There are moments in our lives when – if we are paying attention – we realize that life is about to change forever and it will never be the same: a child leaves for college (and is actually able to leave and live away from home), a child or sibling or parent gets married, a family member is born or dies.
Although I don’t want to freak you out, the changes congregations have made because of this pandemic are here to stay. There is no “when things are normal again.” I’m not sorry.
For decades, the culture has been changing:
- Fewer people have been “going to church” since the mid-1970s. And it’s not because preachers are too political or younger generations are uncommitted or families are too busy.
- Church Membership has become less important than spiritual community-building.
- Gathering in a church building has never been the point.
- Spiritual practices (how to pray, how to read the Bible, how to serve our neighbors) are no longer passed on from generation to generation without intentionality.
- Knowing about Jesus is in no way the same as knowing Jesus.
The congregational changes we have made will be permanent. At the very least, our congregations will have a both/and future in terms of virtual or in-person worship experiences, classes, and meetings. I’m seeing online church gatherings comprised of people who live in other states, who belong to other congregations, who do not self-identify as having any faith, who self-identify as having a completely different faith. This is a good thing.
But “how will our churches survive financially?” you ask. If the Tuesday night Bible study is filled with people who are not members of our church, how will be be able to 1) keep track or 2) ask for financial support?
How will we pay for church buildings if we are not using our buildings? How will we pay for church staffing if our leaders are serving people who aren’t members?
I’m looking at other possible permanent changes in the not-so-distant future:
- Pledging money to our churches will no longer be transactional. Instead of donating money in exchange for getting first dibs on registering our children for the church pre-school or the privilege of using the sanctuary for weddings or funerals, we will pledge money to support an impactful mission that helps people beyond our own circle of family and friends.
- Church property will either be sold to fund community ministries or will be used for new hands-on mission initiated by the Church: affordable housing, affordable childcare, job-training for people in transition, mental health facilities. A congregation that merely meets on Sunday mornings doesn’t need a campus of multiple classrooms and offices. Our church buildings are not trophies; they are tools for mission.
- It won’t be enough to be better informed. Good for you if you joined the anti-racism book group. Congratulations if you know there are two creation stories in Genesis. It doesn’t matter if your efforts don’t bring transformation. Jesus’ disciples didn’t learn how to follow Jesus for their own self-improvement. Jesus expected their lives to change so that the world would change.
I’m sorry if this brings you pain. It pains me a bit too. (I love a good pipe organ.) But here’s the crucial question:
Are we willing to give up all the old ways we’ve been the Church for the sake of the Gospel? Put another way, are we willing to address what breaks God’s heart in this divided, broken, cold world in the name of Jesus Christ – even if it means that the way we’ve been the Church will never be the same again?