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#ItSeemsToMe...COVID Pandemic Exposes Church Identity Crisis

"The church is a building."

Not in the holy scriptures. Not to the earliest Christ -followers,

But the mind of everyone who hears or reads or speaks the word, "church" produces a mental image of a building. We go to church. We build a church. We meet at the church.

And this tragic truth is ubiquitous despite the reality that you and I know "church" refers to people; a "called-out" community of faith. This mistake persists even though we teach and preach that throughout the Bible, the people of God are identified as an assembly, a body, a family, a household. We the people, are the Church; not the building.

Yet, our incorrect use of the term has become indicative of the way we experience church. In a building. Watching a platform-centered program formatted by a select and very small team of experts. Persons gifted in public speaking, singing, instrumentation, creative arts, technology. An audience, often listening in a space called an auditorium.

Congregations are designed, regardless of denomination or tradition, to reset every seven days. Small groups may meet at varying times. All may be invited to a prayer meeting during the week. But a church that cannot regroup, face-to-face, on a weekly basis  has not been prepared nor does it have in place systems for connecting and communicating in case of an unprecedented emergency. Such as a pandemic that forces the closure of large group meetings or events for an extended period df time.

Church, as we know it, is designed for the members/attenders to be in their seats, not scattered into the streets. 

Our unprecedented virus-crisis is exposing how our understanding of the word "church" has actually become a description of how we function. In a building. Listening. 

My fear is many pastors are uncertain of how to shepherd the flock that does not return weekly to the room where they receive inspiration and instruction. I wonder if church leaders are rethinking how to motivate and mobilize the people of God without calling them together into a facility? Can we hope Christ-followers are daily, on their own, leaning into the spiritual disciplines of worship, prayer, scripture, service? 

Simply making plans (and there are plenty to be made) to merely reopen church, may actually be a step backwards. The desire to return to what was once considered normal, as comfortable as that sounds, may prevent us from an opportunity for "church" to "be transformed by the renewing of our minds" (Romans 12:2)

The Church is experiencing an identify crisis. We are in need of a new architectural-nomenclature that prompts an image, less on building (noun) and more on building (verb). Less on the meetings led by the professionals and more on the movements of the people of God into their neighborhoods and across their communities.  Form and function must expand. Systems and strategies must be reimagined.

The danger of this virus-crisis is no longer limited to a physical disease that is causing tens of thousands of deaths. Every sector of family and society are being effected: the economy (local business, national retailers, multi-national corporations), education (schools at every age and degree level), health care (from hospitals to adult care centers), entertainment (cancelled concert tours to social distancing at the movies to empty sports stadiums).

We are watching these sectors scramble to adjust in order to keep from going out  of business. In the process, they are designing different systems of operating, offering new and different options better suited to serve their customers or clients with radically different daily routines.. Curbside service. Working from home. Online education. Grocery delivery. Voting by mail. FaceTime Family game nights (with cousins across the country).

Staying in place is pushing us to rethink how we shop, work, learn, and connect socially.

My fear, is for the congregations that will be satisfied to reopen, hoping, maybe even praying, those who do return will be happy with what was.

Will we discover many people who identify as Christians unable to function without their regular Sunday gathering or weekly face-to-face group? Worse yet, will we see the disappearance of many who choose not to return to former weekly routines? "Done" joining the Nones? Have pastors adjusted by convening leadership (online or social distanced) to pray into the unknown new normal? Have the shepherds made personal (phone, email) contact with their members/attenders to simply listen to them share their needs and fears; their spiritual discoveries? Have church leaders called the church to weekly or daily prayer? Has anyone formatted their Sunday/weekend online service to include interaction (questions, prayer, interviews, testimonies), or are the people of God pretty much on their own?

May we not be too busy pursuing what it takes to survive at the expense of praying into what can be done in order to actually thrive. The Church is led by the Lord Jesus Christ, our redeemer. We must not be content to pray little prayers, begging God to simply help us stay in business. We should be thanking the Lord he can take what is meant for evil and not just make it better but turn it into a greater good. We should be asking the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts to new schedules and systems, objectives and opportunities.

To reopen without a fresh reimagining of what it means to be church quenches the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, who is  ready, willing and able to transform us to perceive our new normal as a new chapter in the mission and ministry of the Church. Five hundred years after the Reformation, we find ourselves in the midst of what may one day be called the Transformation.

None of this demands a revision of theology. Our biblically based beliefs remain intact, but with a renewed fervor to bring fresh discernment and wisdom to how we apply scriptural truth to our calling, our mission. For such as time as this, the Spirit may lead us to pursue a radically different vision, or to resume our pursuit of ministry but in a radically different way.

Our faithfulness to the scriptures does not demand an equally high allegiance to the methods we have used to live out that mission. In fact, to refuse to review and renew is the beginning of becoming mechanical, stuck on previously effective methodology, imprisoned in a comfort zone, at the very time we have the opportunity to build a "church" that is movemental.

It Is Critical We Commit NOW To #ReimagineCHURCH...

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One of the truly deep joys of my long life has been the numerous opportunities I’ve been afforded to teach and influence pastors. Over the last two months, while I have been writing Tear Down These Walls (2021), I have reflected every day on how my vision of missional-ecumenism has influenced everything I’ve done for over three decades. Just a few weeks ago a former student/pastor wrote me a letter that expresses what so many leaders face today. I share this (edited version) with his permission. My friend wrote:

Our congregation has been moving from online virtual services to live parking lot services the last few weeks. I am tackling all of the technical end of this since I do not have staff to do these things. It is exhausting at times. We have been stable for the last few years but the pandemic has almost forced us to sell our building and seek other venues. At this point we are staying where we are but we have been forced to do some sobering assessment. This has not been a bad thing. We have learned afresh that the church is not a building. While our property is emotionally valuable it is not the church. 

John, your impact on my life has been transformative and challenging. You started me thinking in terms that have moved beyond my sense of denomination to see the terrible fragmentation (disunity) of the whole body of Christ. This has been unsettling and life-giving. I now hope the congregation I serve will partner with a another congregation to do ministry. The other church is in need of a building and we are in need of partners to do the kingdom work God has given to us. We are a very old urban church but we are not too old to still dream. This is a slow process and the road ahead is not one I would have been able to walk 20 years ago. But when your eyes are opened to a bigger vision of the Kingdom, joined with a richer understanding of the church and the centrality of love for our neighbors, then you know you must be on the right track. For me, much of this started in my classes at a little seminary years ago where you taught me. That experience has produced some amazing and unexpected fruit.  I still don't have a real clear sense of where this journey is going even though it will be hard to walk. Thank you brother for speaking into my life when you did. And thank you for your enduring friendship.

I keep you in my prayers as well and follow you on Facebook. I've been using social media much less in the past few months, often finding it a difficult place to be. My own denomination is in the midst of a split, or so it seems. I have friends and colleagues on both sides of this divide and much of their destructive energy is vented through Facebook.  It is a deeply disturbing to witness this while feeling so unable to do anything significant to change any of it. Indeed, I feel utterly powerless. A decade ago I would have waded into these waters to do something, whatever that may have been. Now I pray and lament the situation. I continue to serve my congregation, as best I can, while wondering where all of this will go. Thankfully our God is faithful, even when we are not. I hope to see some forms of renewal emerge from this fire of distrust and pain that is burning in my deno

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