It had to happen, eventually. The health department here in Jackson County, Missouri, eased restrictions on public gatherings now that covid-19 cases are declining and vaccinations are rising. My Community of Christ congregation will resume worship services this Sunday. Inside the building, with people.
I’m not really enthused.
For the past 14 months I’ve enjoyed YouTube worship on Sunday mornings. Grab a cup of coffee, settle into a comfortable chair, and tell my Xfinity remote to connect on our Smart TV. All things considered, my congregation has done a pretty good job with both content and technical aspects.
It’s not just that Sundays are more relaxing now. It’s been a blessing for this introvert to skip the small talk that I’m told is an intrinsic part of being a faith community. My wife, however, is an extrovert who quickly grew weary of “video church” and can’t wait to get back to connect in person with everybody, especially for extended conversations in the church parking lot before and after the service.
With my first excuse sidelined, I suppose I could argue about the remaining health risks. Even with a second shot, I’m still at greater risk of covid because of the immune-suppressing meds I’m on for my liver transplants (later this month, incidentally, marks 20 years since those two transplants, three days apart, something of a medical miracle all its own). Ordinarily, that reasoning might be gold.
But balancing that is the fact that almost exactly two weeks after getting our second Pfizer shots, we drove 620 miles to Denver to spend time with our grandchildren, daughter, and son-in-law. We took precautions then, of course, yet it’d be a tough sell to say that a 45-minute worship service, with everybody masked and without hymn singing, would just be a risk too far.
And so it appears I’ll just bite the bullet and return to indoor worship services at church. That doesn’t mean I’m not troubled about “going back,” but just in a very different sense.
Like everybody else, I look forward to an end to this awful pandemic. Way too much death and suffering, especially because it appears much of it really didn’t have to happen the way it did.
In the meantime I keep encountering people pretending that everything between March 12, 2020, and now somehow didn’t happen–or didn’t matter. We’ll pick up where we left off, having learned nothing from the experience. There’ll be no “new normal”; just a return to the normal way things used to be. At least, that’s what some folks think.
This discussion could center on a whole range of relevant subjects: the pandemic’s effect on schools and education, health care, business and industry, politics, or simply making our way through regular daily routines. Let’s focus on religion, specifically “church,” however.
What have we learned these past 14 months? How do we view the regular, weekly practice of gathering in a building dedicated to that once-a-week experience? How much does it cost?
There’s the obvious cost of building and maintaining those church buildings. Somebody has to pay for the lights and water and heat (and air conditioning for many of us), along with a whole range of other expenses. Studies have shown that most congregations spend upwards of 75 percent of income on maintenance. Sometimes, much more. Whatever is left over (if anything) might get designated for mission, outreach, or service—or maybe just socked away for a rainy day. Funny how rainy days rarely come.
There’s personal costs, too, whether it’s about individuals, families, or the whole faith community. I’m quite sure I’m not the only one for whom Sundays are anything but a day of rest.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not against church buildings. They can be useful, practical, and even essential in many cases. My own congregation’s building (pictured at the top of this blog post) scores well on all three categories, I believe. I’ve often thought that, except for the giant cross on the outside, it could even be mistaken for an attractive LDS meetinghouse.
The building’s exterior is red brick. It wasn’t supposed to be that way originally. When the congregation was created back in the early 1980s, the name “Colonial Hills” was chosen, and it was assumed its new building would follow with the colonial theme: white, clapboard siding, steeple, etc. Missouri’s a long way from New England, not that it matters much. But one prominent older couple were adamant that a “real church” must be made of red bricks. Otherwise, nobody would recognize it as a church. If you’ve spent much time in congregational life, you no doubt have witnessed variations on that theme.
Through its first couple of decades the congregation grew, primarily because of an abundance of young children and teenagers. That alone attracted other families. As a result there was little need for active “missionary work.” While there was substantial support for what was then still the RLDS Church on a denominational level as well as Blue Valley Stake (soon to be supplanted by Central USA Mission Center), the congregation’s budget overwhelmingly reflected those familiar maintenance issues.
