Greetings in the precious name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We are beginning to acknowledge the fact that the Pandemic which is adapting itself into an epidemic is here to stay for some more time and we need to learn to co-sojourn with that and learn to be the post-pandemic church in practical and creative ways.
In Psalm 91 we read
Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honour them.
16 With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
This Psalm brings lot of comfort in times we go through difficult terrain. The Pandemic had its own share of pain inflicted on humanity and all of creation and now another brutal war is affecting the very fabric of human. Acts of a few are affecting the lives of millions of people across the world and that of the entire creation. We need to hold on to the promises of the Lord that the Lord will be with us in days of trouble and will rescue us out of it. We just need to continue to love the Lord so that the call to be the channels of justice, peace and love is lived out in and through our being the body of the Lord.
The Pandemic and the Life of the Church
The Pandemic affected the life of the church in more ways than one. The churches were closed down. Sacred spaces were redefined. The way church lived and conducted itself was radically transformed. The digital church offered semblances of an option. Being away from each other robbed the church of the essence of fellowship. Being the servant church had fresh manifestations when the world reeled under new needs. The connect with each other locally and globally was affected. Those were tough days indeed. Now that the situation is slowly changing how do we slowly adapt to the times?
From the Closing Down to the Opening Up
When the Pandemic made its inroads, of the many panic responses one was that of closing down and locking up. Like every other aspect of life, the church was also completely shut down. This was not an experience known to most of the church goers. Closing down meant that everything the church offered had to be suspended for some time. Studies around the impact of this on the lives of the people would continue to unearth several dimensions that we are hitherto unaware.
However, thank God, we are reopening. The restrictions are being lifted one after another in phases and the new normal is setting in. The process of opening up was phased. The people, choirs, singing, celebrations, coffee, programmes, events and the like are slowly finding its way back. But we must recognise the fact that opening up is not as easy as we think. Unless we theologically become more adaptive some of the aspects of the life of the church will continue to be challenging.
The common cup for instance is one such reality. Anglicanism in its essence was cantered also around the single cup. The Pandemic raises quite a lot of challenges for people participating. We offered our theological affirmations to tell them not taking the wine is fine or one person taking it on behalf of all is fine. We are clearly told for hygienic reasons intinction is not allowed and for theological seasons small single cups is not an alternative. When people ask “Why Not” theological debates become a discussion point of the pews. But how long can we keep the ordinary and the vulnerable away from the cup. This is just one instance of the challenges of opening up we will keep grappling with.
From Social Distancing and Fear to Coming Together and Trusting
One of the key watchwords of the Pandemic season was social distancing that was antithetical to the very essence of being the church. And when we now have the social distancing less insisted upon though recommended, we look back and see how this has affected the church. People who have kept away are slowly beginning to come back. But there are many who once were in the pews who are not back yet. The children and young people have lost the motivation of meeting their friends at church because they have not seen them for two years and the distancing that was imposed has created distances in relationships also. The fear of coming together is still strong in the minds of several people unless there should be compelling reasons and an extra ordinary inviting space that the church is able to offer.
One instance to note to understand the significance of this is the sharing of the peace. In many communities the Peace was the central part of the worship. Each person went up to the other shook hands or hugged and shared the peace of Christ that passed all human understanding. But with touch being restricted and gestures suggested to replace it, it was never as warm as it used to be. Now that we are opening up again the understandable hesitance to touch is in fact robbing the very essence of peace. There is fear still in the air. How and When will we overcome the same is a question that cannot be answered easily but we will reach there.
From the Digital Church to the Hybrid Church
When churches were closed down people naturally looked for alternatives and one that they found was to make the church digital. Despite the facts of digital exclusion and digital fatigue we must acknowledge that the Digital Church was a great blessing during the Pandemic period. People attended church in the confines of their private spaces. Zoom became the new norm.
But with the changing scenario we are reckoning with a new challenge. Can the church return to a non-digital mode anytime soon. Few people who cannot come to church for valid reasons say we are happy that the Zoom option is there. People travelling and people from all over the world are able to sign in. Complines and Councils have gone Online. The websites have become more creative and interactive. Bible Studies and Discissions are online.
While there is no denying the fact that nothing can replace the in-person fellowship it must also be recognised that business can go on as usual on line too. Therefore, the new normal would continue to be the hybrid version of the church for some more time to come. We will need to do meetings in Zoom and livestream the worship services and will have to do this in our new restricted ways which could be challenging. How will it affect the nature of the church is a question only time will answer but asking that question continuously is our responsibility amidst all these.
From the Defined Sacred Spaces to the Redefined Sacred Spaces
Religious Communities always tried to define sacred spaces. They tried to teach that God is more present in specific spaces than anywhere else and invited people to come around that space for worship and the people complied. But when religious spaces were inaccessible, they had to be redefined. The church very correctly taught that God is Where You Are and urged people to make their private spaces sacred spaces. Living rooms turned out to the new altars of worship. Dining rooms turned out to be the fellowship spaces where they shared a meal together.
And now the call is- come back again and some tend to ask Why should we? In several families worship and prayer moved out of focus and the habit of going to church no longer was a regular expected routine. Now to fit it back does not seem easy.
Children and the young people are as affected as the elderly and the socially challenged. The new normal should therefore not only be welcoming but also inviting. It should be able to reach out to people where they are and to rebuild the fabric of fellowship weaving it including people who are in the comfort zones of redefined sacred spaces.
From the restricted mission methodologies to the restructured mission plans
Of the several aspects of the life of church that was impacted mission was one key element. Restrictions on travel for two years made people ask a very serious question. Are all these travels and meetings in the name of religion and mission justifiable? Not just through the eyes of carbon footprints but also through the eyes of common sense. If what is achieved by several people travelling and meeting together can be achieved digitally then why not.
Restructuring was a word we kept hearing in aspect of mission including in the search for viable ecclesiological and missional models.
We do understand that we are because someone travelled someday and shared the gospel and planted churches. We are because of leaders who travelled and toiled in bringing us together. They talked together to save the earth and save humanity. Having said that we need to acknowledge that our mission focus and mission plan need now to be convincingly restructured to welcome the new generations to be participants in mission and in the quest to be the kingdom community. The new normal should also therefore continuously ask- how do we do mission best in the changing context.
To be the post pandemic church would be a challenge indeed but trusting in God we will embark on that continuing journey. The Pandemic was a wayside inn where we were invited to rest a while, take a deep breath and focus again on the journey. Baggage that can be shed should be left behind and this is important to be a relevant church. A new understanding of the route ahead and the destination is important to be the salt and the light in times like this. Therefore, let is arise. Let the vision group set the goal. Let the Worship group set the plan. Let the Ministry group get into action. Let the congregation join hands
Remember the Lord promises
Those who love me, I will deliver
Let us participate in the building of a community that loves the Lord
Rev’d Vinod Victor
Chaplain, Anglican Church of Freiburg
on May 1, 2022