Into the Unknown, Part II: Following Jesus…Out of the Building
It has often been said that the church is not a building, the church is the people. For many years that’s what the church has told the world. Since March, like never before in recent history, we’ve had the opportunity to show them.
And by God’s grace, I think overall, “the Church” has done a decent job. At my own church, for example, almost overnight, we had to learn how to use Zoom and have virtual meetings together. Just a few months later, there is a whole list of virtual gatherings going on throughout the week including committee meetings, fellowship and prayer groups, and Bible studies, among others. We’ve also come up with creative ways to meet together in open spaces for limited indoor gatherings and are working on being able to livestream events from our sanctuary. We’ve always wanted to be able to have this capability; COVID-19 forced us to get it done, once again proving that necessity is indeed the mother of invention.
My church is like most churches in that our building has traditionally been the base camp for spiritual formation. Not that formation never happens outside the church walls. Of course, it does—through groups meeting in homes and other activities in the community. However, generally speaking, when we think of church, we tend to think mostly in terms of what goes on in our building, be it Sunday worship or other activities throughout the week.
To put it another way, we still tend to think more in terms of “going to church” than we do of “being the church” in the world. WE “gos to church” on Sunday and then we are sent out into the community to live and theoretically be a witness, a light in the world, etc. But in practice, it seems we’re more likely to blend in and be indistinguishable from the world around us throughout the week. If the numbers are right, we’re one of largest people groups on the planet, and yet practically speaking, it seems that too often we’re invisible in terms of having an impact on issues that truly matter—e.g., racism, climate change, economic injustice.
In a breathtakingly short time, COVID-19 forced us to leave our buildings. Just like the people of Israel couldn’t really go back to Egypt even when they said they wanted to, for a time, “going to church” was not an option for us. Furthermore, I don’t think we will ever go back to exactly how things were BC. Even before the pandemic, the base for spiritual formation had started to shift away from meeting at a centralized building and was reorienting toward activities in smaller groups scattered all over a larger geographic area—whether they be in person or virtual. The declining numbers of regular attendees—especially young people—provide evidence of this shift. The current pandemic has only served to accelerate the shift as it provided an impetus for many churches to experiment with means to more routinely facilitate virtual community gatherings.
Don’t hear me wrong. I’m not against “going to church.” I’ve attended church my whole life! I believe there’s value in the community gathering in one place. I know at my church, we will surely celebrate when the pandemic has ended, and our church building can finally fully reopen. However, if my hunch is correct, the church building will not be base camp for as much of our activity as it was BC. Furthermore, I think the shift I’m describing needs to happen for any church that wants to thrive in the PC world. Some of the people who left our buildings in March may never return. So, if we want to reach them, we’ll have to go where they are. We’ll have to “be the church” wherever we find ourselves. It’s not really a new calling; it’s just an urgent reminder of who God has always called the Church to be.
For more on the ideas I’ve touched on here I would recommend a book called Everywhere You Look: Discovering the Church Right Where You Are by Tim Soerens (2020, InterVarsity Press.) Although it was published just before the COVID-19 pandemic forced public worship to all but cease, the ideas seem all the more relevant to consider now, as we contemplate the role of the church in the emerging PC world.
Soerens suggests that, “We are being shaken up to follow God into a bold new future where faith guides our entire lives. It shapes our neighborhoods, cultivates an entirely new imagination for how we live, and draws us together when everything else seems to be tearing us apart.” I think his quote succinctly summarizes both the challenge and the opportunity of the present moment.
For many of us who are used to “going to church” on Sunday, this new decentralized landscape for spiritual formation seems strange and disorienting. For me personally, it has certainly been a shift to be home every Sunday morning during the pandemic engaging in (I try to do more than just watch!) the pre-recorded service streamed on TV, as opposed to being at the church building with our church family and participating in worship.
While much remains unclear about the emerging PC world, one thing seems clear: If we’re going to stay strong spiritually as we learn to navigate this new landscape, intimate connection to Jesus is not optional. Such bonds don’t just happen randomly, and they aren’t likely to form in isolation. We’ve got to intentionally pursue opportunities to create community—not just at our church building, but wherever we find them.
—Alan B. Ward