Thursday 7 May 2020

Looking to the Future -- First Thoughts

As we look towards the future there is much which is not in our control. Not only the way the COVID virus behaves but the way individuals, congregations, communities and different levels of government respond. It’s impossible to establish a timetable for various stages. It will require an ability to take in all manner of different data points and respond. The more we find comfort in order and structure, rules and standards, the more disoriented we will feel. We could do an interesting theological reflection on whether it is more faithful for Christ’s people to be settled or moving. However, here we are.

A lot of the conversation focuses on whether the things we count will return to pre-COVID levels or whether we will need to adapt to a “new normal.” There are any number of congregations who have been financially surviving literally week-by-week. Any downturn in those numbers could crush what they understand as “church.” For all of us, however, whatever comes after gives an opportunity to shift our thinking from inward, to outward. Many congregations have worked very hard in recent years at being welcoming and hospitable. They’ve changed the physical appearance and the behaviour patterns. They’ve changed liturgies and times, music and apparel, to be more approachable. It may be time to ask whether or not that was working before life changed.  If it was, what do you need to double down on? If it wasn’t accomplishing what you dreamed of before, maybe now is the time to dream of different ways.

We can say that for at least the next twelve to eighteen months COVID-19 will continue to shape our lives. Governments and different levels of public health service will govern much of what can and cannot happen. There will continue to be the debate between reviving the economy and saving lives. Let’s not get sucked down that hole! Even as we watch with concern the dwindling finances of our churches, we need to continue to support the efforts to control the virus. There are clergy and congregants who feel that worship gatherings should be considered an “essential services.” This is by no means purely an American phenomenon. I think we need to ask, “what is the truly loving thing to do?” The clear answer, at least to me, is to not consciously provide a venue where my brother or sister has a likelihood of being infected. If we try to reopen too soon, we may place the more vulnerable members of the community in the place of making difficult choices.

I invite you to think about your community. What changes do you think will emerge from this period of physical isolation and often tragic news? How do you think your community will be different? What can your congregation’s role be in that new normal?
·       There has been a trend towards greater compassion and care for the marginalized. There has been new connection between groups that might have ignored one another. There is, perhaps, a greater sensitivity to what unites rather than what divides. Where can we nurture that?
·       How many images have we seen of people encouraging one another and assisting others, delivering groceries while honouring the two-metre distance? Have you noticed how much more connection there is when you’re out walking? From everywhere we hear: “We’re here for you!”  Sure, for some it’s just a marketing gimmick. But for some it has become the new reality. Can we keep this new sense of neighbourhood going? Can we forge new connections, make new friends, empower personal reconciliation and just public policy?
·       Almost every congregation is reporting numbers of people clicking in to streamed worship services that are higher – in some cases much higher – than their average attendance in recent years.  As I’ve mentioned before, you may want to look a little more closely at those numbers to see whether people are engaging or just clicking through. But, for whatever reason, there seems to be evidence that people are interested, compelled, curious about this thing called church. Maybe they’re on your mailing list but never attend. Maybe they came to a special occasion like a wedding or funeral. Perhaps they attend your annual suppers but never arrive on Sunday. The message seems clear. Make the investment of time, energy and money to increase those connections, making them more real and vital without necessarily expecting them to come to the church building.
·       Have you discovered anything about social tensions in your community?  Those who have jobs and whose jobs let them work from home may be inconvenienced by COVID-19. Those who cannot work from home may have been laid off or face the daily challenge of going to work knowing that they may bring the virus home with them. This includes not just health care professionals but many others, a significant proportion of whom are marginally employed and/or poorly paid at the best of times. Can your congregation – perhaps in cooperation with other non-profits – develop ways to address housing and food insecurity, other aspects of neighbourhood life. Is there a way to help sustain self-esteem by involving folk in contributing to the community?
·       This may be less significant in some parts of our Region, but is there animosity being expressed towards Asians in your community? Can you be on the watch for that and counteract it?
·       Economic recessions bring waves of relational and mental health crises. Couple that with being isolated in homes that do not always feel like safe and nurturing spaces. Throw into the mix a variety of unexpected and inexplicable tragedies. The result is a truly toxic situation which may find expression in abuse, violence, addiction, depression, and other crises of well-being. Physical and emotional exhaustion may follow from working a variety of part-time jobs or trying to keep a struggling business afloat. Add to that the sheer uncertainty of the times. Chances are that the various social and non-profit services in your community were already over-taxed before this crisis. There will need to be a greater response from congregations and ministry personnel to fill the gaps. That also includes attention to personal safety and an awareness of what situations may be beyond the capacity of our skills and knowledge.
·       What do you think the social-spiritual condition of your community is? Have you seen shoots of new life that the church can nurture?

Here are some things I’ve gleaned to help guide our planning. Of course, we will need to be aware of the situation in our communities and congregations. There may be announcements and directives from the Region or the General Council as well as decisions in the local governing body. And, then too, there is the likely but still undefined possibility of subsequent waves. We have been patient with this unusual and trying time. We have been well-served by so many in the research and health fields. We see the burdens on political leaders at all levels. We need to continue to hold them in our prayers.
·       Outreach will be vital as we face social challenges, but we may need to become more disciplined and focused, making hard choices not to do some good things so we have the resources to do the most needful things. That may force some tough conversations about pet projects. Coalitions with other non-profits will rise in importance so we can learn from their experiences;
·       Each community of faith will need to wrestle with its ongoing relationship to the internet. Every technology has positive and negative aspects and we will need to weigh those carefully on a community-by-community basis. If we commit to an internet presence, we will need to put the resources into interactive and dialogical modes and a clear understanding that “hits” do not necessarily translate into engagement.
·       The congregations that continue with a meaningful online presence will have to wrestle with participation in sacraments and other life moments. How can we empower people to join and share in funerals and memorials, weddings and other events? What does our theology tell us? What meaningful technological change does such a commitment demand?
·       Can we make online faith formation and fellowship activities increasingly meaningful, interactive and also confidential? What might this mean for equipping teachers and group leaders?
·       If we continue to use online meetings and offer online financial contribution options in response to continued physical distancing, we will need to make sure that those are as highly efficient as possible. Waiting for people to get connected or un/muted is amusing the first couple of times but gets old very quickly!

As Yogi Berra is quoted as saying: “The future ain’t what it used to be!” A good word for our next period of faithful preparation to follow God’s call anew.

c2020 I. Ross Bartlett 

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