So many old books devote chapters to churchgoing. You ever notice that? Tom Sawyer talks in detail about Sunday school and memorizing Bible verses. To Kill a Mockingbird has a whole section about Scout and Jem visiting Calpurnia’s church and how the town’s black church differed from the white one. Lucy Maude Montgomery’s stories (all of them, not just the Anne series) establish the town’s Presbyterian church as central to Avonlea’s social structure, charitable efforts, and systems of influence, with the Methodist church one town over firmly representative of all that is “other” and morally suspect. And in Heidi, the grandfather’s refusal to attend church is emblematic of his self-ostracization; if he’s not at church on Sundays, he’s not part of the local community, period.
I wasn’t alive in the time of these stories, and I’m not a sociological researcher, but it seems to me that one of two things is true: either churches were historically the center of towns, the system that held together societies, or the fictional representation of churches serving this function is so strong in our common literary history that it’s become embedded in our cultural memory. Which of these is true doesn’t seem relevant. We act as if churches were central to community, and in many ways, we act as though they still are, even though this hasn’t been true for many decades.
When I look back to 2018 or so, well before our current pandemic, I remember faith communities that functioned as if they were something out of Tom Sawyer—or more accurately, thought about themselves as if they functioned that way, since in reality, we weren’t doing everything we’d organized ourselves to do. We had worship every Sunday (even though few of us came every week), religious education for children (even if almost no children were present), and detailed membership records and practices (even though this, combined with frequent mobility in modern society, often meant that people held membership in congregations where they hadn’t lived in years). We aimed to provide care for those among us who were sick or grieving (though the people doing that care were often overburdened and tired, not to mention working on a deficit of information, often not knowing who on the membership rolls might be sick or grieving).
I could say a lot more, but you get the point. Churches have been functioning for a very long time as though they were still the pillars of local community, even though that’s not true in most cases, and we’ve been organizing ourselves as though the church provided a primary social network for individuals, even though that’s not true in most cases—think soccer teams, PTAs, clubs, places of work, volunteer organizations, social media platforms…
This societal change has happened slowly, and it’s human nature to have difficulty perceiving gradual pattern shifts. But this is why we were using 1918 structures to organize 2018 faith communities…because each year, they only worked slightly less well than the year before, and most of us didn’t notice any difference, or else we weren’t sufficiently worried about it to put in the energy needed for change.
Then, in the course of a year (being U.S.-centric for a moment), we experienced a global pandemic, a racial justice reckoning, and some concrete evidence of the fragility of our democracy. We (as individuals), we (as faith communities), and our society (as a whole) have changed radically. I believe that God’s call for faith communities is that we will act in ways that are authentic to who we are and responsive to the needs of this world. So—if the world has changed and we have changed, the ways in which we are called to act, to be the church, must also have changed.
How has the world changed? It’s become less geographically organized (with many working or schooling remotely), more electronically connected (with a heavier reliance on video calls and social media platforms than ever before), and more socially polarized (partly because it is more electronically connected).
How have we as faith communities changed? We’ve gained new participants in our fellowship (many of whom have joined through remote worship), lost track of some of our fellowship (mostly those for whom virtual participation didn’t work), and shifted many of our rituals and traditional practices (often because what we had been doing literally wasn’t possible in 2020).
How have we as individuals changed? Almost all of us have experienced some degree of trauma. Our priorities have shifted. Some social connections are more important than they used to be, some less. We’ve lost or changed jobs, discovered new hobbies, and watched or read the last eighteen months of news—which has caused some of us to shut down and others to reach out in ways we never have before. We are simply not the same people we were in February of 2020. (Think about it. Are you?)
So here’s the overall question I’m holding: how do we be the church now and going forward? How are God’s purposes being served?
I genuinely don’t believe that maintaining the old ways—or returning to some slight modification of the old ways—can do what God needs us to do anymore. I’m not even sure it’s possible to return to the old ways. So this is the first of a series of writings addressing some of the potential that I can see. Because it is about potential.
I’ve been looking lately at Isaiah 43:18-19. I’ve always been a big fan of verse nineteen: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
Is that not the best news ever? New thing! Springing up! A way in the wilderness! Streams in the wasteland! Throughout my adult life, I’ve leaned on this verse. New life! Promise! Everything’s going to be okay! (And yes, when I think about it, I think about it with exclamation points.)
But what I like less is verse eighteen. I have tended to skip over this one, but now I’m discovering that today, I can’t. Take a look at the two verses together: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
Suddenly, I find myself reading these two verses as conditional. First, we have to forget the former things and not dwell on the past…and now the new thing springs up.
That stinks. I don’t like that. I liked the former things. I have enjoyed the past. I’ve been very comfortable with how things used to be. (I recognize that not everybody has been comfortable. That does not take away from the reality that I have been, and it’s not wrong of me to be emotionally attached to the old ways.)
I don’t think God is asking us to forget the former things all at once. I think God understands that change implies grief. I also think there’s truth in the idea that we have to release the old ways before God’s new ways can totally spring up. The good thing (depending on how you look at it) is that usually, we have to decide to change, and that’s a really hard thing to do. But in this case, many of the old ways have fallen apart of their own accord, simply because they’re impracticable in today’s circumstances.
I want to end by sharing some of the questions I’ve been holding. These are the questions I’ll be writing about in the coming days. How would you answer some of these questions? What would you add to my list?
1) Meaningful participation in any community involves both receiving and giving. As our faith communities have shifted, becoming less geographically centered, more digital, and perhaps less intimate, how do we help all people who are part of our fellowships to give of their gifts to their faith communities? What happens to the person who’s always made the coffee and washed the dishes if those channels of service are no longer available to them? How does the person who joins our worship from three time zones away discover avenues of service to our faith community?
