From Curate Marisa Crofts:
We’ve all been asking it, and we’re all some degree of nervous about the answer: What will the church look like now that we’re coming to the end of the pandemic? Will we pick up as though nothing has happened? Will we scrap everything we did in 2019 and start completely from scratch? Or will we settle on some middle-of-the-way option that no one has envisioned yet?
That, I will admit, feels like a pretty dramatic series of questions. But if you’ll forgive me for the drama, I hope you’ll also be able to feel that the process of reopening is a fraught one.
COVID-19 has affected us all, whether we caught it or not. As of this summer, we are emerging into a society that has changed and will continue to change in ways we can see and in ways we can’t. Trying to respond to that kind of context is a task-and-a-half — one that has the potential to bring out the best and the worst in us. So, in a sense, it’s worth the drama. More than that, however, trying to get a read on our current situation is worth serious thought because it is in our current situation that the Spirit works. God is not OOO, nor is he just avoiding the mess in this already-too-messy year. He is creating and sustaining the world as he always does. The question for us, then, is how will we walk through this time as faithful witnesses to him?
Just a few weeks ago, I was able to attend a continuing-ed event with the Rev. Dr. Ed Stetzer, who is known for his work at Wheaton College and his numerous books about evangelism, in which he asked that very question. How do we “present ourselves as living sacrifices” to God in this time of cultural upheaval? First, he said, we need to reckon with the very real challenges (and opportunities) facing the church at this time. Stetzer called these challenges and opportunities the “headwinds and tailwinds” of 2020, the things pushing back on us and the things pushing us forward as we seek God’s will in what’s ahead of us.
Bad news first!
America is getting less religious. Between 2009 and 2020, the number of people who identified as “non-religious” doubled, from 14% to 28% — and Stetzer argued that most of those folks would once have been nominally religious. This is a major shift for the church for many reasons, but the most important might be that up until now, our style of evangelism focused on getting people who were tangentially connected with the church to commit more deeply to their faith. Evangelizing people who are “non-religious” is an entirely different barrel of monkeys.
Speaking of, people are becoming more and more suspicious of proselytizing. In years past, telling unchurched people about the gospel was often seen as embarrassing (for you and for them); but now, people are concerned that evangelism is coercive, that it encroaches on a part of people’s lives that is private and entirely subjective. I’m sure you’ve heard something like this before: “You can believe whatever you want. But don’t tell me what I should believe.”
And one of the reasons for that isn’t just because “tolerance” is a buzzword. Over the past 50 years, the church has lost much of the respect she enjoyed (and took for granted). Once upon a time, the church was seen as a voice of authority and as an agent of justice and equity in our society. Now, however, the failings of so many churches in America — the sex-abuse scandals perhaps being the most damning example — has corroded the faith people once had in the institution that so famously asked, “What would Jesus do?”
Which brings me to Stetzer’s last point: People have become “inoculated” against their need for God. When we were first locked down in the spring of 2020, the fact that we could no longer walk into our church buildings, no longer receive the Body and Blood of Christ as we used was painfully real to us, especially given that many people were unable to celebrate Easter in person. Fast-forward to summer 2021, however, and you’ll find that a full third of people who were once regular church attenders have not returned to the pew. Why is that? The reasons for such a change are, of course, complicated; but Stetzer suggested that one of those reasons may be because people have grown bored with Jesus. Stuck at home, unable to do anything but surf the web, people have found other, more exciting or gratifying outlets for religious expression. Politics, matters of social justice, and conspiracy theories move in a way the church does not. Engaging in these things gives participants a feeling of having done something important, something immediately helpful. Why look for a God you’re not even sure exists when you can actually see tangible results and feel the excitement of the crowd at a protest or a rally?
Even one of these challenges would be enough to make ministry difficult. But four? The reality of our situation is anything but inspiring — though that does not mean it’s hopeless.
Back in 1968, the U.S. was also facing a time of cultural convulsion. Protesters flooded cities and towns, decrying the war in Vietnam and the violence against African Americans; both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Jr. were assassinated; and the “Hong Kong Flu” (no, I’m not kidding) was catching. No one who looked at that picture would say, “Oh yes, this is definitely fertile ground for renewal in the church.” But it turns out it was. Since the early 1960s, churches across America had been experiencing charismatic revivals that would eventually give birth to Christian groups like the Jesus Movement, which claimed the world’s attention in 1972 as over 200,000 people gathered in Dallas to worship and pray and ask what it was that the Lord was calling them to do.
If renewal can come out of the tumult of the 1960s, then renewal can come out of the past year-and-a-half.
And so we come to the good news:
The current cultural moment is just as much of an opportunity as it is a challenge. And that’s because the combination of isolation and existential dread we’ve all been dealing with hasn’t just pushed people to ditch religion entirely. It’s also forced everyone to ask hard questions. It’s made us look at life and death in ways that very, very few people in the West have done for nearly 100 years. And the church is uniquely positioned not just to meet those people where they are but to offer them comfort and a home in the promise of Christ.
While the general perception of the church has suffered, people have nevertheless noticed how local congregations stepped up their ministries to care for those who were heavily impacted by the pandemic. Just think of one small example from Emmanuel: even when we were shut down, we never missed a day of passing out sack lunches to those who came to our door. People outside of our church community see that witness and ask, “Why would they do that?” Why do we do that? We serve the poor, the widow, and the orphan because Jesus told us to follow him. Christianity has a set of priorities that are fundamentally different from anyone else’s in the whole world. And that reality is becoming clearer. Just as folks are getting real about what their values are and where their values lie, the church is also poised to explore and embrace a greater clarity about what Christianity actually is. And as we return to some sense of normalcy, there are ample opportunities to coalesce that clarity and momentum about our identity with the excitement and momentum of people looking to find a community that can help them process the past 16 months.
The coming year is going to be interesting to say the least. Interesting and perhaps disheartening. Yet despite the challenges we face, there is hope. And what is hope but remembering that the Lord has promised to act — and then trusting that he will do so? God is on the move, and he is ready to sweep us up into his work. I pray that when that happens, we will all be ready to go.