I went to therapy Monday. Well, that’s not right. I had a videoconference therapy session from the comfort of my couch. I’ve never been shy about the fact that I see a therapist; it’s a healthy practice for me (and a lot of people), and I’m grateful for the insights she provides into my life.
Obviously, what with the whole “society is closed” thing going on, we had plenty to talk about. Near the end of our conversation, I was asking the kinds of questions that a lot of us are asking, but not necessarily out loud and not in public.
“What if this goes on for months?”
“How are we going to handle all of our ordinary church things?”
“What’s going to change forever?”
So there’s something you ought to know about me. I have a bit of a flair for the dramatic. So after asking all of these questions, I made a statement.
“Everything is going to change.”
“Nathan, I’ve been seeing you for a couple of years now, and you spend a lot of time talking about how things need to change, don’t you?”
I probably don’t have to tell you that, for the last 40 years or so (and especially the last 20), the role of the church, especially the “mainline” church, has been in steep decline. Fewer people are in worship, a LOT fewer people are in worship, financial giving is down, and we simply aren’t central to many peoples’ lives. When I’m feeling particularly cynical, I compare our situation to that of shopping malls and the remaining Sears franchises: we have a lot of prime real estate, but the stuff on our shelves isn’t selling.
Which is a real shame because a relationship with Jesus and an understanding that the God who created the universe loves you is life-changing. Because having a community of people who are interested in studying scripture together can give us tremendous perspective and peace in the midst of upheaval. Because remembering we are part of something larger than ourselves can help us to engage the world meaningfully and draw hope and fulfillment from actions we take to help one another.
Churches have an incredible opportunity right now to model good behaviors, to provide love and care, and to show people that the things we talk about are much more important than a weekly worship service or regularly scheduled activities. We can show people that what we’re up to is developing the kinds of beliefs and practices that sustain people when things are hard. We can model for folks that a relationship with Jesus makes a difference, and that our concern is deepening faith and empowering people to put it to use.
A friend of a friend was a pastor in the northeast during 9/11. She talks about how, in the days following the attacks, churches were filled to the gills with people. But after a couple weeks, they walked out the doors again, remembering why the left in the first place. Because the last time they walked around Sears, they realized they didn’t really need a new ratchet set and they didn’t really want a scratchy sweater.
So I get mad when I see things like groups of church leaders suing the county so the they can do things the way they always have. I’m heartbroken when the first thing I see churches doing is figure out how they can stay within the letter of the law, but do some facsimile of what they have always done.
Our first priority needs to be, “how do we help people follow Jesus?” We do that by loving our neighbors. Historically, Christians have been the first people to open hospitals, to run healthcare ministries for the poor and hurting, to “heal the sick,” because it’s what Jesus did and told us to do. You could tell who the Christians were in ancient towns, because they wouldn’t leave during plagues, they were too busy providing care.
The faithful thing to do is to live into our faith, even when it means not being able to perform all of our faith practices the way we are accustomed to. The point of a church isn’t the activities, it’s the relationship with Jesus. So we shouldn’t be looking for ways to skirt the law when the science says stay home, we should be finding ways to help people bring faith into their homes. Saying things like “God will protect us” when we do things we don’t have to is testing God, not expressing our religious beliefs.
That’s why the church I pastor won’t be hosting drive-in church services for Easter, even if the Governor says they’re technically okay. It’s why we WILL be doing things like thinking about how we can remind people that their faith doesn’t start or end in a building. We’ll be finding ways to offer grace and connection and hope and chances to serve. We’ll be making phone calls and sending texts and devotionals out and loving our neighbors, from a safe distance.
We are not making these adjustments because we are scared, but because we are hopeful. We have an opportunity to show people that we are more motivated by our faith than our activity. We have an opportunity to look deeply into ourselves and find opportunities to change ourselves, and maybe even change the world.