For the first time in quite a while, I’m surrounded by complete silence. Quite a strange feeling I must say. For starters, being Sabbath, which is usually my most people-invested day of the week at church. My wife is out serving in hospital, caring for the sick during this pandemic. I live in a busy suburban area in Pretoria east where there’s usually a lot of buzz around, but not today. Today I can hear the birds singing and I can almost feel Creation breathing, exercising its lungs with a level of serenity not experienced for some time. I must however be honest, I’m not used to being confronted with this level of stillness and quietude. While eerie, it provides the room and freedom to think and recalibrate oneself.
I’m a pastor and pastors pride themselves on being busy. We can’t fathom a weekend surrounded by stillness. It’s like a badge of honor we carry around with us that proves that our vocation is relevant in the world. The more time we spend away from our families and loved ones seems to somehow equate with faithfulness to the call of ministry. Late night home visitations and board meetings coupled with attending to ‘crises’ situations are tokens of glory we carry around with us. If we’ve missed our daughters birthday party because we urgently needed to attend to a conflict situation, at least we can say we’ve done it in the name of God. Yet, while we love our members, we love connecting with others and serving our communities, I think we may have forgotten what it truly means to put God first. How we’ve handled the Covid-19 [C19] pandemic so far, in my opinion, is symptomatic of how we and the church have generally approached ministry itself for quite some time now.
We’re perhaps putting the crisis before God.
In response to uncertainty, we default by finding new and creative ways to be busy.
Instead, what is needed right now is calibration.
To slow down, be less busy, reflect and to interpret events that are happening around us.
What drives us in times of crisis?
During times of uncertainty, we find consolation and comfort in normality. Long before lockdown came into effect, we found our normality in our packed weekend and clergy driven programs. With normality being threatened, members and pastors alike were left with some pressing questions—how do we worship now? Who’s going to preach to us? How do we do church in such a time as this?
It’s my observation that we arrived at this point because for some time now, ministry has been driven by a culture of passive consumerism over a culture of contribution. Even our weekend and Saturday messages often reinforce a culture of consumerism, even with TMI (Total Member Involvement) branded all over it—ironically. It’s the same format, but with TMI added for flavor. For years, we’ve told church folk that their place belongs in the pew during our weekend church services, camp meetings and evangelistic campaigns. This underscores a maintenance mindset of ministry driven by the idea that church is done as a series of programs that ‘feed’ members and visitors. If anything, our programs haven’t fed us, they’ve made us fat and void of proper nutrition. For years we’ve subjected members and visitors to monologue and clergy driven services that value expertise over collective experience and procedure over proactive planning. Since lockdown came into effect, we’ve gone into survival mode and reacted with a maintenance mindset where our focus is on pushing content online and making sure our members are fed. Instead we should perhaps be spending this time to review and rethink ministry as we prepare to enter into unchartered ministry space and not merely attempt to look busy.
Before you get carried away, I think it would be good for members to see their pastor during times like this. But has the pastor and church leadership taken the time to ask, reflect, pray and research the best way to engage and create community during lockdown? On a plus side, the church at large has responded quickly to replace normal programming with online programming, which should be commended. But has sufficient time been given to thoroughly think through the potential impact C19 will have on ministry in the way that we know it? It seems we are approaching the problem from the point of view that this pandemic will soon blow over? During these times, if church is simply viewed as another program with online content that people consume with like-minded friends, the outcome will always be to preserve the current status quo instead of pushing the boundaries of opportunity and possibility.
If C19 has shone the spotlight on anything, it’s the need for the church and its leaders to slow down, recalibrate and think deeply about the current state of affairs and what the way forward actually looks like.
What does it mean to be a pastor right now? An elder? A local church member? What role does a conference director play? Union & division? Most of all, while keeping members happy is important during these times, how do we use our new found platforms and skills to engage our broader communities in meaningful ways? Some might be threatened by these questions because we often feel a need to justify our need or vocation by pushing out content to make sure we’re visible. But now is not the time to look busy.
It’s a time to reflect.
Individually and corporately as a church.
Is Covid19 the catalyst?
