains and interpret the signs, keep finding the next right thing for us right now. There's a quote from the BBC show Call the Midwife that I love-- one character who is feeling especially helpless in her role asks what she can do, and the doctor says, "You can do the best things for her-- listen attentively, reassure gently, and love generously." I hope that's the kind of visionary leadership we adopt in a time of global crisis-- attentive listening, gentle reassurance, and abundant extravagant love.
I hope this is a paradigm-shifting experience that ultimately creates deep-rooted empathy in our church people. I hope that the “Care for the Vulnerable” and “Everybody Do Your Part” mantras we’ve been holding to lately will carry over to our post-COVID life forever. I hope everyone remembers what it was like to feel like they didn’t have enough to get by-- and then is always turning that into concrete action on behalf of those who regularly don’t have enough to get by. I hope we’re doing the work now to cultivate a spirit of hope, generosity, and justice *rather than* fear, hoarding, and selfishness, so that when “things are back to normal” (whenever and whatever that is) we can keep growing in greater and greater generosity and justice efforts in our communities.
I hope our churches will step away from hyper-active, program-centric calendars, and instead focus on simple, formational, communal gatherings and embodied hospitality. Preferably centered on a meal, but that’s just because I think everything’s better with good food... and/or a good cup of coffee. I hope church leaders take a good look in the mirror and honestly name what’s essential (the Word, the Sacraments, the Community) and leave behind what’s non-essential. I hope that when we’re able to gather again, we take every opportunity to share a meal and savor it together, to sit next to a friend rather than keep a few seats between us, to call and check in on our elderly folks and those who are lonely or tired, to linger over coffee and conversation so long that the pastor has to usher all y’all into the parking lot, because we know deeply what a gift it is to do all those things. I hope that a deep gratitude and major excitement to be together is the new normal, that we just can’t wait to be together every single week.
I hope our churches can keep responsibly and selectively using technology as a tool to help us on our mission. Many (smaller, lower-tech) churches were catapulted into major digital engagement before they were quite ready to do so, and while that’s been a necessary adaptation for now, I hope we’re clearly seeing the limitations of online church and more ready than ever for embodied worship gatherings-- with real people, in real time, in real places. I hope we’re learning that 1) tech is good for information, but not really for transformation, 2) tech is good for connection & communication, but not deep communing with each other, 3) tech can create passive observers/consumers if we aren’t careful & responsible about how we use these tools, but it can also propel greater engagement and interactivity if we’re intentional. It seems like in this season we’re learning how to use digital tools for really meaningful connections— like actual conversations rather than just double taps on Instagram, or calling / video chatting more often than just texting... I’ve loved joining in some scripture studies and prayer groups with folks I couldn’t normally gather with because we’re in different places around the world, and I really do hope we see more of that kind of relational engagement, that we can keep using these tools for greater connection. I hope when we're together again that we’re thoughtfully and carefully using the digital tools we have, and that it increases our love for real people in real time in real places.
I hope during this time that we’re the church-at-home, refraining from large corporate gatherings, that we are intentionally forming our people to be active participants, not passive observer-consumers. I’m hoping we can keep channelling major energy into equipping our people to be the church where they are, to engage meaningful household worship time in addition to large corporate worship gatherings, to pause for prayer & scripture throughout their day, to read scripture among themselves and study deeply for themselves-- rather than just wait around for the usual package of religious goods and services they can get in a one-hour Sunday session. I have been encouraged to hear from several colleagues that they are seeing their “once-a-month” attendees tune in for church gatherings every single week while we’ve been at home. I hope that a season of that kind of regular engagement might re-shape their priorities, so that when we are able to gather again, those folks are no longer once-a-month church people but regular active weekly participants because they see its value and treasure that time.
More than anything, I hope the Church just keeps doing the things she has always done-- that she will pray faithfully, study the scriptures diligently, preach the gospel boldly, administer the sacraments regularly, welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, tend the sick, stand with the marginalized, and equip all the saints for ministry. And like midwives of new creation, I hope we keep paying attention to God’s work in our lives and the world, and that we will bear witness and express awe for all God is doing and will do.