Like many around the world I watched with interest the final moments of the NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) program, when on 26th September the DART rocket was intentionally crashed into Dimorphos, the minor planet-moon of the asteroid Didymos. This was a test to see if humanity could change the direction of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) thereby defending earth against an asteroid collision. If you want to know why ask a dinosaur!
Interesting you may say but what has this to do with church life? Well, personally speaking, at times mission feels trying to knock an asteroid on a permeant orbit in a different direction.
Post Covid we are emerging into a very different world where the church is being pushed in many different directions. In good Methodist style there three areas I want to consider and these can be further divided into three different directions.
Firstly we are the fulcrum of three ‘ages’. The industrial age, the information age and the augmented age.
Many church members are part of the industrial age. Industrial age members see church as bricks and mortar, worship is about attendance. Information is physical in the Newsletter and the pew-sheet.
There are fewer members in the information age but they feel as much apart of their church as industrial age members. Church is about community, worship is streaming and information comes through social media or e.mail. They may attend church occasionally but are happy to participate online, they opt out of receiving a physical church newsletter.
The smallest group, perhaps because they are the newest are those of the Augmented age. Although we do not know they are the smallest group because they aren’t counted in the same way as other groups. They have avatars, usernames, and gamer tags. These people put down their phones down because wearable technology is becoming its own force. They don’t register their attendance at all. They don’t have to because Augmented Age locations have geofences and register their presence automatically. Where as the citizens in the Information Age go to the internet. For the citizens of the Augmented Age, the internet comes to them.
The challenge for the church is all three ages coexist so how do we mission to them. If you only count those in church on a Sunday morning as attending you fail to register those who follow on social media. If you don’t produce a physical magazine many will feel forgotten. If this wasn’t difficult to navigate we have to remember that we are still living with a global pandemic.
Tackling a pandemic has been described as a marathon and not a sprint. In fact we are running three marathons.
The first Marathon was the one of traumatic innovation. Suddenly every where shuts down we all have to wear masks as of yet there is no treatment no vaccine. Even the church (building) is closed. There is great trauma in this first covid marathon, life is like building a house whilst trying to live in it.
We asked questions of the church we have never had to considered. What does it mean to be “present” with one another while being physically separated? How far does the Spirit stretch when blessing communion elements? Is online worship viable? The good news is that this first marathon has come to a relative conclusion for many. Not for all. There still exists great trauma and sadness from what Covid stole. Friends and family who exist now only in our memory and the eternal heart of God. Missed birthdays and other family and community milestones. This marathon has lasting effects, but on the whole, this race has been run.
As our churches began to reopen we faced a second marathon, that of spiritual exhaustion.
Daily life has never been more exhausting in our lifetime, especially for families with school-aged children. This exhaustion has again led to people asking important questions. People began to seriously consider if they are in the right occupation, location, relationship, and faith community. In-person worship attendance is returning much more slowly than many imagined because it’s taking longer to recover from the week’s activities. It also is revealing that worship for many people was an additional “activity” rather than a lived rhythmic reality of everyday life.
As we reflect on the new reality of church life, post-Covid we are just now beginning to see a third (and final?) covid marathon beginning. That of nostalgic scarcity.
As we think about the future life and direction of the church many people will be scared that there isn’t ‘enough’ of church to risk with speculative programs and missions. And what capital we have in church we want to invest in getting back what we once had. I can’t blame people for wanting to reclaim what it felt like before all the craziness, but there are some aspects of Church life that won’t make it out of Covid. So, let us celebrate and morn and move on.
It would be one thing if these were consecutive races, but they aren’t. Many churches are running all three at the same time, and we wonder why our tempers are short and there is a great resignation happening across the board.
Now if you have managed to stay with me so far, well done. I don’t want to end on focussing on our challenges without offering a way forward.
Moving forward, either getting a degree, developing a new hobby, or even working through grief, was more or less defined by a paradigm or pathway. First do this, then when that is completed, do that. It was systematic, planned, and expected. The trouble is that Covid has gummed up the works and we find things have ground to a halt.
So if there is no systematic pathway forward for the church we must look for other ways. Another way is to develop a new eco-system for the church to exist in.
Youtube worship and Zoom Bible Study. All seems to be moving in the right direction again…until there seems to be little reason only to study remotely, or there seems to be little reason exclusively to ever go to the church again. The ecosystem begins to break down. The waste within the system becomes unpalatable, and the seamless give and take necessary for a thriving ecosystem only produces bitterness and frustration. So we are forced to re-examine Jesus call of the first disciples and abide.
To abide with each other and with Jesus. We neither try to maintain a pathway or fine-tune an ecosystem. Moving forward becomes compassionately personal. Pathways and ecosystems have work or production at its centre, but Jesus’ “abide” model of moving forward is a people first movement. It gives rise to a decentralised church and autonomous organisations where church members can just be. Where thy are not defined by levels of attendance or roles fulfilled or tasks completed. To abide is to understand that we are not perfect and we are all a work-in-progress.
What is the point of all my rambling? The nine areas of church life I have briefly discussed need to come together, not like planets crashing it each other, which often happens in the life of the church but like the intersecting circles of a Venn Diagram At its elusive centre is an industrial, informational, and augmented space of traumatic improvisation, spiritual exhaustion, and nostalgic scarcity, moving us from the familiar pathways into an ecosystem that is begging for us to simply abide with one another. So, take a deep breath, give yourself a break, and know that you are not alone.