But then a crisis struck.
One Sunday evening in January 2003 a guy threw a brick through a back window, searching unsuccessfully for cash inside the building. We much later learned about his gambling and alcohol addictions. For reasons still unclear, he lit some candles (and quite possibly spilling some kind of fuel as well). By the time the fire department showed up most of the interior was gutted. All that fire, heat, smoke, and water damage meant just about everything inside would have to be replaced.
We began a long, arduous process of inventory, salvage, cleanup (including dangerous chemicals that had been released), and deciding what to do next. Another Community of Christ congregation invited us to share their building in the interim, which ended up lasting until Christmas. We faced some hard choices along the way: Do we merge our two quite similar congregations in one or two sites; sell the property (the Methodists next door expressed a strong interest in that) and either buy a vacant church building or acquire land and start over; or rebuild.
I think it was Winston Churchill who originally said to never waste a crisis. Anyway, after much prayerful consideration, we decided as a congregation that we should stay and rebuild. Something else remarkable happened, too. We took a good, hard look at why we felt God had placed us there in the first place, how we had fallen short in our discipleship, and committed ourselves to begin to look outward to the larger community we felt called to serve.
Within a few years we graduated from community events (Breakfast with Santa, Easter Eggstravaganza) to setting up a Necessities Pantry. In addition to providing things like diapers & toilet paper, deodorant & shaving supplies, detergent & hand soap, we spend time with the folks recommended to us by the Community Services League to see how they’re doing and what other help they might need from other organizations. We’ve developed an ongoing relationship with many of them. Well, that’s the way it worked until the pandemic hit, when we switched to a drive-by pantry. But in-person service is set to resume this month, as well.
The pantry led us to explore more long-term possibilities for community members in need. And so a separate nonprofit was set up that aims to provide housing for the growing homeless population in our part of the county. We have a builder in the congregation who’s come up with a new, lower-cost building plan. Another member is president of a credit union. We have existing contacts with CSL, Habitat, and a range of other nonprofits and for-profit businesses. Land abandoned for nonpayment of taxes will be the location of future houses. The $18,000 that was earmarked for youth-camp scholarships last summer (but cancelled due to the pandemic) went for seed money. It’ll take a whole lot more than that from us and others, of course, but we’re just getting started. Unfortunately, the cost of building materials has skyrocketed in recent months (another crisis?), so our timeline is pretty iffy just for that reason.
This plan could just as easily fail as succeed, or end up with something in-between or even totally different. What matters most, I think, is that we’re trying to translate “Love God; love your neighbor” into more than lovely words uttered once a week. It shouldn’t have to take a crisis to come to that realization, but sometimes it does.
About four decades ago my friends Richard and Barbara Howard rewrote the words to the familiar hymn, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine.” (Dick is Community of Christ historian emeritus and Barbara was a longtime Herald House editor, who I was grateful to work with up until her retirement.) These words strike me as appropriate as we begin to emerge from this global pandemic:. Here’s a video version. (This Methodist choir does a lovely job, although I prefer to sing the hymn more up-tempo.)
Now in this moment, now in this day
God is creating and leading the way
Life is behind us, life is before;
We write the story not heard before.
This is our story, this is our song.
Praising our Savior all the day long.
This is our story, this is our song.
Praising our Savior all the day long.
Past, present, future, joy, sorrow, hope.
We write the story, and life is its scope
God’s love assures us through the unknown
God’s grace sustains us, we’re not alone.
Refrain:Copyright 1980 Reorganized Church of jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (admin. Community of Christ)
- What can or will your congregation, ward, or stake do to move forward as we emerge from the pandemic?
- Is this global health crisis a speed bump or a fork in the road to which you’re called to decide and respond?
- Do you try to go back to pre-pandemic times or move out in faith?
- What’s your definition of a “real church” these days?