If you blink, you will miss it. That is the best way to describe the town I live in, and unfortunately, the church I serve. It was not always this way. At the beginning of the 20th century, my church gave lifeblood to the town. It met the needs of the community because it was a part of the community. Folks came to church because church meant something to them; it offered answers to life’s unanswered questions.
Somewhere along the way, though, the church lost its footing within the community. The reasons are numerous. The church could not adapt fast enough to a change in society; it wanted to stay rooted in a tradition that did not appeal to younger Christians. The message of, “This is how it has always been!” became an embittered battle cry that church leaders would shout when met with demands for change.
Over time, the church lost members, but it took too long for anyone to recognize why. Like a car tire with a slow leak, the church lurched forward year after year, trying to figure out where everything went wrong, desperately trying to fill the air in a tire patched beyond recognition. This worked for a while.
The church began to see some sparks of life with some new programming and potential partnerships within the community. And then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the church’s primary weakness, a weakness few leaders are willing to admit: we have no purpose for existing beyond worship on Sundays. We do not know what the community’s needs are because we have decided to stay rooted in place instead of going out into the world. My church is not the only church standing at this crossroads. This is an issue across the board in all of the White Liberal Mainline Protestant Denominations.
Somewhere along the way, it became more important to save the church buildings instead of saving the church itself. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced us out of the building and into the world, we found out what we should have known all along. We have an influence issue. The tire we slapped a ton of patches on? It is no longer drivable as it is.
COVID-19 exposed just how out of touch we are with our communities and that we have existed on borrowed time. And now we need a bailout.
Unfortunately, our government cannot float us a loan to help increase our social relevance. We have to figure that out for ourselves. That may seem like an impossible task. However, if we recall that the early churches focused on believers’ community and met in simple houses and not massive buildings, we know that it is entirely possible to create a community that both survives and thrives. COVID-19 exposed a lot of weakness, but it also presents us with an opportunity to reimagine what church looks like in a post-COVID-19 world.
That can be scary, especially for communities like mine that find comfort in tradition.
This is not the first time the institutionalized church experienced a massive shift in thought and practice. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, it sparked a monumental change in all of Christendom. The Protestant Reformation ushered in a systematic shift felt all around Europe. Faith in Jesus became enough to get you into the Kingdom of God. Scripture translated into languages that a literate layperson could read. Luther and his fellow reformists sought to change the church and move it away from a tradition that had become steeped in greed and indulgences. They recognized that the church needed an influence bailout if it continued.
Today, the church exists because of the reformers who recognized that the church could not remain stagnant as the world shifts and changes. It must change with the times to meet the needs of the people.
Could the COVID-19 pandemic usher in the same kind of seismic shift? It feels like God is helping us push the reset button on how we view ourselves and understand how the church operates in the world. If we no longer have a building to gather, can we still call ourselves a church? The answer to that is yes, so long as we have the courage and the desire to do so.
For so many churches, merely existing is exhausting. Clergy and lay leaders burn out trying to financially maneuver monies to keep the building for just one more year. But if the building is not in play, our efforts can be placed where they are needed most. The community needs us. This desire to keep the building has cost us our relevance in our towns. Our narrow focus has caused us to develop scales that limit our vision to what the Kingdom of God is supposed to be. Now we are on our road to Emmaus, and God is shaking those scales off our eyes to see our future.
I tell my congregation weekly that the church is not the building that sits off a small highway leading towards a major shopping center. This brick and mortar building is not the church. We are. COVID-19 is helping us to see this authentic reality. The questions that lie in front of us now are:
What do we do with all of these lessons when we do get to return to in-person worship?
Will we remember that it is not enough to work hard to save a building?
Will we waste this moment and squander our bailout?
Only time will tell. And time is not something we have a lot of right now.
The church needs to be reborn and transformed into something new, something that can meet the people’s needs. Jesus asks us to care for the least of these, not buildings and meeting houses. The Kingdom of God is the people who come into those buildings and meeting places. If we want our facilities to exist for generations to come, then we must meet our communities’ needs. To quote a line from a classic movie, Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come.” Time for us to build something the community needs. And if we can do that, they will come.
Background Note about the Author: I got to “meet” Sarah during my online Doctor of Ministry courses at Drew University. We were taking a Faith and Finance course together, and she continually posted really interesting thoughts on our shared discussion space. I knew I had to get her to write a guest blog post, and am so excited that she gets to be our first Guest Blogger at Affirm Fundraising! -Laurel