(Artwork: “Returning to Church” by Eunhye Cho)
It is an anxious and exciting time.
Many of our churches are preparing and planning for a congregational regathering that will make it possible for people of faith to return (with several added precautions) to some kind of in-person worship and spiritual formation.
The temptation is to see the regathering as a return to “normal.” My suspicion, however, is that “normal” was one of the very first casualties of the global pandemic. In the post-pandemic church (or, perhaps more accurately, the “regathered church in the continuing pandemic”), “normal” has given way to “untraveled,” and “business as usual” has become “building the plane as we are flying it.” For the Church to see its situation rightly, I believe it to be essential for the Church’s people to look upon their regathering, not as a return to what was, but as a series of sacred opportunities for newness.
Here are some of the opportunities that I am envisioning.
Regathering is an opportunity to redefine and reconfigure our relationship with our buildings and facilities
For several months, we have confirmed with unprecedented clarity a truth often affirmed in our theology but forgotten in our practice. The truth to which I am making reference is this: The Church is not defined, limited, or governed by its architecture.
Since mid-March, this important truth has found fresh expression and validation in the church’s ministry outside of its buildings and facilities. We have had to let go of our architecture for a season in order to become, in the deepest sense, a church without walls. For the last three months, we have been a church in mission and ministry through our online connection; through the nurturing of deeper relationships with family members, friends, neighbors, and other congregants from whom we are physically separated; and through our compassionate attentiveness to the most vulnerable members of our congregations. In short, it has been a season for rediscovering the Church’s heart—a heart that beats, not in the maintenance of our architecture, but in the unfettered and unhoused work of praying and being prayed for, ministering and being ministered to, loving and being loved.
As we regather in our sanctuaries and fellowship halls, my heartfelt hope is that we will be mindful of what we have learned or relearned over the last few months and that this mindfulness will help us to re-enter our architecture with these freshly-clarified convictions:
- That church buildings are sacred spaces (because of the activity that occurs there) but not the definers of the church’s ministry
- That church buildings are resources to be stewarded, not sacrosanct shrines to be revered
- That Trustees are entrusted primarily to be facilitators of ministry, not landlords
- That a commitment to keeping the doors of the building open is neither an adequate vision for ministry nor a sufficient justification for a church’s continued existence
As we regather, I pray that our spirits will be elevated by the beauty of our sanctuaries, the grandness of our altar spaces, and the familiarity of our stained glass windows and time-tested furniture. I pray that we will also re-consecrate our architecture with the kind of petition that clarifies a right relationship with our facilities—a petition that might sound something like this:
O God, who is worshiped in our building but who is in no way contained by it: Pour out your Spirit upon every room of our facility, that you might be glorified by the ministry that takes place here. Regather us in this sacred space, but also deliver us from every temptation to deify our architecture. Make it possible for authentic songs of praise to resonate in the sanctuary and hallways, but also set us free from every tendency to treat our building as the object of our worship. Set apart this sacred space for your purposes, but, more than this, set apart your people to be your Church more faithfully.
Regathering is an opportunity to reshape liturgy and expand doxological creativity
For decades and maybe longer, the church’s conversations about worship have all too often been reduced to liturgical arguments and unnecessary dichotomies, the end result of which has been the frequent stifling of creativity and the elevation of personal preference over liturgical diversity. This season of regathering, however, opens the door to revisiting congregational worship with fresh eyes and hearts, having been away from typical orders of worship for a number of months. Perhaps it is time for pastors, church musicians, worship leaders and worship planners to commit themselves, not only to the incorporation of what is familiar, but also to experimentation with what may feel completely new.
How might the offering of testimony, for example, become part of worship, so that important stories of faith, pain, healing, and redemption might be told?
How might congregational prayer become an interactive practice, so that the experience of prayer is more communal and less monological?
