As I think about church and form, I am also wondering what form the church might begin to take over the next few months. I’ve been leading – and now attending – church for the past few months online. The church I served used Zoom, an interactive platform (though interaction in a larger group online is quite difficult). The churches I’ve attended all livestream or record to Youtube. While there is some interaction via chat (at least at the premiere) it’s more or less a “watching” experience. While some of the churches I’ve been attending have done a very fine job of this, I’m not sure it has long-term life, for me. Whatever its attractions as a short-term form, I’m getting frustrated with church as something that happens at home, in front of a screen, by myself.
I want to go back to church, to experience community worship. But… that’s a problem in a pandemic. A sister church proved, early in the pandemic, just how easy it is to spread the coronavirus in a worship experience. Whether it was the singing or whatever, more than 50% of the participants in a distanced gathering were infected, and to this day no one knows the source of the virus. Minimum due diligence would suggest we ask seniors to stay home, we sit apart, we don’t hang around before or after, no singing, no touching, wear masks… There may be something we can do together, but people have been abandoning our worship for decades now. Surely the answer to our problems will NOT be gathering to do a marginally satisfying part of what we were doing before. After all, we may be at this for quite a while yet.
My gut says we are being presented with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is: how do we do church in a pandemic, when the connectional things we want to do we can’t do?
But let’s not lose the opportunity. One of my friends (thanks, Ryan!) early-on suggested that pandemic protocols take us into the kind of psychic space that feels like a spiritual retreat. We are forced to be with ourselves; we are separated from the many things that normally keep us busy, distracted, that allow us to avoid a deeper encounter with our own selves, our souls, and God. In our mystic tradition, we have some tools and understandings that can enliven this kind of time.
We are in what I have learned to call liminal space here. Things are changing, whether we like it or not. But that also means, I think, that things can change. Normally, most of us are resistant to changing our habits, particularly cherished habits. At least some of those have been blown out of the water by this pandemic, and so experiments suddenly become possible, without some of the resistance that would otherwise be inevitable.
Things are also – how can I put this? – pretty real right now. There’s a pall of anxiety cast over pretty much everything right now. Anyone with any kind of an addiction is probably in trouble right now, with all this isolation. It’s easy to see the cracks in our society, our economy. People are questioning their purpose, their careers. Relationships may be strained. The gospel we serve claims to be good news for the poor, hope for the despairing. The situation we are in cries out for the kind of care and community that the gospel teaches and proclaims – if only we can find a way to embody it in a physically distanced pandemic situation.
What do you think? I can see gatherings – distanced, masked – in which we meditate together, for instance. More silence, but still an experience we share… And/or perhaps a move towards house churches, in which smaller “pods” or “bubbles” of people get together for personal and spiritual nurture? Still some risk, but smaller than the big gatherings. Can we be interactive and caring in other ways, in small groups? Can churches foster a different kind of economics, or sharing societies as the earliest churches were, to care for people who have lost jobs?