What is the purpose of church? Does a building make us a community? Will we change anything about the way we organize ourselves when we reopen the doors of our buildings?
These are some of the questions I am wrestling with in our time of exile. I think COVID-19 has made some things abundantly clear. Change is no longer an option. It never really was, but we have often treated it as if it were optional.
The pandemic showed us that the status quo is no longer good enough. We had to leave the building! We had to think about church in a new way. How do we connect? How do we worship? How do we serve? We are still answering those questions, but I think we are further in the journey than we had been previously.
I think there is a desire within most of us to try to recreate the old normal when we return to the building. I’m not so sure that is the healthy way to do things. We have a chance to do something new. We have a chance to reorient ourselves in the power of the Holy Spirit to be the Church God is calling us to be.
We recently celebrated Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit fell upon the believers and the Church was born. The Church was sent out into the world because it was an organization for the people since the beginning. God didn’t create the Church simply to be about the people in the club. God created the Church to be a conduit of God’s love for those who needed to experience it.
The early movement attracted those on the margins — the poor, the disabled, the despised, as well as some wealthy folk. Acts 2 says that everyone shared everything in common so that no one was in need. The Church was an alternative to the Empire.
About 2,000 years of Church history has changed this. So often, including today, the Church has been the Empire or at least used as a tool for the Empire. People have been made to feel comfortable and given a sense that they are God’s chosen and are better than those not with them. The people and the Empire have used scripture to justify gross misuses of power.
The Church isn’t for the Empire. The Church is a means of God’s grace for the world. I believe it’s time for us to return to a kind of Church that is about extending God’s grace to all and not for seeking political power. It’s time for us to return to a Church that cares about the wellbeing of all people, not just those in our club.
Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest I admire greatly, recently wrote:
We see in the Gospels that the people who tend to follow Jesus are the ones on the margins: the lame, poor, blind, prostitutes, drunkards, tax
collectors, and foreigners. He lived in close proximity to and in solidarity with the excluded ones in his society. Those on the inside and at the center of power are the ones who crucify him: elders, chief priests, teachers of the Law, scribes, and Roman occupiers. Yet we still honor people in these latter roles and shun the ones in the former.
COVID-19 brought us an invitation to reconsider why we do this thing called “church.” It isn’t so we can form an insiders club, hold dinners, sing special songs, and be perpetual students who never become teachers.
We do “church” so we can be formed in the likeness of Jesus and then go into the world and serve like Jesus. We do “church” so we can be the hands and feet of Jesus together, knowing that the Jesus life is impossible to do by ourselves. We do “church” so we can be so filled with the Spirit that God’s grace is poured out in all of our interactions. We do “church” because we know God holds true power and is worthy of our praise.
Can we see this “church” thing differently? Time will tell. But as injustice for those on the underside of society continues we need to start hanging out with some different people. If the lame, poor, blind, prostitutes, drunkards, tax collectors, and foreigners followed Jesus and aren’t following us, we might have to adjust the course of the Church. Now is the time.