A 2020 issue of The Atlantic tells its readers that it is the magazine’s first issue completely “designed, edited, fact-checked, and otherwise produced on an entirely remote basis.” Its staff has had to find ways to make what seemed the normal course of affairs work in the face of the pandemic. It’s not so different from what I’ve seen and heard from my Moses Project mini-cohort the last couple of months.
These pastors were already faithful and hard-working, but the sudden limitations on worship and pastoral care and the requirements of social distancing forced them to discover not only new ways of operating as the church but also new reserves of strength none of them knew they had. The work has simply had to be done, and they were the ones whose names were on the letter of call.
My colleagues in this group have quickly schooled themselves on the intricacies of Facebook Live, Zoom meetings, and YouTube channels. They’ve navigated the maze of making worship happen while limiting contact, getting people to “mute mic,” juggling video cameras and their own children’s complaints, and finding ways to tend to their own tired bodies and weary souls. And they’ve run down the batteries on their cell phones making call after call after call. Who knew that a call to ministry would involve so much FaceTiming?
In exploring a path through to the other side of the pandemic, we have to understand, however, that the other side will not be a return to what we considered pre-pandemic normality. We need to face the fact that what we thought was normal in the church was already broken. It’s not much different from George Packer’s description in the same issue of The Atlantic:
When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category. (The Atlantic, June 2020, p. 9)
If Packer is right, it means that the pandemic has exacerbated what was already in place. Should we be surprised that the church is no different?
We might hope to be able to go back to what was in place before any public proclaimer or pew sitter ever knew the word coronavirus. But to recover and reclaim that space means to ignore what was already a church living in “the high-risk category.” There’s no need to recite the statistics of either declining membership, worship attendance, or clergy ranks. Those trends were in place at least a decade ago, but there was no Joseph to interpret the nightmare of cows wasting away. Or, if there was, there was no pharaoh with ears to hear.
The pandemic, in spite of the breathless activity of the church’s leaders, can be a time of taking stock and of distilling what the church is. It can be an opportunity to claim what our own tradition has asserted about the ways God works in the church. It can be a point when the trappings that have accumulated like barnacles on our nave can be scraped away, so that we can see that, in the post-pandemic church, everything will be different, but nothing will have changed.
What will be different is what we should have been tooling ourselves for over the course of the last quarter century: We can’t rely on the culture to undergird the church. And the comfort and prestige of churchly prominence was a millstone around our neck. All the trappings of piety, good manners, and the various ecclesiastical self-helps on the order of “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Churches,” are, as their own ends, a theology of glory.
The church in this age cannot be about counting Instagram likes, Facebook friends, or whatever the equivalent is on Snapchat. The business of submitting annual reports that list all our statistics not only is about the world of religious bean-counters but also is highly inauthentic. None of the charts or gloomy predictions matter, because they all speak to hypotheticals. God doesn’t save numbers. God deals only with people. Real people.
If that’s so, then we can see what we have in place in our congregations—both before and now as a result of the pandemic—as tools for the work of finding what Jesus called “ears to hear” (Mark 4:23). Our physical plant, our worship practices, our fellowship times are all places for real people, truly broken and sinful people, to have authentic encounters with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The church is not like an onion whose layer after layer can be peeled back until you find at its core…nothing. If you peel back the layers of pious and well-meaning practices that have accumulated, you will find a something that is greater than all the layers. You will find the church described in the Augsburg Confession, the 1530 document that each congregation’s constitution asserts fidelity to. In Articles VII and VIII, Philip Melanchthon says the church can be found in two places. It’s where the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered, and it’s where people come to trust in Christ’s work on account of that witness.
The church has never been about what your worship space looks like, whether you give good potluck, or whether your youth minister has a full list of activities lined up for the summer months. Those are all great things, and God can certainly work through them, but they aren’t the thing. That one thing that can’t be dispensed with is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, forgiver of sin, raiser of the dead, and healer of our every ill, starting with the virus of our self-attachment.
Across the board, the pastors in my mini-cohort have clung to this center. What the pandemic has helped us see is that this kernel present in the church is what Jesus described in John 12:24: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” A church that may have been dying before the pandemic is now even more fertile ground for the gospel to be planted.
We know this from our encounters with parishioners. When times are good, the Old Sinner in us regards the church as useful for propping up what we’ve accomplished. But when things fall apart, when our struts have been kicked from under us because of illness, divorce, financial calamity, and the like, when our power, success, and glory have shown themselves to be unable to fulfill their promise, now our Lord has an effective opening to our hearts. For where our power is in decline, his is rising.
This is what it means for the church to be centered on a theology of the cross and for us to see the church not as a successful organization but as a way of thinking, breathing, and living that gathers an ever-shifting array of people into earshot. In his “Sermon in Castle Pleissenburg” (1539), Luther preached about what makes the church. At the end of the sermon, he said the church is just a small batch of folks trusting Christ and isn’t to be identified with the church as institution or the layers of ecclesiastical tradition the reformers were battling:
If anybody wants to teach human precepts, let him do so in secular and domestic affairs and leave the church alone. After all, [our opponents] are really empty spewers and talkers, since Christ himself here says: He who hears my Word and keeps it, to him will I and my Father come and make our home with him. This is the end of Jerusalem and Moses; here there is to be a little band of Christ, [Heufflein Christi], who hear God’s Word and keep the same and rely upon it in every misfortune. This is my church. This Lord we shall believe, even though the pope blow his top over it (Luther’s Works, vol. 51, 311-312).
To be a public proclaimer in the midst of the Heufflein Christi is to be a witness in an amorphous body. And the only thing that is to be counted and subjected to statistics is the one mouth and the one set of ears that are the requirement for Jesus to be present when two or three are gathered in his name.
Here’s a proposal: let pastors now and in the post-pandemic church be the mouth-pieces for the Holy Spirit to carry out the office of preaching that brings saving faith. I’ve watched my colleagues run themselves ragged trying to cover every last need. And I’ve watched congregations step up as people have offered their gifts for other aspects of ministry. When pastors are released from the dealer add-ons and can concentrate on the main vehicle, then they can begin to think of their presence in their communities in a different way.
They can remind themselves that every last encounter—virtual and IRL—is the very moment the Spirit has driven all of time and history toward, the place where hurt, brokenness, and rebellion can be recognized and the word of peace can be spoken. These pastors and this church are the embodiment of the two most important words in the Lord’s Supper: “for you.” That’s not something that needs a sanctuary with individual theater seats and cup-holders, nor high-definition video production facilities, nor fine vestments, or a jewel-encrusted pyx, or what Luther called the church “bedaubed and bedizened with gold and pearls” (309). It doesn’t even need full-time clergy, church newsletters, or a tiled hallway leading to Sunday school classrooms. In his sermon, Luther pointed his hearers away from the visible religious structures of his day and told them to look to God where he wants to be found. God doesn’t want to be seen in those places: “Christ wants to be everywhere in the land” (304).
What is needed for Christ to be there, though, is preachers, teachers, and proclaimers who know the Word and, more important, know their own need for it. If that’s so, then it also means I need to find ways to support, nourish, and enliven those same Moses-in-place members of my mini-cohort, so they can thrive. That’s when the Holy Spirit will blow in. It might be that this pandemic is the moment before Lazarus heard Jesus’ word, “Come out.”