In 1978, Walter Brueggemann wrote in The Prophetic Imagination that the church has become so enculturated and does not even realize it. In many ways Christian congregations are still the church of the Empire and not the church of Jesus Christ, or at least the church that those first disciples of Jesus might have imagined.
That is why I have appreciated the Catechumenate—that ancient-future process of preparing the faithful to live out their baptism—because the focus is on making disciples for Jesus not on making members for the organized church. How is God calling us to do that now? How might this current health crisis be a wake-up call to the church to recapture its original purpose of nurturing disciples to be “daily Christs” in the world? How might we become faith communities that practice compassion, reconciliation, and justice?
In my book Beyond Church Walls, I suggest that the church is not located in a building but rather out in the world where the people of God live and work and are in relationship with others. Certainly during this pandemic, congregations have had to live into that new reality that ministry takes place not in buildings but also online and in the world. In addition to providing online worship, some innovative pastors are offering weekly online Bible Study and finding more people—including those who are not members--have become interested and involved. They are searching for community, for purpose, for God's Word. Our son who is a pastor has also been doing online confirmation for youth via Zoom with students and their parents. This may be one of the ways the church will look different going forward. For nearly 20 years, my wife, Beth Lewis (a retired Christian publisher), has been urging the Church to use technology to spread the Gospel like Luther used the printing press. Maybe we finally get it.
Technology will not replace the importance of gathering around Word and Sacrament, of course. How that will look or be different is anybody’s guess. Some suggest that we will initially come together in smaller groups of fifty or fewer and that funerals or weddings be limited to immediate family for a time. But certainly God is calling us to rethink who we are as people of faith and what our mission is in this world going forward.
The pandemic is the "undoing" of the world order as we know it. One can hope that we might finally wake up to God's intentions for the world where generosity trumps greed, compassion is valued over self-centeredness, love rules over hatred. Perhaps this is the 500 year crisis and cycle that theologian Phyllis Tickle talked about in The Great Emergence; a time when God renews the Church for the sake of the world.