WHAT IS CHURCH NOW?
Churches across North America grapple with how they’ll be different in the post-quarantine era.
WHEN MUCH OF THE UNITED STATES was ordered into a lockdown last March, pastors followed suit, shutting the doors of their sanctuaries, parish halls, and classrooms. For many pastors, choosing to close was an easy decision to make in the moment. It was an act of love centered on the health and safety of their congregants.
But what came after was harder. While some churches had been offering online services for years, many did not have the technology in place to make a seamless switch. For weeks, I watched the pastors of my parent’s church in Virginia pass a set of Apple AirPods back and forth while a church member propped an iPhone in place. And even those who were able to stream their services struggled with how to ensure certain members of their community were not left out. “We have so many people in our community who are in that 70-and-up range and for whom Sunday morning is the most life-giving part of their week,” Rev. Nick Coates of Red Deer Lake United Church in Calgary, Alberta, said. “And they [didn’t] have the ability to move online with us.”
For others, the moment presented more than a technological challenge, stirring theological questions as to what worship even was without the physical incarnation of the church body. Who would we be after more than a year of doing communion “with apple juice and Ritz crackers?” Pastor Peter Chin of Rainier Avenue Church in Seattle wondered. Now, with mask mandates lifted and vaccination rates on the rise, that moment has arrived. And pastors have returned to their buildings only to be met with more questions than answers and wondering where we go from here.
How do we show up?
ONE THING IS certain: “There will be no going back,” Rev. Dr. Jonathan Chapman of Westfield United Church of Christ in Killingly, Conn., said. “We all knew that things would be adapted, but I think that what we’re realizing is that not only have the goalposts moved, but we’re playing an entirely different game. We thought when we got to the other side of the pandemic, we would all have a little breathing room. I think there’s a realization that we’re only halfway there with what the implications are.”
Chapman joined Westfield UCC as pastor eight years ago during a difficult time in the church’s 300-year history. The largely politically purple congregation in a “blue collar town” had experienced a “remarkable revitalization” in the years leading up to the pandemic. Now, as the congregation returns to the church, Chapman says he is slowing down, rethinking the priorities they once set, and taking time to redefine what “success” means beyond metrics. For Chapman, whose church “believes in the heavenly banquet being a potluck,” that future hinges on coming together again—in person. Broadcasting worship is “a fine substitute,” he said. “But it’s only a substitute. I think our leaders, our congregations, our congregants have to make the case for being together, that we are better when we are together. That the spirit moves in a different way among us when we are together.”
But Chapman cautions that coming together again is not an invitation to usher in the return of what was. “The shadow side of this pandemic is that I think it’s revealed a level of idolatry among our churches,” he said. “It’s revealed a level of doing just for the sake of doing. Of achieving just for the accolade. Of preparing and delivering, just to knock that out and make it happen.” Now is the moment for pastors to ask what Chapman referred to as the “harsh” questions: Why is your church still open? What’s the ministry you’re really doing? “Not accusingly,” Chapman said. “But I suspect that’s a question that’s been in the back of many pastors’ minds. The Catholic Church has largely consolidated parishes and there’s been a whole lot of reaction to that. And yet, from an administrative and a ministerial perspective, I can understand it. When we lift up the existence of our congregation, simply because they were, always have been, I think we are bowing before a false god. And so, I guess the second piece of that question is, who are we worshiping?”
Rev. Dr. Sidney S. Williams Jr., pastor of Bethel Church of Morristown in New Jersey, turned to the prophets for guidance. In the midst of the pandemic, Williams told Sojourners, the book of Amos—“where Amos basically said that God was not pleased with our worship services or our sacrifices”—really resonated. “For me, that was prophetic,” Williams said, especially “with the civil unrest, the death of George Floyd, and just the unresolved trauma of so many other names.”
Scripture revealed what Williams had been witnessing in the church long before the pandemic—a lack of relevance. “We’re not engaging in conversations and in civil action where we should,” he said. “We were kind of just doing a routine, you know, what we’ve always done.” The churches that will survive as we emerge from the pandemic are going to have to think beyond the script, Williams told Sojourners. “We’ve already demonstrated that the church doesn’t need the building,” he said. “It’s not the building that makes us relevant. It’s how we engage people in the midst of trauma, how we engage people who are looking for answers to some of life’s toughest questions.”
Now is the moment for pastors to be asking what Christ would say to the challenges of our day. “If we were to take the word of God seriously, what does it mean to say, ‘set the captives free’?” Williams asked. “How does that manifest itself in this issue of mass incarceration? What is good news to the poor with mass evictions on the rise, with people losing jobs and benefits, family instability, community instability? What does it mean to be light and salt in a dark and tasteless world? And how do we show up? What’s our vocational identity now?”