People, Property and the Lessons of the COVID-19 Crisis

This article is featured in the Growing Spiritually issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Worship and discipleship without buildings

The COVID-19 Pandemic began to move across our world in the first months of 2020, as we were completing our work on the relationship of people to property. It became apparent to us that this virus and its effect on the ways we were able to gather would have a profound impact on us. We were influenced by the work of Andy Crouch and his colleagues at Praxis Labs, that we were not in the middle of a blizzard, or ever a winter season, but a “small ice age.” In other words, the pandemic would have a long-term effect on changes that were already at work in our institutions and churches.

The profound and pervasive way that COVID-19 affects us is stark. It required social (physical) distancing. Public health authorities and governing officials in time saw the necessity of “flattening the curve.” No group larger than 250 can meet. No group larger than 100 can meet. No group larger than 50 can meet. No group larger than 10 can meet.

Churches were of course affected by and implicated in this. We are by design assemblies, congregations. And so we adapt. Some of the response is guided by judicatory leaders. I (Ken) asked that worship happen by livestream, and not in public spaces where we were in each other’s presence. In some situations across the United States there was defiance of this; this was both publicly debated, and at the same time it resulted in deaths.

Over time this became something of a norm across the United States. And so a reporter from a national newspaper called Ken and asked the question, “How will you have Easter when the church is closed?”

Of course, this is the question. "When we cannot enter into the building, is the church closed?

And so we are called to make the case: The church is not closed! We are simply called to connect with each other in new and creative ways. This involves live-streaming our worship, and in the weeks and months of the coronavirus, many local churches shift their core practices in this way. In our previous book on Fresh Expressions: A New Kind of Methodist Church for People Not in Church, we described the digital world as a “third place,” using the term of sociologist Ray Oldenrburg. Many churches would come to learn that more persons would be accessing their worship services online than their average worship attendance in the pews would reflect. The growing edge, of course, would be how participants would not merely watch the service but would enter into worship; and yet, if we are honest, this is our challenge when we are present in our own sanctuaries.

"Fresh Expressions of People Over Property" by Audrey Warren and Kenneth H. Carter. Order here:

We discovered in conversations with leaders that many seekers, who were on the edges of the church or who had turned away from religious observance, found it easier to access an online worship service. It felt safe to them. And in the best cases, they experienced grace and hope. One church in its online service included a piece of music by a very gifted young man who had grown up in that church, in Orlando, and had moved to Nashville. In many of our churches we lament the mobility of gifted members and leaders and consider it a loss to the community. In this season, and on that day of worship, there was a profound connection—in a digital world we have more proximity to each other across long distances.

Discipleship beyond our buildings

The church is a people, we have recalled, from the song we learned as children. And so, the church is wherever the story is told. For many years we have entrusted the church and its leaders to tell the story. We are now moving into an era where each individual Christian is being asked to tell the story at home. Many churches cannot afford a children’s director or youth director. Parents are now, once again, being asked to teach the stories of faith at home. This has become even more prominent in the wake of the pandemic. In many ways the pandemic has accelerated the slow movement of church at home.

In an earlier time in ministry, one of us (Ken) served a large church that often experienced a decline in participation in the summer. As the worship team began to anticipate the next summer, the conversation shifted from assumptions about gathering to how people could be resources where they were. And so with a focus on the Psalms that summer, a number of initiatives were undertaken—a daily verse went out on Twitter, in the morning and the evening. Across 90 days, the entire Psalter was covered. Individuals were encouraged to have a goal to read through the Psalms in the summer, as a way of deepening their spiritual practice. A poll was taken, and the sermons were from the favorite Psalms of the congregation—23, 46, 91, 139. Music was chosen to complement these texts. Two scholars were invited to reflect more deeply on the Psalms. Over time, all of us are adapting to new forms of discipleship.

Along with schoolwork at home, parents are also quickly learning how to teach the faith at home. First UMC Miami sent Sunday School lessons home to children with a supplemental tele-video call to assist parents in teaching the faith to their children. Parents are learning the classical biblical stories anew with their children and participating in the faith of the children in a deeper way than ever before. Most teachers would agree that learning at school is only as good as it is reinforced at home. In the same way, teaching about our faith is only as transformative as it is taught and lived out in the home.

In many ways, the pandemic is asking us to draw from our past. In the Methodist movement we know that Sunday School for children began with a desire to teach children who did not have access to education. In Sunday School, children would learn their ABC’s and 123’s. The Bible was taught to children at home. The Jewish faith has much to teach us in this area. Discipleship happens at the synagogue or Shul, but it is also taught in the home through meals and lessons for children. Fathers and sons and mothers and daughters pray each morning and each evening together. Stories of faith are not reserved for the synagogue but recounted weekly at a Shabbat meal. Possibly this is the great gift of our Jewish friends who have often found themselves displaced and having to adapt their practices and faith in the midst of crisis.

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