Even before COVID-19, the Christian church has been living during In Between Times. The uncertainty of our present days adds new dimensions to that divide.
For those whose idea of the church springs from experiencing the church of the 1950’s through early 1980’s, church is a communal experience. The church building was the heart of that experience. Being together was central to that expression of the church. We came together to listen to sermons, to be educated and to do projects. It was a highly passive experience of church. We showed up and church happened. It was a shoulder-to-shoulder experience, physically present for each other.
I grew up in a town of 1,200 people and belonged to a congregation with 1,000 members. In addition to the public school system, the church defined our community because most of us gathered there, heard the same sermons, learned the same theology and supported the same causes.
Those of us who grew up in this church are now the elders of our current congregations. We are the ones who provide the most financial support. We are the ones who want to see the faith of our youth passed to the next generations.
But the next generations experience faith differently. It is less about coming together and more about making a difference. Membership of any organization, let alone a congregation, is minimally important. Joining groups of people who are doing community projects to help others and make the world a better place is where it’s at. It’s about justice and equity. “Being together” is not defined by physical presence, but by common causes and communicating through technology.
My son is associated with a group like this. They are less a congregation and more a loosely organized action committee. They first gather around projects that need to be done and occasionally come together for community time (worship?). They prefer low overhead for their organization and want most of the money they give to go toward the projects they are engaged in.
Both of these groups exist within our communities. Both are about living out our faith commitments. Yet there is a wide gap between the priorities and practices of these two expressions. These are the “in between” times our church has been living in.
Though we are still in the early days of this pandemic and learning to find our way through it, new trends are beginning to emerge. The biggest, of course, is the use of technology for much of what we do. In many ways, technology is being used to replicate what we formerly did in person. While for some, it is not what they prefer, we are adapting and making it work. And notice what it is doing to the gap between generations.
Grandchildren are finding iPads for their grandparents so they can see each other during social distancing. The younger generation is teaching the older generation how to use technology so they can live their lives effectively without leaving home. And the generation who prefer to be shoulder-to-shoulder for church activities are learning to be together in new ways.
Families whose activity schedules left little time for church now find they can fit a 30 minute online worship or 15 minute faith formation lesson into their busy schedules. Many congregations find that their online “attendance” is even greater than before. People can participate in worship live or later, whichever fits their schedule.
Congregations are becoming central repositories for a variety of community organizations needing financial support during these tough times. In addition to asking members to support their ongoing ministry, they also encourage support for organizations helping people make it through days of food scarcity, unemployment and anxiety.
Do you see what’s happening? Some of the things that separated the generations before this pandemic are now bringing them together.
We are in the early innings of this new reality. How we live and what we do as “church” will continue to move and be reshaped as time goes on. What is certain, is that we are in a new “in between times” as a church. We will emerge on the other side of this pandemic looking and acting differently because of what we are learning and experiencing now. And maybe, just maybe, we can see new ways to be church together.
Rev. Tom Jolivette | Consultant | Kairos and Associates | email