Faith Time: How does the pandemic permanently impact churches?


FAIRHOPE, Ala. (WKRG) — Joining us this morning is Senior Pastor Dr. Darren McClellan with Fairhope UMC. We recorded a Zoom interview last week. We are talking about how the pandemic has impacted churches. Here’s a look at our conversation:

Anchor: Let’s start with Fairhope UMC specifically, our first question in how has it impacted your church?

Guest: Well, obviously this is a season of deep change for everybody. At Fairhope UMC, we’ve been doing online-only worship since March 15. We’re conducting all of our meetings, small group studies, and Sunday school classes on Zoom. We’ve restructured the way we communicate with the congregation and our neighbors on a daily basis. We’ve canceled mission trips and summer camps and Vacation Bible School. We’ve worked to reschedule baptisms and weddings and even funerals. We’ve had to reframe our expectations when it comes to hospital visits and other aspects of community care. We’ve also turned our coffee budget over to hand sanitizer and masks for the future (and that’s saying something!).

Whether it be with our children, youth, or adults, our greatest challenge right now is making sure that everyone has the opportunity to stay connected. At the beginning of Lent, and now through Easter, we adopted this theme of Whatever it Takes. “Whatever It Takes…Be Reconciled to God. Whatever it Takes…For the Sake of His Glory.” Little did I know in our initial plans how appropriate this theme would be for us at this time. Many of our leaders have adopted it for themselves, and I believe this attitude has served us well.

Anchor: In general how do you feel it has impacted congregations across the region and country?

Guest: I’ve talked with dozens of pastors across denominational lines in recent days and I’m hearing a lot of the same stories. The general idea is that ‘nothing is easy…nothing is crystal clear…everybody’s working with an imaginary timeline…and the need for constant decision making is starting to take its toll.’

Even so, I’ve also seen so much innovation from these leaders, which is inspiring. I’m encouraged to find that there seems to be less competition going on among churches and other communities of faith…instead, a more generous sharing of our collective struggle and the solutions that arise from them. All of us wish to do no harm…to do all the good that we can, even when the next steps are a complete mystery. All of us are figuring out what it means to lead in this most unusual time. I hear retired clergy say “I’ve never seen anything like this.” That’s a little unnerving; but I also hear it as a word of grace.

Anchor: What lasting impacts do you think this will have on churches beyond the time the health crisis is over?

That’s a great question and I wish I knew for sure. One of my fears is this emerging idea that “only the strong will survive,” which doesn’t fit terribly well in my understanding of the coming Kingdom of God. It’s hard to be the Church of Jesus Christ without creating an intentional space for the ‘least of these’ in our communities, and even more so when you are actively disposing of them. For this reason, I think this entire season of the pandemic has allowed us to reexamine our beliefs about “the essentials” and “the non-essentials” and what it means to be the Church.

At a practical level, we know that a large percentage of American congregations are comprised primarily of senior adults, who are especially vulnerable at this time, and who probably should not be rushing back to their favorite pew the moment those sanctuary doors reopen. So what does the church look like

Without their immediate influence, without the benefit of their wisdom and experience not to mention the impact of their historic generosity?

I also like to imagine that once this is behind us, there are certain elements of congregational life that we will never take for granted again. Whether it is singing an old hymn together or sharing a donut before Sunday School, passing the peace, or just getting a hug from someone on your way into worship. Right now we are training people to sit at home on Sunday and worship on the couch in their pajamas. I suspect that is going to be a hard habit for some of us to break, but we will see.

Anchor: What other historical moments impacted the church in a similar way? The most immediate one I think of is the Black Death

Guest: That’s an interesting example. Naturally, church historians have a way of connecting the dots on these events in retrospect. Whatever is happening in the world, it should impact the church to some degree.

Mark Noll, for instance, describes the Black Death, or plague, as “wreaking havoc” in Europe in the middle of the 14th century. There was a sudden decline in population, which led to the abandonment of fertile land, which led to limited trade, which led to economic depression (which led to many other forms of depression, stress, and grief). Still, the Church held on in those days, just as it should be, suffering right alongside everybody else.

But then, interestingly enough, once the economy tried to get back to ‘normal’…and once economic expansion became the order of the day by the middle of the 15th century, it was a bit of a tectonic shift. Things were generally improving, but so did the economic inequality between the haves and the have nots.

So in the case of the Black Death (and this is not hard to imagine in our context as well) it is argued that Europe’s economic recovery created new centers of financial power, which created new situations of societal friction, which thereby brought new cases of what Mark Noll calls “fiscal resentment.”

Then you add the different allegiances of church and state into the mix, both of which were responding to these developments with varying degrees of integrity and greed, and eventually you begin to recognize many of the preconditions for the Protestant Reformation (which began soon thereafter).

Now, some would say that wasn’t all bad in the end…but it was nevertheless monumental in impact.

Anchor: How do you think this pandemic changes churches for the better?

Guest: Again, it’s been a chance to ‘get back to basics’ if you will; to reexamine the mission of the church. We’re learning new things and remembering old lessons. Some things we thought we couldn’t live without now seem rather silly by comparison. If your faith is built on the hollow idea that the children of God always prosper, or if it takes a good cup of coffee a well-edited bulletin, and the blessing of visitor parking to help you feel spiritually alive, then this is going to be a hard season for you.

But if you envision the church as a body that feeds the poor and seeks out the lonely…if you believe that it can be sustained by the grace of God and the prayers of its people, then this may prove to be a very formative time of growth and actual discipleship.

I know at my house I’ve had time to share a devotional life with my family in ways that I never have before. This has also given us as a church family the opportunity to have some much-needed conversations about deeper issues that are of great importance. In the process, we’ve realized that we don’t want to “go back to normal.” We want to be a new creation. I thank God for that. It fills me with great hope for the future. As hard as it is, I’m interested in seeing what this experience will teach us next.

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