Our church at large couldn’t possibly fathom a weekend with nothing happening. If Covid-19 has brought anything to light so far, it’s our insistence that worship must take place in the church building with a set liturgy and structure. Having observed on the sidelines how various churches approached the weekly service even in light of set restrictions on the number of people in gatherings reveals a lot about what we think about church and worship. In perusing some online platforms, I’ve noticed that many, with varying intensities, have sought to mimic the traditional Saturday morning program and merely copied and pasted it to the online and home environment as well, clad with church clothes, opening song, benediction and a full sermon to an imaginary audience. One live stream I watched actually had a pastor behind a pulpit preaching a full blown sermon. For a moment I thought there was an actual live audience based on where and how he would make eye contact with his ‘live audience’ and avoid speaking to his actual audience via the screen. Then the camera panned out and there was nothing but a bunch of empty chairs. While I’m sure the intention was good, I do wonder how effective such a formal and rigid approach would have been with church folk in general as well as the broader community not familiar with church jargon or culture who randomly landed on such a link. Furthermore, I wonder how our youth, sitting on their couches, half asleep at home in their slippers while eating ice cream during the ‘divine hour’ would have received such a message? Perhaps in another reflection, we can explore some possible solutions to this problem, but for now, it’s helpful to shed light on some things often taken for granted.
But for me, I think in the days leading up to lockdown here in South Africa, as a church we were confronted by a much more frightening reality than not being able to continue gathering in the church building. A series of questions have been presented to the local church, the local conference, union and division that have been enveloped by a much larger and more pressing question. That question, in my humble opinion, goes something like this;
What do we do if we can’t worship in the church building?
Who are we as an Adventist church if we can’t worship together?
Who will minister to us and how can we worship God during this period?
C19 is forcing society to adapt and change in ways never before thought imaginable—and faster than ever before. Overnight we’re reimagining technology in new and dynamic ways to connect with others, to market our products and to improve productivity. While we’re trying to ‘flatten the curve,’ by staying at home during lockdown, traditional structures of authority, hierarchy and thought are also being flattened. This flattening hierarchy of authority and thought will have a profound impact on the church and how we think about traditional church gatherings and structures in the near future. To best illustrate this point, I refer to an analogy. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to climb Everest, towering at 8848m, you would have to invest millions of Rands in equipment, time and specialists to help you ascend the tallest mountain in the world. Today, you can climb Everest step by step with a virtual headset costing you around R300. When I climbed Island Peak in the Himalayas not too long ago and shared this experience with someone in my youth they responded by saying, ‘why should I spend millions to climb Everest when I can do it from the comfort and safety of my home?’ The world is changing at a rapid pace, which will only be accelerated with C19. Today we’re asking this question around Everest, tomorrow we’ll be asking it of traditional church gatherings—why does it have to be done in this way?
This change will teach us to see and interpret reality differently as we are all products of our time. So if young people are asking questions like that about Everest, what kind of questions do you think they’re asking about the church building at the moment? What do you think they’re thinking about our church liturgies and traditional forms of church gathering? There will always be need for physical community, but I mention this analogy to highlight a shift of thinking happening all around us. Twenty years ago, the only way to bring down a regime, dictator or public figure was through protest and riot—today, someone as powerful and lofty as Harvey Weinstein was brought down by a hashtag compiled by someone sitting on their couch. Society no longer operates in a closed system grounded in hierarchical structures of authority, power and exclusivity. Brand loyalty is a thing of the past in an age that promotes itself as anti-institutional and who values creating its own rules and benchmarks.
It would therefore be foolish of the church to dismiss C19 as a common cold that’s merely serving as a temporary disruption to the status quo. Events of this magnitude always have a way of impacting the broader cultural consciousness, for better or for worse. While the church seems to be simply waiting for this to pass and go back to normal, society itself is already using this as a catalyst to move into the future. The post-pandemic age that awaits will be vastly different to the one we currently occupy. If we’re not careful as a church, we will find ourselves going back to a time, place and culture that has since become extinct.
Only those who are able to name reality are able to speak to it.
So, will this pandemic be the catalyst that powers the church into a new era with a renewed approach to ministry? Or is maintaining the status quo the order or priority?
Time will tell.