What does failure look like in a church?
Is it when the building shows noticeable deferred maintenance, or when the membership number dips below a certain level? Has a church failed when there are no more children running up the aisles or when the choir is made up of only a few sopranos (why yes, I am an alto!)?
I’m not sure our answer to that question changes due to a pandemic. The church isn’t a failure when it no longer occupies its building or because we can no longer sing hymns together. I don’t believe we are only successful when our pews (and plates) are full. Certainly, the New Testament church didn’t have tall steeples and large fellowship halls in which to accomplish its mission. However, our metrics for success don’t seem to translate well in this pandemic season.
Six months in we’re starting to ask “what if this is it”? What if we can’t return to our buildings? Can we still be the church?
Throughout the life of the church we’ve made changes and adapted and reformed our ways of doing things. I’m not talking the small stuff (although kudos to the church that moved from donuts during coffee hour to also offering fresh fruit!). I’m referring to all the times in history where we’ve adapted to our changing context. As products of the Reformation, we hold to the belief that we are reformed and always being reformed!
I think we forget how difficult those changes were in the moment. The day that Grandma showed up in pants to serve Communion was no doubt followed by several heated meetings and a few folks leaving the church.
Or, perhaps we remember all too well how difficult those changes were, and we want to avoid potential conflict. The day we ordained LGBT folks was no doubt proceeded by several heated meetings and a few folks leaving the church.
The reality is that a massive change in our context has occurred. We will either continue to find ways to respond to it faithfully… or we don’t.
What does failure in the church during a pandemic look like?
The same as it does during “normal” times.
The church has failed when it forgets its purpose and its calling and is no longer working toward the Great Ends of the Church: The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.
Here’s the thing…. the church has found ways to be the church in spite of world wars, natural disasters, the Great Depression and huge economic fallout. And pandemics. In other words, this isn’t our first rodeo. More to the point, it won’t be the coronavirus that causes the church to fail. It will be our inability to remember our baptism, our calling and our purpose.
Yes, this is difficult work. It’s also the work we’ve been called to accomplish… faithfully. The good news is we don’t do it alone. Our God is in the middle of it all, and we have our siblings who walk alongside us as well.