Over the past few weeks we both have had priest friends lamenting the, “demise of the church.” One is particularly striking. After ten-plus years of faithful ministry one friend had built a growing and active parish. It wasn’t a large church, at least not to our former evangelical ears, but our Episcopal priest ears were impressed. Now she believes her work is gone. She has not been able to meet since March. Her online worshippers have slowly dwindled. Few in her parish have pledged and they are preparing to let go of staff. She knows that after 6 months (more by the time this is over) people who have gotten out of the habit of church are not just going to suddenly rediscover the habit. She even said that more than a few parishioners have reported that they realized they haven’t missed church and don’t know why they would return. She is taking stock of her life, asking family and herself if she has what it takes to start over from scratch, or if she should try to do something else.
She is depressed because despite the obvious reasons for not attending in person worship, other reasons are taking the emotional center of the stage in the hearts of priests and ministers. She lives in a state where restrictions have been tight. They are now easing. She said the restaurants have mostly re-opened and the majority of school students are back in the classroom. Fall sports in her region are going strong with stadiums and soccer fields open but limiting capacity. Outdoor concert venues are even gaining a following. People are taking trips and planning carefully coordinated events. Despite all this new activity in her area her church remains closed.
She said the hardest thing for her was that everyday on her Facebook feed she sees parishioners share pictures of food at a restaurant, gatherings of people or pictures from their child’s game. Their activity does not bother her. She doesn’t like guilt and knows she is not the internet police. She trusts her people to be safe. She is really bothered because somehow what she does – what the church does – has been portrayed as more dangerous than all these other activities. The situation has sent her (and many others) the message that church is at worst dangerous and at best unnecessary, or at least more unnecessary than all the above mentioned activities.
The only thing that could be offered her was a listening ear. There are no solutions. We are both thankful our bishop has opened our churches, but it doesn’t really feel like we are open. We would both be lying if either of us said we had not at times felt the same way. Still, we encouraged her not to quit. Father Tom told her about the ice storm in our area. He told her how two people from our Parish came by his house with their chain saws the day after the storm to see if they needed help. He told her a few stories of members of our parish (one who was just out of the hospital) who were sitting in freezing houses, but that they now had warm places to stay because people in the parish had opened up their home. He told her stories we knew of people sharing food, or cooking warm soup for the homeless and working poor who eat at our Porch House every day. He tried to encourage her to focus on the good things that were happening around her.
The hardest thing about the pandemic is that it has forced us further away from each other. Slowing down was a good thing, but more division, more retreat into our houses to sit in front of televisions or phones was the LAST thing our already divided society needed. Tragedy or natural disasters like ice storms remind us of our need for the community of the church. The world needs people who love God and love their neighbor. We need people who understand the importance of self sacrificial love. These things are not optional or unnecessary. People do not learn to live with love and humility in a vacuum. They learn how to live in selfless ways in community. We need to gather together, to worship, to remind ourselves of this truth and remind us how to live the way Jesus lived.
For two thousand years, through prosperous times and challenging times, in seasons of safety and security and in seasons of distress, through wars, famines, and yes, even plagues, the Church has gathered. Sunday after Sunday, followers of Jesus have gathered together in cities and towns and fields to pray, to worship and to stand together in community with each other in the same manner that we do each week here in Shawnee. They did it because coming together is what made them able to live their lives individually with grace, mercy, joy and peace in a world that rarely knows such things.
We do not write this in an effort of guilting people to come back to church. Some of our folks are genuinely at risk in gatherings and for them we continue to broadcast our services so that they can stay safe. But for everyone else, we simply urge you to remember what it meant to you to be here, to be gathered together in God’s presence with this group of friends and consider joining with us again. There is something for you at church that can’t be found in all the other activities to which we have largely returned. You are missed.
May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Fr. Tom + & Fr. Mike +