One of the challenges of being a church leader in this time of pandemic is the constant change and uncertainty. Nagging at us are the questions about how permanent or temporary these changes will be and whether what we think is temporary will become permanent. This morning I was reading an entry from my journal, dated March 17. “On Saturday, we made the decision to close the church to in-person worship for the next 4 weeks.” Remember those days?
The near constant decision-making and uncertainty is a big part of what makes these times difficult and exhausting. We’re always trying to figure out something new. In our Zoom Sunday conversation yesterday, a few of our parishioners started talking about the importance of innovation and creativity. And it reminded me of a fascinating article in the July 20 issue of The New Yorker magazine. The article by staff writer Lawrence Wright is based on a series of interviews Wright conducted with Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Institute of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Pomata points out that throughout history, pandemics have brought fundamental changes in society – economically, socially, culturally. Black Death marks the end of the Middle Ages; what came next was the Renaissance. Towards the end of the Black Death in Italy, a middle class began to form when peasants – for reasons of safety – fled the feudal estates and found freedom when they entered the city walls of several city-states. Many of the peasants became artisans and merchants. That transition also fostered a fundamental change in the practice of medicine. Prior to the plague, medicine was an abstract discipline based on the study of ancient Greek and Roman practices, influenced also by astrology. After the pandemic, it began to be based on empirical evidence.
She said, “What I expect now is that something as dramatic is going to happen not so much in medicine, but in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”
This pandemic has forced us to turn on a dime with regard to things that have been so central to our life together – gathering in our buildings for worship, singing, enjoying one another’s company complete with handshakes and hugs. I’ve seen enormous creativity and energy demonstrated by pastors and congregations that six months ago would never have imagined themselves doing on-line worship.
The irony is not lost on me that the one thing that we have spent so much money on and so much time and effort caring for – our buildings – are for the most part off limits to us right now. For so many of us, the beautiful pipe organs and grand pianos, sit silent, or if not silent, heard by most people only on a recording.
Some of the more dire predictions suggest that what we are viewing now as temporary may go on for much longer that we think. I read that some denominations are suggesting no in-person worship through 2021. If that’s the case, what will the church look like? To use Dr. Pomata’s language, what new ways of thinking will be required.
I’m pretty sure on-line worship is here to stay. Even if we begin to gather back in the sanctuary, until the risk is significantly lowered by a vaccine or some other means of mitigation, many in my congregation will not come back. They will continue to participate in worship remotely. Which means that even pastors and congregations who have resisted making a commitment to quality on-line ministry will be rethinking that and investing resources in strengthening and improving their on-line presence.
One of my hunches is that congregational ministry will end up much more decentralized. Rather than a single large gathering, we’ll be gathering in smaller groups where folks can feel a greater sense of safety with people they know will be compliant. David Fitch, author of Faithful Presence, has been advocating for this kind of church gathering long before the beginning of the pandemic, and now especially in these past 5 months.
I like the idea of it, but as I talk with my folks about it, the ones who don’t feel safe coming back into the building largely don’t feel safe in a smaller group either. For now we’re doing more gatherings outdoors, but in northern Wisconsin, that option will quickly disappear.
I’d love to think that we could figure out some way for smaller groups to meet in person. While on-line worship is meeting some need, as is the on-line meet ups we’re having using platforms like Zoom, they can’t deliver the physical presence that we are hard-wired to crave. We are embodied, enfleshed beings, and many of us miss being in each other’s presence as much as anything.
I think it would actually be kind of wonderful if small, intimate gatherings could become the major locus of congregational ministry and the big gathering in the building became secondary. It would actually give us a much better means to practice the neighborly love at the heart of our faith.
I’ve read way too many articles suggesting that thousands of congregations won’t survive this pandemic. I’m not smart enough to know whether that’s true or not. I do know that many are on life-support and this may be the event that leads to their demise. But I’m enough of a hopeful person to believe that the church itself is not going to die. The wisdom of the elders, including Gianna Pomata, suggests that crises provide opportunities to let things die and rise again. Which for Christians isn’t a foreign concept.
What do you think? I’d love to hear what you think the next several months will bring.