As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. It’s a lesson many Christians are becoming painfully aware of as their local congregations are caught up in the various shutdowns and quarantines. We deeply desire to return to our church, so naturally, pastors, elders, and local church councils everywhere are struggling with the question of when and how much to reopen their doors.
It’s an important question, but not simply because of the pandemic. As families sit at home, huddled around a laptop watching services streamed into our living room, there is a question that inevitably weighs heavily on our minds: Why do we go to church? What is important about gathering together each Sunday?
Whether deliberately or not, our congregations are answering that questions for us in this time of crisis by their reactions to it. The practical decision of how to respond to a pandemic is inevitably a cost/benefit analysis. Covid-19 represents a real risk factor–overblown by a frantic media, to be sure, but a risk nonetheless. How do we weigh that risk of illness–or even death for the elderly and those with certain preexisting conditions–against what we have to offer at church? More precisely, how does it weigh against what we are responsible for offering? It depends, of course, on what you believe your church offers. Why should people go to church? Everybody will know your answer to that question based on what you offer as an acceptable substitute.
The thing we’re liable to forget is that it’s the same question that was asked before the pandemic, and it will be the same question asked afterward. The very answers we hear now will also apply when Christians decide when–or whether–to return. What congregations and church bodies tell their parishioners now–both explicitly in our words and implicitly in our actions–will resonate long after Covid-19 either goes away or, more likely, becomes part of everyday life. Closing your doors until the media tells you it’s safe and maybe streaming your Sunday service in the meantime may be the safe route, but will doing that for months on end deliver what you’re responsible for offering?
You might think so if you believe church is fundamentally about hearing and receiving a particular message. You hear a sermon, you hear some hymns, you hear some prayers you can pray along with. It’s not really worth risking illness just to hear that message in person rather than via Facebook Live. Data-transfer works just fine over the internet, so those things are covered well.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, they’re covered a little too well. Data-transfer and communication are precisely what the internet excels at. If that’s why you go to church, online services aren’t just an acceptable substitute–they’re a superior replacement. I’ve written before that for my family, getting to church each Sunday is a struggle. It’s been MUCH easier to get everybody on the couch on time than in a pew on time. The little family tradition we’ve been building around our online services is much more comfortable and convenient than going to church in person was. If hearing a message is why we go to church, then why would we go back when this is over?
So many companies and employees who have been forced to experiment with remote work have discovered that it is much more practical in many circumstances. Accordingly, I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more remote work going forward–it just makes sense. Congregations who believe they’re simply delivering a message are going to find exactly the same thing among their parishioners. And with distance being a non-issue online, they will eventually gravitate towards those few churches who deliver messages in a superior manner.
Now, you might say, “No, it’s not just about the message. It’s also about our community! You can’t have a real community online!” If that’s what you offer at church, then you’ll probably think it wise to keep your doors closed amid the pandemic. With social distancing being our current norm, Americans have already collectively decided that enjoying community isn’t worth the risk. After all, while it’s sad that we’ll be away from one another for so long, our reunion will be all the sweeter once we can safely reopen.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, the presumption that you can’t have a real community online is a highly generational one. Boomers don’t think you can have a real online community. Millennials and Gen Z, on the other hand, have already been forming online communities for decades that they often greatly prefer to the flesh-and-blood communities around them. If community is why you go to church in the first place, then you’ll have your boomers and maybe some gen-Xers return when it’s all over.
But why would anyone else? Why would the younger generation come back on Sunday for community–particularly after you shut them out despite less risk to them from Covid-19 than there is from the flu? And if your boomers return alone, then your congregation has no future. That’s not even a community anymore–that’s a social club. And if that’s why people will go to your church after the pandemic, then maybe a social club is all you really had before.
Still others might say that it’s more than a message and a community–we also offer a great tradition that reaches back into history. We have the liturgy. We have great hymns of the faith. We have these things which transcend the local church community and connect to Christians throughout the ages and around the world. By participating alongside them, we join in something greater than ourselves. Merely watching the traditions unfold is hardly the same thing. If this is your view, then temporarily suspending your traditions make sense. They’ve lasted for thousands of years, and will still be there when they come back.
Here we actually begin to get closer to the mark, but we have not yet stuck it. For one thing, it’s only a compelling answer if most of your parishioners actually recognize this kind of value in your traditions. Too few do. But even so, the answer is still insufficient because any tradition worth sharing through time and space must point to a reality beyond itself. Tradition for its own sake is nothing more than nostalgia. Too many churches were already finding nostalgia to be woefully insufficient to bring people back before Covid19. It’s not going to be any better afterward.
What then do our traditions point us to? It your tradition merely points to a message or a community, then you’re back to square one. After all, traditions change. In fact, you’re changing them right now due to the pandemic. And you *should* change your traditions in circumstances like this. Passing offering plates around the congregation at the moment is stupid. So is passing the peace. There are traditions that *should* go by the wayside, and there will inevitably be new traditions that grow into the spaces left by those we prune. That’s the thing about a living body of tradition–we’re always cultivating it, and it continues to grow and change organically. Those traditions will only retain Sunday services if they point to them in the first place.
