As vaccines for Covid-19 begin to make their way into the arms of more and more Americans, it seems that we might find ourselves at the beginning of the end of the pandemic, or at least in its current form. With the beginning of the end, we finally find ourselves in a position to lift our heads and examine the realities around us. We see the landscape of the economic and mental health struggles of our country and pray that the destruction isn’t beyond repair.
Along with all of this we must consider what has happened or is happening to the churches as we come through the pandemic. There are those that have run lock step with the governing authorities, those that have been proudly and publicly in opposition to such authority, and just about every iteration in between the extremes. There are churches who have become brilliant at live streaming their services and churches who have been incredibly creative with how they’ve managed to continue to hand over the gifts in such times.
But as I talk to my colleagues and friends the one thing that we are all increasingly clear on, is that no matter what path we focused on, there were those who were going to get hurt or feel left out or even dismayed by the actions of the church. Now there are a lot of reasons for this, it could be unthoughtful action or lack of communication or simple arrogance and pride. But I fear that what the pandemic has really done to the churches (at least in this country) is make the individualistic consumerism of our age something of a virtue within the fellowship.
There is a church nearby me that offers quite the smorgasbord of options on a Sunday morning. You can come to church and sit inside the sanctuary if you’d like with no forced distancing or mask rules. Or you can sit outside the sanctuary in the fresh air and watch it on large screens. Or you can go to a specifically designated room where the service is live-streamed an everyone there is wearing a mask and socially distant. Or you can just stay home and watch the whole thing unfold on your computer or tablet or whatever happens to be your screen of choice. Though it is all the same service, I would argue that it is not all the same church. It is a fractured and confusing place of options where my church is not necessarily the church of the one I used to sit next to on a Sunday morning.
So, if the church doesn’t rise to meet my individual taste preference, if it doesn’t adhere to the rules and regulations that I want it to adhere to, why then I’m justifiably angered. What matters in the end is my church. That is, the church as I want it to be, the church of my choosing, my preferred form and function. It’s not a matter of engaging the church to help shape it to be what I hope it would be, rather it is a demand to have it conform to what I want. And why shouldn’t it? After all, it is mine.
I am reminded of what Bonhoeffer said in his wonderful little book Life Together. He says,
“He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
The church is the church. It is a real thing; it is those gathered around the Word and Sacraments of our Lord. If the church belongs to anyone, it belongs to our Lord alone. Our consumerism doesn’t get to hold sway over His church, our demands must be in service to His Word.
As we go forward, as we assess the landscape, as we try to heal wounds and repair relationships perhaps the greatest challenge will be to love the Christian community itself and not just our dream of what it should be.