2) How do we offer pastoral care across vast physical distances? Counseling and comfort is possible by phone or video conference, but who delivers the chicken soup to a sick person or provides a childcare respite to a desperate parent?
3) What does it mean to serve our local community if our congregation is de facto no longer local? What does it mean for a geographically de-centered faith community to run a soup kitchen, a clothing ministry, or a neighborhood clean-up? Do we need some faith communities to decide they are not going online? What are the implications of that decision?
4) How do we build multiage community now? Some of our oldest members are technologically adept, but some are not. Some of our children and youth thrive on videoconference connection, but some do not. Have we found ourselves accidentally reinforcing age-segregated communities in the last eighteen months? What can be done to build relationships across the generations?
5) What does social connection look like for hybrid communities, in which some worship in person while others worship remotely through the Internet? Does the Internet connection shut down before coffee hour? How do we ensure that everyone has opportunities to access social connections?
6) If our ritual practices have changed in the past eighteen months—and almost all of them have—then have we addressed this together theologically, culturally, and sociologically? Do we understand the implications of these changes in ritual? Have we talked about what cannot change and why? In times of extraordinary change, what connects us to those who came before us, whose stories can teach us about faith and resilience?
7) What happened to bring new attenders to many of our faith communities? So many groups have stories about people who have just appeared in their virtual worship and stayed. Hooray! And yet—can we ask the questions about how these new attenders found us? Where did they come from? What were they hungering for? Why have they stayed? Now that we know for sure that there are people looking for us, are there things we could do to make it easier for them to find us?
8) How has our call shifted in terms of how, and about what, we witness to the world? If we are called to testify about justice, human dignity, or protecting the earth, have the specific pressing issues changed? Have the ways in which people think about these things changed? Have the people holding power changed? Have the most relevant and effective communications channels changed? God’s call is probably the same—do justice, love mercy, walk humbly before your God—but what does that look like in 2021?
9) Even before the pandemic, our long-term practice of organizing ourselves geographically had been getting pretty iffy. Every faith organization I know of has local groups, small regional groups, and large regional groups, and this has been our structure for keeping track of ourselves, disseminating information, hiring staff, and making decisions. But the Internet is the eighth continent, and I hold fast to the idea that most hybrid faith communities are actually located online. That’s not even to mention the faith communities that have sprung up in the last eighteen months that are entirely virtual. (There were some pre-pandemic, but there are many more now.) Unless we want these faith communities to exist entirely outside our institutional systems—without formal relationship, accountability, or institutional/denominational support—we’re going to have to figure out “where” they go. What would non-geographic systems of organization look like?
10) Can “local” faith communities be less precious about membership? In other words, though I believe it’s possible for some faith communities to learn how to be geographically disbursed and still be strong and vital congregations, not all of us will be called to do so. Can we learn to say to someone who has joined our faith community but who is remote, “We love you so much that we want to help you connect to a faith community that can serve your needs better than we can?”
11) What financial models work for 2021 faith communities? How many of our congregations don’t need a building anymore? Which congregations are actually leaning into being physically present in their communities and need buildings more than ever? How are we supporting our employees? To which organizations is our faith community giving money? Are we clear that our faith community’s budget is serving God’s purpose for the faith community today? Do we know what our priorities are? How do we discern those priorities?
12) What does it mean for a faith community to be a good neighbor to its surrounding community? What does that mean if we have a building that we use often? What does that mean if we have a building that we use infrequently or never? What does that mean if we no longer have a building?
13) How has worship changed and not changed in the last eighteen months? To what degree have we simply made alterations to how we worshipped “before” in order to adapt to new media? If we’re not going back to 100% in-person worship—and many of us are not—then is it time to discuss what worship would look like if it were specifically designed for the online or broadcast or radio media that we’re now using?
14) What happens to ministers and clergy as faith communities transition to a new paradigm? Some groups may conclude, “We no longer need full-time employees to keep us going.” That might be true, but it means shifting to a system of unpaid labor. Unpaid ministry is inaccessible to people who must be paid in order to survive or support families, even if those people are genuinely called by God to ministry. And trained and/or experienced ministers have skills that our faith communities desperately need. If we’re shifting away from local congregations that employ full-time staff—and my observations seem to indicate that we are—then how will ministers be supported in this new model?
15) Is it possible that some of our faith communities have reached the end of their life cycles? In the days when towns were organized around the church in the center, a church generally died only if the town around it died. That hasn’t been true for a very long time. Some of our faith communities have reached the natural end of their life cycles. They have fulfilled their purpose. What help do faith communities need in order to lay themselves down, faithfully and with dignity?
16) When we look back at Tom Sawyer or Anne of Green Gables, we see how the town church served as a place for people who didn’t like each other to learn to co-exist. Where does that happen now? If switching from one faith community to another is as easy as clicking on a different link, what compels us to stick it out in covenant relationship? What is the role of the church today in teaching the concept enumerated in 1 Corinthians 12: “Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body…the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’”
17) And finally, what does it actually mean to embody the church? I’ve heard this so much in the last eighteen months—that it’s okay when we have to close our buildings, because the building is not the church, the people are. That’s both true and a comforting thought. But—what does it actually mean? What do we mean when we say the people are the church? In what sense? Which people? Everybody? Everybody in our denomination? Everybody in the denominations we agree with theologically? Is this an individual or a communal church? If we’re moving to a model of de-institutionalized, non-geographic, un-hierarchical embodiment of the church, what the heck does that actually look like, in a practical way, from the time I wake up until the time I go to sleep?
I find these questions super exciting. I also find them pretty pressing. We are still in the midst of societal chaos. I think we’re going to be for quite a while. Some of us do not have the capacity to be asking these questions, but some of us do, and I think we have to. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
Because we need a way in the wilderness. And streams in the wasteland.