But there’s more than even that, isn’t there? We also offer worship. On Sunday morning, we present an opportunity to join together to praise God, to recognize Him as our Lord, and confess our faith in him. If that’s what your church offers, then you may still think it’s wise to be online-only for the time-being. After all, God is omnipresent and can hear our praise from our living rooms without any issue. And if being in the same room is more ideal for confessing Christ before others, commenting “peace be with you” or “amen” on Facebook will do for now in the face of an epidemic.
But after the epidemic is either over or routine, God will still be omnipresent. We can still worship Him from home–and should be doing so throughout our daily lives. After all, worship is, at its root, worth-ship. We worship God by recognizing, appreciating, and proclaiming His great worth and praising Him for what He’s done.
And that’s precisely why so many people already think they can worship God from the golf course, their gardens, their dining rooms, their places of employment and so forth instead of coming to church. And they’re not exactly wrong. You praise the Creator when you appreciate nature. You praise Him when you thank Him for your food. You praise Him when you deliberately act according to His Law in your daily life. When it comes down to it, we can and should do all those things. We don’t need a church building simply to worship per se. At least, not unless you mean something more precise by “worship.”
The Body of Christ
And that is where we finally come to the real answer–or at least what should be the real answer–to our question of what we are responsible for offering as congregations. When we worship God on Sunday, we are recognizing his great worth for a specific reason–His amazing promises to us through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We confess our sins before one-another because he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. But the Gospel is not simply an abstract message of forgiveness–it is embodied in the Sacraments. That’s why Lutherans use the phrase “Word and Sacrament Ministry.”
Christians aren’t simply those who have heard and believed a message, we are the Body of Christ–living stones being built into a spiritual house. We become part of that body through baptism. And throughout the rest of our lives, the apex of that embodiment is a specific divine promise for which we worship our Lord on Sundays: This is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
When all is said and done, that is why we gather our embodied selves for worship in a physical place on Sunday morning. We recognize the great worth of what Christ has done on that Cross and receive in our mouths the fruits of that atoning sacrifice: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. That is the core of Christian worship as distinct from every other religion that praises the divine.
And we can’t do that from our living room via Facebook. We call it “Communion” for a reason. We may or may not like each other, but we all believe and receive the same promise together from the same Lord at the altar. Our message, our community, our traditions, and our worship are all good, important things–things which we should be concerned about maintaining in times of crisis. But the Sacraments are the embodiment of our message. They’re the source of our community. They’re what our traditions point us to. They’re our highest form of worship. And they can’t be done online.
But what are we teaching our congregations about that through our reactions to the pandemic?
When, for example, our governors deem us non-essential, and we comply, what are we saying? Grocery stores stay open because they are essential–we need food to live. But Christ says is body is true food and his blood is true drink, and that we need it to live. To be sure, nobody is going to lose their faith because they missed a Sunday anymore than they’d starve because they missed one grocery run. Humans can go a fair amount of time without food. But even so, it’s still essential, which is why we keep grocery stores open–food needs to be made available. The same is true of the Sacrament.
But there’s more than just that. I’ve also heard all manner of nonsense about “fasting” from the Supper, and it isn’t going to fly. It’s already dubious for individual Christians, but it’s altogether senseless for the congregation itself. Delivering Word and Sacrament ministry to its members is the responsibility of the local congregation–its raison d’etre. We do not get to “fast” from responsibilities.
And, of course, there are other foolish statements. There’s the constant refrain that it’s better to be safe than to offer Word and Sacrament–a view that’s hard to find anywhere in the New Testament. I’ve even heard “sorry for the inconvenience,” as though the Lord’s Supper is was merely a convenience for us in the first place. I don’t think there’s any deliberate malice behind statements like these, but we cannot be so casual in our responses.
When all is said and done, the question so many churches have been asking, “how long should we close during the pandemic,” is only secondary. Our primary question should be this: How can we provide Word and Sacrament ministry during the pandemic? How can we fulfill our responsibility to offer it? There may be many answers to this question–many of them good, many acceptable, and many more bad. Reasonable Christians can disagree reasonably over which ways are best. And yes, maybe offering it in one giant service on Sunday morning isn’t the best way at the moment. And yes, maybe other options are logistically difficult to accomplish. But consider the cost of our excuses for failing to do carry out our responsibilities.
So think long and hard: What does your church offer? Why do your people go to church? If it’s any of those other things–message, community, tradition, or worship–then there’s not going to be much of a reason for anyone to come back the longer this goes on. Have you accepted your civil government’s determination that you aren’t essential? Then many will still believe you’re non-essential when this is all over. Have you gone out of your way to get the Supper to your parishioners during this time? If not, then many of them have learned that there’s no reason to go out of their way to receive it.
Times of crisis have a habit of revealing what we’re made of. Let’s be cognizant of that. And let’s make sure we tend to our spiritual health as well as our physical health.