A friend forwarded me an article about changes in society – especially businesses – in light of COVID-19. I encourage you to read the article. It talked about changes in restaurants, malls, retail, etc. It talked about large chains versus mom-and-pop stores. It talked about urban, suburban, and rural circumstances.
And my friend asked me – how do you think this relates to the church?
Wow, what a great question.
I think the trends talked about in the article apply to the church as well. Or at least parts of the church in the US. Context matters of course. It’s dangerous to proclaim what will happen to “the church” with any type of authority. You are almost guaranteed to be wrong in some aspect. But then again, fear of being wrong shouldn’t stop us from looking at trends and making adjustments based on reality. It’s one thing to talk without any data or information, it’s quite another to take what you have been researching and seeing data and trends on and making some statements that have a foundation in reality.
I honestly don’t see the church changing much in rural areas. Change doesn’t happen quickly or have direct impact on rural areas. That’s not a bad thing – it’s more a recognition of reality. Rural areas aren’t concerned with being on the cutting edge of things. I think rural areas are designed to not be on the cutting edge. It’s part of the appeal for people who choose to live in rural areas.
The urban churches will change – because like their rural counter parts – they are designed to be that way. It’s what appeals to the people who are a part of the urban experience.
But what about the suburban churches? Hmm. They are more difficult to figure out. They are designed maintain the status quo in many regards. The problem is that a pandemic changes that situation. The greatest loss, in terms of church organization, will be in these areas I think. I could very well be wrong. But the suburban church is also where there is the greatest opportunity as well. Again, I could be wrong.
For a long time the suburban church has been resistant to core change. It’s really good at tinkering around the edges though. I think the churches in the suburbs that are willing to examine themselves and ask critical questions will survive and thrive. These are questions that cut to the core – Who are we? Why does this church exist? What is our mission? Would we be missed if our doors stayed closed? Why? What is our reason to continue?
The answers to those questions may require suburban churches to make significant changes in how they operate and function. It may mean letting go of long established things. It may mean giving more emphasis to things that have been around for a long time but have been ignored.
In other words, the churches that are willing to practice what they have been proclaiming for a long time will come through this. And what is that message? Life, death, and resurrection.
I suspect that the church of five years from now will look far different than does today, far different than it looked a few months ago. There will be significant death in the church. And it will be painful. We will come face to face with death. And we should. To really feel the effects of death. I don’t say that because I want people to suffer. I say that because we have been proclaiming life, death, and resurrection for so long that until now in recent times, I’m not sure we’ve really grasped what those words actually mean in a fuller sense. You can’t experience resurrection until you go through death. And death sucks. But death is not the end. It is not the last stop. It is painful to experience death. To be out of control. To know that what was is no longer. It is painful, but it serves a purpose – so that we can let go.
What needs to die in our congregations? In our churches? In our denominations? What needs to die in how we operate and function? What needs to die so there is room for resurrection? And when “it” (whatever it is that needs to die) actually dies, how will we mourn that loss? How will we allow ourselves to feel the sorrow so we can grieve?
It is only going through death, that we have room for resurrection. I suspect that the church is on the verge of really living into the proclamation of life, death, and resurrection. We are going to go through death of the church, or at least parts of it. It will be painful. Yet, that death will allow space for resurrection. God has promised this. While we want to get to the resurrection part right way – to skip past the death part – that’s not how it works. Even Jesus had to die before he could be resurrected. And the same is true for the church.