While I am not serving full time in a church setting, I have been filling in from time to time in various churches. On Sunday May 10, I led worship and preached at a church for the first time since the Covid-19 restrictions went into place. It was the first time this church of under 25 was meeting in 8 weeks.
During the pandemic, I have been diligently working to think through the implications of Covid-19 on the church, much like I would when I was serving full time in a church. I did this in order to help churches in the midst of the pandemic as a part of my work for Preparing for Amazement Ministries.
I have had a distinct advantage during this time not serving in a church, as it gave me the time and ability to see from the outside without being in the middle of the crisis. I had the disadvantage of not having to make the decisions pastors were making, so I have and will remain cautious about offering unsolicited advice.
As I walked in to the church building I knew it would be one of the more unique and unfamiliar experiences in my life in spite of stepping into church buildings to lead most Sundays for about two decades.
I had taken plenty of time to think through the big picture, the meta issues if you will. The big implications, challenges and opportunities.
I spent more than adequate time thinking through the little stuff: communion, greeting, offering plates, masks and more.
What I had not thought about was the spiritual tone of this time and the need to create a spiritual transition as a part of the service. I should have thought about this, but even if I had, I also know my ability to do so would be limited. The truth is I needed to be in the worship space and in the moment, listening to the whisper of the Holy Spirit to know I needed to say and do something. I needed to listen carefully in order to offer my best, meager offering of words of transition.
After doing so, I found myself exhausted, yet certain it was needed, critical in fact.
While we were back in worship, we were not back to normal and never will be.
It took me a couple days to process it all. I feel called to share the experience, for what it’s worth, not as advice, but in hope it may be helpful to some.
In any crisis it is critical to name and frame the challenges, yet also point to hope. This reality was the framework for my brief, pre-sermon (or bonus sermon) comments.
I shared honestly with this congregation that this crisis has caused people all around the world, perhaps for the first time, to simultaneously experience a shared, corporate grief. We are grieving all kinds of losses: temporary, perceived loss of freedom, loss of routine, loss of certainty, economic loss and more. I shared with the congregation that Covid-19 presents many challenges for the church, and we need to name those and rather than fight them, work with them. I mentioned that the old normal is gone and will not return. I pointed to the reality that God is speaking to us in this, slowing us down, showing us what have become idols in our lives. I concluded by noting that the greatest cost of this pandemic will be the toll it takes on mental health.
I then made a transition to pointing to hope. I put most of my time, effort and energy into this portion of my remarks. I shared that Covid-19 has presented many opportunities for the church and for followers of Jesus. I reminded these faithful Christians that God redeems all things. While God did not cause Covid-19, God can use it for good as he does all things: good, bad and ugly. I reminded the people of the power of slowing down and hearing the whisper of the Holy Spirit and that this crisis can be seen as a gift now and going forward. I reminded them that a new normal will emerge and that this new normal could be a more beautiful normal for them, for the church and for the world. I encouraged them to ask themselves what the Holy Spirit might be saying to them. I encouraged us all to ask ourselves what has Covid-19 made possible.
It was not my best, most polished oration, yet I know the Spirit was speaking because while I have thought about these things, I do not think I could have the wisdom, courage and clarity I did in that moment if it were not being directed by the Holy Spirit.
Many faithful, church-going Christians are desperate to get back to normal. It would seem natural to just walk back into church as if nothing happened, perhaps with different ways of doing greeting, communion, offering and with some masks and hand sanitizer. To do so would be understandable, but spiritually speaking might be a mistake. Scott Cormode of Fuller Seminary notes that as pastors and ministry leaders, we are to be ‘spiritual interpreters,’ pointing our people to the bigger spiritual narrative at play in the midst of the events of this world. For any pastor or ministry leader, there has not been a more important and critical time to take the time to point to the spiritual story at play than in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For all the time I have spent reflecting on Covid-19 and the implications for the church, I almost missed the most important thing. The need to create an honest, healthy, spiritual transition for the people we lead.
Rev. Dr. Marcus J. Carlson
Executive Director, Preparing for Amazement Ministries