For this post I have in mind my fellow ministers, church leaders, and elders. But anyone is welcome to read along. I’m in several Facebook groups with ministers and church leaders of all brands, listening to their terse conversations. There is a universal question in American churches today. When and how can we go back to church? I’ve read many answers and predictions. Not everyone, but many ignore the essential truth that pains us all.
We can’t go back. We can only go forward.
I would love to wake up tomorrow, hear that the virus has been defeated, and we can all return to life pre-March 2020. Just a few months ago we were not even talking about this virus. Then like a tidal wave it crashed over us and changed our lives. As a Louisiana resident, I watched as we became a fixture in a ghastly top ten list of the most infected states in the country. I’m not interested in mulling over whether the government did the right things or which ‘experts’ are the ones to whom we should be listening. Like everyone I’ve got my thoughts and opinions – but those lead nowhere and have no bearing on what we must do from here. We can only go forward and we must go forward.
Our church leadership team, like all church leaders, is in a fairly constant discussion about following the phased-in guidelines while also caring for the congregation during this time of uncomfortable adjustment. I’ve appreciated that they were not so anxious to go back that they failed to think about what it means to go forward. Phase One limits are so complex that they actually discourage churches from meeting. I want to see my church family gathered as much as anyone, but I also want them to be safe. When the church assembles it should be a place of security, joy, and fellowship. That’s not going to happen in Phase One, just to be frank. I think Phase Two isn’t looking spectacular.
So, what does it look like going forward? How can churches prepare for the future when the future remains so unclear? If prevailing theory is correct, there are future shutdowns ahead with the resurgence of the virus in the Fall. That’s hard for me to think about. But what about the things we can prepare for as a church?
A Significant Focus on Mental Health
While there is discussion about what recovery looks like for COVID-19 patients and how this will affect the economy in the future months and years, I’m concerned about our psyche. There is no question that this experience will leave its mark on our thinking. Some will struggle more than others. We can draw a wide circle around the virus victims themselves and include those who lost income, jobs, homes, confidence in food availability, and a general fear of a spreading invisible nemesis. If you spent too much time in front of the nonstop news cycle, I have no doubt that there are some mental issues that will need to be ironed out. Pastors are not usually mental health experts, but the Bible is inspired by one who knows our inner workings well. Beyond that, we need to engage counselors and those who are well trained in mental health issues in the life of our churches. I think we should be preparing now to take advantage of video resources and study resources by qualified individuals who can help us support one another through the recovery that is yet to come. It’s not too soon to be thinking about that.
A Focus on Grief Recovery
This is certainly connected to the previous idea, but more specific. We are mourning the losses we have experienced now. (I wrote about that HERE. I have compiled a list of grief resources HERE.) In Louisiana as of the date of this writing, over 2,000 people have perished due to COVID-19. That’s 2,000 families and sets of friends who have suffered significant losses. Adding to their pain, were the inadequate funerals that were far less than the deceased deserved. Groups like GriefShare and Compassionate Friends will offer a great deal of comfort and help to those who lost loved ones. I think we need to be able to talk about the reality of grief and mourning that will be a part of our lives going forward. We all lost something of our lives here for a few months (longer?) and the impact of that will stay with us.
A Renewed Emphasis on Prayer
While prayer has always been important to the Christian community, healing and hope will need to be reinforced and strengthened through prayer as we head into the future. I’ve appreciated the times in my life when prayer seemed to take on a more prominent role. I’m also ashamed to say that at times I did not pay as much attention to prayer as I should. Maybe we all have that experience. I hope that the experience of a pandemic has driven us to greater prayer, but I think sometimes worry and uncertainty cloud our desire to pray. As Christian leaders, we should pave the path toward a renewal of prayer ministry in our churches. This connection with our Abba will benefit us in more ways than we can enumerate. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. There are many prayer ministries already in place and perhaps many of them are here for such a time as this. We are facing an invisible enemy that is taking many lives and changing the rest of our lives. We need a strong Defender and Refuge upon whom we can lean and find reassurance and help.
New Practices in the Assembly
Prior to the emergence of the virus in our country, our worship assembly would be a place of warmth expressed by hugs, handshakes, invitations to lunch, and conversations around coffee. How far into the future can you look to find a time when you will shake hands with a stranger and not break into a sweat until you can get to a hand sanitizer? Will we ever look at passing a communion or offering tray throughout the auditorium as an acceptable practice again? I don’t know. I’m a hugger – is that gone forever? For the short term, yes. How will we make people feel warm and accepted as we go forward? We will have to have some creative conversations about that. It will not likely be in large gatherings, though.
The impact of the church must shift to smaller gatherings. House churches? Small groups? Bible Classes? Neighborhood cookouts? These smaller gatherings will not exist by government mandate, but by the feeling that if I’m around a smaller group I can manage social distancing better and I can have a closer connection to those who are there. Some small gatherings will need to replace Sunday School, particularly for children. Though parents have been overwhelmed with suddenly taking on homeschool duties, there is also the responsibility of teaching your own children about God. I don’t know when children will gather in enclosed small classrooms again. Creative backyard Bible clubs have been around a long time. They just became much more important, I think.
We Should Prepare to Receive Guests
I would think that in some quarters of the country there might be an uptick in the number of guests who visit our assemblies. For some, the coronavirus impacted their lives in spiritual ways that have them searching for answers. For others, just the need to be around other people in an opportunity that is non-threatening. Perhaps those who have wandered from their faith might have been reminded of the need to come home. People have heard a lot of voices during this pandemic and I hope that they have heard some Christian voices that pointed to Jesus as One who promises peace, calm during the storm, and hope for the future. There could be a resurgence of interest in spiritual matters. If so, we should be prepared for those conversations. Will we meet at the service but connect more extensively online later? Will those seeking faith be more likely to respond to an invitation to a small gathering rather than the larger church gathering? Likely.
We Are Online For the Foreseeable Future.
We have to face the truth that many elderly people or people with health that is compromised will not ever come back to an assembly in the church building. They have grown accustomed to online services and classes and are able to engage without risk. Even when there is a group at the church, the larger community will be watching online. Many articles have been written about whether or not this is good or bad, but it is a reality and that’s all that matters. Unless the internet breaks and we go back to smoke signals, our churches will have some kind of online offering. That is a big challenge for smaller churches. In other ways, it is a big challenge for larger churches. Special attention will have to be paid to two groups in particular. One, the unseen crowd who are exclusively online church attenders who do not anticipate gathering in the physical church building. Two, the elderly who are not online.
Everything written about the future is short-sighted.
It is simply true that there are too many unknowns in the future for concrete plans. We will see if my thoughts here age well. But I do affirm that we are never going back to church life in all the ways that existed before coronavirus. We can only go forward. We will adjust and accommodate our ways. The reason I think we can’t go back is that COVID-19 has a permanent place in our thinking and memory. We might not wear face masks forever (I hope we don’t!), but I can’t imagine not wondering if the person who just sneezed a few pews back has projectile delivered a virus into our setting.
You may disagree with my positions here, and I may disagree with them in a few weeks. But for now, our time is best invested in looking forward. An abundance of caution is to be exercised because we love our church family and our neighbors. Jumping the gun to get back into the same room would potentially create tragic results. We lost some innocence in this episode of our lives. I don’t think we are going to shake it anytime soon.
We can’t go back from here. We can only go forward.
Further Resources: Carlus Gupton’s ReOpening Resources for Churches