Before I began writing this column, I read my Dispatch for April 2020. When I wrote it we were living under a three-week stay-at-home order. We knew that we wouldn’t be gathering as a congregation for Easter Sunday, but I wrote that Pat and I were discussing what we might do. Then I wrote that hopefully, we could regather in May and perhaps have a delayed Easter celebration. If not Easter, then perhaps Pentecost. That was a year ago. We never had that delayed Easter celebration. We didn’t gather together for a big Pentecost service either. Instead, we were still broadcasting the service on our Facebook page, something we are still doing more than a year later. While we are slowly regathering as more and more of us are receiving our vaccines, we’re not back to normal yet. The choir isn’t leading us in singing. We’re not having food in the fellowship hall after service. We will have a very celebratory Easter service, but it won’t look quite the same as it would have under ordinary circumstances. There won’t be an Easter breakfast either. Nevertheless, we will celebrate the Resurrection. I expect it will be joyous.
I didn’t expect my final year of ministry to look like this. I had other ideas about what we might be doing. But we can’t control what comes our way. So, we’ve adapted. We’ve learned new things. The question now is what will we take with us as the pandemic subsides and people come back together? While we’ve learned how to better use social media and online formats like Zoom to gather for meetings and study groups, what else have we discovered?
I’ve been saying for some time that we simply don’t know what the future holds for the church post-pandemic. Will people be satisfied with an online church? It’s convenient. You can gather in your pajamas and watch the service. But will that suffice for everyone? It’s important as we enter this Easter season to remember that ours is an incarnational faith. That is, we celebrate the resurrection of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). While for some the ability to gather online will be a godsend, especially for those unable to get out to church. But, for the majority of us, will that be our future. In fact, should we not think about how the church can be a source of community for folks seeking community.
Peter Marty is the publisher of the Christian Century. In his column for the March 10th issue, he offers six predictions for the post-pandemic church. The first prediction is that post-pandemic there will be a felt need for community. He writes that “the social and spiritual capital connected with congregational life will be increasingly valuable in a post-pandemic culture.” He points out that “as social gathering places (at least ones where people can meet without paying) get put on the endangered species list and remote work opportunities cocoon more and more people, as anchoring institutions of society move their activities online and plenty of us shift our purchasing, learning, and even medical care to the internet, the gathered church becomes an ever more precious entity.” Then he writes: “Thirst will increase for authentic community where moral formation and relationships of meaning can prosper. In social isolation, we have learned the truth of Frederick Buechner’s words: “You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own.” Congregations will play a heightened role in providing thick human community.”
With Peter Marty’s prediction in mind, how might this reality influence and impact the way the congregation envisions its future? People will be looking for authentic community. That will require much prayer and reflection on the part of the congregation as you cross the metaphorical river that served as the theme for the sabbatical in the fall of 2019. Over these past nearly eighteen months, my focus has been on getting us to the river, knowing that someone else will take you across the river. But what will the promised land look like? What resources will you bring to the river? In other words, what ministries will serve to provide the kind of community people are looking for? That will be your task as an interim arrives.
Before we get there, however, we will gather for worship on Easter Sunday. It won’t look like Easters many of us have come to know in the past, but it will not be like last year either! Know this, we have room for people to safely gather, as long as we wear our masks and follow the proper spacing guidelines. Yes, people are singing with masks on, while I sing and preach behind a Plexiglass screen. Many of us have been vaccinated. I received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine on March 18th, so my two weeks will arrive on Maundy Thursday. While we will still live stream the service, I’m hopeful that we’ll start seeing a growing number of people safely gather on Sunday. Since some of you I’ve not seen in over a year, I really would like to see you before I leave!
So, Happy Easter!! May the spirit of the Resurrection be with you always.