I haven’t been in a church building in over a year. The jarring isolation of the pandemic is slightly offset by my family’s Sunday morning online services, a shadow of what we once knew. I yearn for the joy of an in-person service, yet I know that even when we are all back together, it won’t be the same. Things won’t be as they have been before, too much has happened. At some point we will reconvene as a church, the people of God gathered together proclaiming the Good News of Jesus, but the experience of the past year has altered our perspective.
Proclaiming the Good News of the Messiah sent by a loving God to save the world looks different for each local community of believers. The Good News itself doesn’t change, but what it means to a specific group of people depends on their perspective of the world. The churches of the New Testament met in person and each had a unique perspective. These followers believed in Jesus and were empowered by the Holy Spirit. Their belief was both personal and corporate. Paul regularly argued for individual believers to take responsibility for their gifts from the Holy Spirit and actively participate in the body of Christ. No one sits on the sidelines. John’s letters emphasized the deep communal interaction of believers. As a fellowship, they were responsible to know each other and be known by each other. The Pastoral letters acknowledged the need for functional order in the household of the church. Members should be respectable and live as examples of virtue in society. Any of these may seem unhealthy if we lose track of the full dimension of church community. A church that only cares about function and productivity becomes a business venture. A church that is only a relational gathering becomes a social club. A church that only focuses on structure becomes a ranking system where the goal is more status. Yet, taking all three of these attributes together we see the people of God expressing unique gifts, contributing to the good of others, knowing and caring for one another, and living in an orderly and virtuous way.
As the Christian church today, we now need to filter our proclamation through the lens of the pandemic, protests, and insurrection. The gathering of the church to hear the Scripture must include a willingness to lament for our losses and repent for tragedies that have unfolded. Each of us is gifted by the Holy Spirit to contribute to our community’s journey forward. Together we must adopt a posture of learning and allow those who may not have led in the past to guide us into new territory. We must also make space for those who’ve experienced tragedy. They will never have a “return to normal” because the loss and trauma of the past year has shaped them into different people. It will require patient personal connection for the church to learn how to bear these burdens with them. We must also acknowledge that there has been an unveiling of systems of power in our society and the church must respond to these systems in Christ-like ways. This means not merely adopting socially acceptable behaviors but examining these behaviors and systems to discern if they are truly aligned with Christ, or if they are simply methods for maintaining status and control.
The church will always need to meet together to proclaim the good news. We are meant to be a corporate, physical manifestation of God’s presence on earth, for both the benefit of the world and for our own flourishing. Good news requires that we examine Jesus in light of the past year and allow the Holy Spirit to bring discernment to our communities. We will be changed through this process; we should not expect to be the same people we were a year ago. By meeting together, hearing Scripture, and proclaiming Jesus we can begin to see a path forward. We will have church after the pandemic, but it will never be the same.