by Kris Coffin Stevenson | 7 April 2021 |
I was talking with a friend who told me her church is considering in-person meetings again. “I don’t know if I’m going,“ she said. “I haven’t really missed it.”
After 35 years in pastoral ministry, it’s a real temptation to feel that we’ve wasted our whole lives on something useless, after our church services were gone in an instant, stolen by COVID. My husband has a mug that was given him pre-COVID that says “The church has left the building.” Ironically, for a year it has sat on his desk in a silent, empty church. The creator of the mug hoped to motivate his congregation to break out of building-based worship and minister in the community. No one expected that a pandemic could accomplish this overnight.
As we begin to poke our heads out of the holes in which we’ve been hiding for a year, what is the health of our local church?
COVID has decimated our congregations. The lure of pajamas and a cup of tea while watching online means we haven’t seen some members for a year. Some people felt justified to even stop watching because no one was checking the church’s membership rolls against Livestream. For others, attending church assuaged their guilt about a connection to God, without really pushing them too far out of their comfort zone. Now they’ve reinvested in other things. There are those who are too frightened to attend, even with safety measures. For some individuals, church and its traditions comfort them like a warm spiritual Teddy bear. They are enduring all the innovations and want church to reopen in exactly the format.
Pastors may now feel like their purpose in life is gone or transformed completely. No one is calling meetings or planning programs. Public evangelism is impossible. Visiting is difficult and hospital visitation is non-existent. Potluck dinners have ground to a halt. Normal methods of interacting have changed, making it difficult to reach some people. Local churches have been forced to compete online with every mega church, and parachurch ministries with large technical budgets.
Some stalwart members who have become shadows instead of pillars. Some have let fear isolate them from community. Some have allowed politics to break up relationships and keep them from their church family. Many are grieving the loss of a family member or friend. There are some whose health has suffered tremendously. I see curtains of depression hanging in many eyes. I feel the pull on my own body, mind, and spirit. I count 13 individuals on my prayer list who have a terminal diagnosis or are in a life-threatening situation. I carry those people with me everywhere I go, in my heart and in my threads of whispered prayers throughout the day. The weight of it belongs to God, but my human heart shares that sorrow and threatens to overwhelm me.
Destroying and rebuilding
In Joel 1 we see the land of Israel devastated by an army of horse-like locusts that devour the land. They destroy the grain, the vineyards, and the olive groves. The priests mourn because they can no longer lead worship and do offerings to God if there’s no grain, wine, or oil. “No joyful celebrations are made in the house of our God” (verse 16). It seems that the ability to worship has been stolen by the locusts. But instead of giving in to despair, the people gather together for a time of corporate fasting and repentance. Adonai answers them by replenishing their grain, wine, and oil and everything that was lost to the locusts. Then he pours out his Spirit on their sons and daughters, young men, old men, and even servants (Joel 2:28-32).
Pentecost is the first of three festivals celebrating new grain, new wine, and new oil. While Christ’s followers prayed together, the Spirit was poured out on all of them no matter age, gender, or social class. In his impassioned speech to the Jews gathered for the festival, Peter quotes Joel 2. “’In the last days,’ God says, ‘I shall pour out my Spirit upon all people’” (Acts 2:17). God’s plan of salvation looked like it had stuttered to a halt on the cross, but with the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit, the church was reborn.
Those early believers, powered by the Spirit, changed the course of history. They didn’t have ornate buildings or dedicated places of worship. They didn’t participate every week in stodgy, uninspiring formalities. They knew that where two or three were gathered, God was with them.
The local church coming out of COVID will be different. It needs to be different.
What’s taken the place of building-based church ministry is community service. This is “get your fingernails dirty” kind of service. The seeds of friendship we’ve planted in our neighborhood over the years bore fruit when the pressure of COVID and the economy came to bear on our community. People have called on the pastor and the church to assist them. My husband has carried heavy furniture out to the curb, picked up a disabled man who’d fallen in the bathroom, helped move a woman whose house is in foreclosure, and trimmed bushes and pulled weeds. It’s also been “make some hard choices” kind of service. When an unvaccinated church member has no transportation to the doctor, what do you do?
So instead of spending long hours in committees planning elaborate programs or polishing a sermon, we find ourselves part of the local food bank, distributing food boxes to people. When the bags of free potatoes and bananas pile up, we’ve made potato salad and banana bread to hand out. When our neighbor was attacked in his car, we vacuumed up glass and wiped blood from the seats. Our conference reports that although baptisms are down, community involvement is way up and they’ve been providing materials and training to support that. The church has been forced to leave the building and we’ve discovered the way of Jesus.
For our local church members, our services have continued but have been stripped down to an hour-long simple program outside on the lawn that’s Livestreamed for those at home. We’ve also provided low-power FM radio so people can sit in their cars in the parking lot and listen.
Before COVID, my husband was reading in Christ’s Object Lessons how important it is to worship outdoors and see God’s communication through nature. I longed to be outside and wondered if we could ever plan a service outdoors. We’ve now had a year of outside church. Yes, sometimes it’s been cold and windy or 113 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’s been surprisingly refreshing. As I listen to the songs, scriptures, and sermons, I lean back in my camping chair, the wind tickling my hair and the sun warming the back of my neck. I hear the birds, the wind in the leaves. I watch the squirrels play, see the hawks catch an updraft. I’ve disconnected from the typical church sanctuary service and connected to the God of Creation in his nature sanctuary. Outside church has been so enjoyable, we may even provide an outside option once we move back inside.
Technology has also played a surprising role in keeping the body of Christ connected. Zoom has given me two new Bible study support groups. One is a group of local ladies and the other is made up of friends who live in another country. Other ways we’ve stayed connected are text lines, YouVersion Bible plans, and Facebook groups. I’ve lost most face-to-face interactions but gained a whole other network of individuals who are now part of my regular schedule of worship and support. We’re looking out for each other, praying for each other.
Today, in the silence of our sanctuaries and in the absence of our congregation, we feel the weight of sorrow and loss. Those pesky locusts who look like tiny horses in Joel make their reappearance in the fifth trumpet of Revelation 9. In the last days they have come again to strip the land of praise and worship.
It would be easy to live like a rabbit, big ears cocked, eyes wide open, looking for those menacing locusts that will startle us back into our holes or freeze us in terror on the lawn. But God is wooing us towards joy. We are one in Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father, filled with the Spirit and living in the knowledge that Jesus has bought us back from the shackles of sin. We should be living victoriously, opening the connection to God through praise and prayer, leaving our worries in his hands, thanking him for each blessing from a grateful heart and asking him for our next mission. Evil has attempted to separate us so it can pick us off. God has provided a way for us to link arms and hearts no matter where we are.
God has a rescue plan to save his people. We have lost our old way of corporate praise and worship this year. But God won’t leave us in this destitute place. He will replenish our land and pour out his Spirit. Through mingling in the community and new relationships with neighbors and even with people online who are far away, we will find our praise and worship.
But it may be more through service than services.
Before you leave, we want to thank you in advance for supporting the Adventist Today Spring Fundraiser. Independent, accessible journalism in the Adventist community helps sort facts from denominational PR. With your help we can continue to offer more excellent content while creating meaningful community both on and offline. Please make a donation at atoday.org/donate
Kris Coffin Stevenson is an author, teacher, editor, and scopist. She loves living her eternal life starting now. She and her husband reside in Santa Clarita, California. You can follow her writing at bthelove.net or bthelove on Facebook.