Well the summer seem to be drawing to an end and with it the start of a new Methodist year. For most people this will pass almost unnoticed but for a minister in their last appointment it is important as it means a year closer to retirement. (?!)
Time is one of those aspects of life which we have little control over, we either accept its passing or constantly rage against its unstoppable march.
As a young christian moving from a Sunday School faith to an adult understanding I was constantly told that we were in the last days and that Jesus was surely coming soon. Well 45 years later I am still waiting! Perhaps the time is still not right.
That is another facet of time, not the liner progression of hours, days, weeks, months, years, but a point in the time-space continuum for a specific event to happen. Whether planned or serendipitous.
In God’s realm the time is always right for something, God knows the when and the what. God’s activity is steady and it is also specific. As a church we have to discern and point to what God is up to and when God is working—when the timing is right and what it’s right for. It is true not only in large, cultural ways, but also in specific, personal ways.
Of course, since the first lockdown, churches have faced incessant questions and squabbles and downright fights about the time for gathering in person. Who could gather, and where they could gather, and what could happen in the gathering, what needed to be worn in gathering? If the first-century Christian was concerned about propriety, including what kinds of covering in worship, no less is the twenty-first-century church! For some, the ability to worship without gathering signalled an end of the worship gathering, at least in its current form.
Not only did COVID challenge the ability of the church to gather, but it also challenged our ability to tell time. Sure, we measure time by clocks and calendars; through hours and days, time marches on. But during lockdowns, days of the week lost their uniqueness and days as a whole lost their rhythm. I have heard more than once that the last 18 months have felt like a time warp.
We didn’t lose the ability to measure time, but perhaps we lost the ability to keep time. At the recent Tokyo Olympics, time-keeping mattered a lot particularly when Canadian Andre De Grasse edged South African sprinter Akani Simbine by four one-hundredths of a second to win the Bronze Medal in the Men’s 100-metre race.
We record how long and how fast and when and so on. But COVID has also adjusted how we keep time by our faith. Worship “gatherings” now happen at personal times and start when a button is clicked. To point out an irony, you might say that when we don’t have religion to help us keep time, rather that we will keep time religiously using other things! If measuring and keeping time is only or even mainly done for cultural accommodation and athletic competition, then we will lose not only our ability to tell the time by our faith, but we will lose the ability to recognise timing. Gathering helps us to keep time and to recognise God’s timing.
Another way we tell time is by ages. The American writer, Joseph Bottum calls the present age ‘an anxious age’, (An Anxious Age – The post-Protestant Ethic) as the religious heart of the West is replaced by something else. Social foundations that attempted to mirror the foundations of reality are upended when the foundations of reality are being reconsidered. And almost sixty years ago, sociologist Philip Rieff prophesied the therapeutic age, when individual persons would be tasked with finding their own wellbeing—designing, achieving, and living their best life with the help of some friends—and perhaps a professional or two. I think both of them are right: It is an anxious age and it is a therapeutic age.
This unique age pressures the church. First, the church is pressured to become radically convenient. Consumers don’t have time for church, so the church must be open at all times. The church is encouraged to become the 24 hr convenience store of the religious market in order not to compete with football training, IKEA, family, the park, and all the other things that compete for people’s time. Second, the church is pressured to become a place of religious coaching. There is pressure to apply knowledge of Scripture and the care of souls to give advice on marriage, employment, and so on to help others take their lives to the next level.
Now, church should be convenient inasmuch as convenience means removing unnecessary barriers for those whom Jesus is beckoning, and the church should coach inasmuch as it guides people to and through spiritual disciplines in pursuit of Christ by the power of the Spirit.
But convenience and coaching can also be detrimental to the ministry that is needed in an anxious and therapeutic age. In an anxious age, the church must present hope. And in a therapeutic age, the church must present healing. Hope and healing are about neither convenience nor coaching. Hope and healing are about the presence of Jesus Christ in the body.
As a gathering, the church is about time: First, the gathered church is about time-keeping, a rhythm that orients the rest of time. And the gathered church is about timing, sensing the unique and charged time of Christ’s presence.
So is it the right time to meet together at church – probably. Is it the right time to do away with masks – probably not. Is it time to walk with Jesus – always!