How might the proclamation of the Word be reconceptualized, so that, on occasion, it might become less of an extended presentation and more of an unscripted congregational conversation about how Scripture is being heard, understood, and applied?
How might the presentation of our tithes and offerings become an intentional coming forward (a different kind of “altar call,” if you will) instead of remaining a routine passing of the plate?
How might the congregation be invited to experience a wider variety of music so that worship becomes less about personal preference and more about the glorification of a God whose majesty deserves and demands nothing less than musical diversity? (This question, of course, takes on a new level of depth and complexity in light of recent concerns about congregational and choral singing and their connection to the spread of infection. Perhaps this is the related question to ponder: What new and safer methodologies might congregations need to employ in order to help a congregation to “sing” even when singing is not permitted?)
I do not pretend to know what reconfigured worship might look like in each specific context. But my sincere hope is that those who are responsible for the creation and organization of congregational worship will utilize this season of regathering as a unique opportunity to reimagine the way we worship instead of simply settling for a return to patterns that may no longer be sufficient for the new song of praise that the post-pandemic church longs to sing.
Regathering is an opportunity to streamline and recreate the Church’s administrative leadership
I heard a pastor phrase it this way recently: “The ‘shelter in place’ restrictions forced our committees to focus on more strategic agendas…Our Zoom meetings led to some of the most fruitful and meaningful conversations that our committees have ever had. I want to keep that going when we go back to meeting in person.”
I believe that this pastor was articulating an important point—that the regathered church affords to us a unique opportunity to reimagine our ecclesiastical administration. For some churches, that might involve a transition to a single board governance structure. For other churches, it might involve staff reconfigurations and new job descriptions. For all of us, it will involve more intentional meeting agendas, so that our administrative conversations are more focused on missional priorities and less on institutional maintenance.
Regathering is an opportunity to re-ground ourselves in our unifying Story and reframe our often divisive sub-narratives
Granted, there is not complete agreement on what constitutes the Church’s “unifying Story” and “divisive sub-narratives,” which makes it difficult to treat this point as anything more than a vague hope. But, for me, it is a hope that is worth naming, embracing, and nurturing.
What do I mean by our “unifying Story?” I mean the Story of the Triune God as told in our Scripture and Creeds—the Story of a Parent who creates and recreates, a Son who saves and redeems, and a Spirit who transforms and equips. It is the story of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, whose invitation into a saving relationship is as unmerited as it is beautiful. It is the story of sanctification and discipleship, in which the grace of Jesus Christ is magnificently at work to bring our lives into alignment with who God created us to be.
Our often divisive sub-narratives are not insignificant, to be sure. In fact, one churchperson’s sub-narrative might be another churchperson’s significant priority. It is not my desire to downplay the complexity and difficulty of navigating this territory. But my sincere hope is that this season of regathering will become a time of theological recalibration during which congregations might re-learn the deeper Story that unifies; re-clarify what might constitute both our defining non-negotiables and our “think and let think” negotiables; and recommit to the life of discipleship to which our Story calls us.
Regathering is an opportunity to re-ignite the Church’s missional relationship with the world
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our world is yearning more deeply than ever for the hope and truth that the Church is uniquely equipped to offer. Hungry people need healthy food. Addicted people need ministries of recovery. Struggling students need tutoring. Community institutions (like schools and hospitals) need strategic institutional partnerships. Lonely people need relationships. Disenfranchised people need advocacy. Voiceless people need a voice. Lost people need Jesus.
This season of regathering is a clarion call for churches to rediscover their missional commitment to their communities and to reinvent their presence in their neighborhoods so that the regathered Church becomes known for its risky outreach, its missional experimentation, and its stubborn refusal to settle for isolation and self-preservation.
Indeed, the Church’s people are planning and preparing for regathering.
May the regathered Church’s prayers be fervent.
May the regathered Church’s worship be vibrant.
May the regathered Church’s discipleship be faithful.
And may the regathered Church’s ministry be a ray of hope to a hurting world.