One summer during college I thought it would be fun to sew a dress for myself. I only succeeded because my grandmother intervened to rescue the project. Her generation still had a muscle memory for homegrown and homemade goods. I grew up shopping for what I needed. Our consumer economy trains us to buy, not to make.
This reality affects the way we engage our faith. Americans don’t look for a church, we go “church shopping.” We then evaluate a Sunday worship experience through the lens of customer satisfaction: Did I enjoy the music? Did I connect with the teaching? Did they have a good kids’ program?
These are valid questions. Pastors and ministry leaders ask them all the time. We care about how people experience church because we want to facilitate a meaningful encounter with God. We strive for excellence so that corporate worship refreshes the flock and nurtures their faith.
But sometimes our desire to bless becomes a desire merely to please, and we subconsciously shape our ministry around this culture of consumption. In planning a service or a discipleship program we are tempted to ask, “What do people want? What will they like?” with a greater sense of urgency than the question, “What do they need?”
No liturgical or theological tradition is immune to this temptation. There are consumers of all tastes, from incense and organ music to laser lights and fog machines. There are consumers of lengthy exegetical sermons and socially conscious homilies. Any form of worship can be reduced to a brand if we believe the lie that we are providing consumers with a product.
A Holy Disruption
But the pandemic has disrupted this model of church. Foregoing public gatherings has required sacrifice of everyone. Pastors have stepped out of their comfort zones to facilitate online services and preach to an empty room. Parents have wrangled young children at home during livestream worship. My tech-averse mother has learned how to troubleshoot connectivity problems on her laptop while she self-quarantines. Corporate worship has become a corporate labor in ways none of us expected.
The sorrow of our separation combined with the difficulty of virtual (or socially distant) worship sometimes feels like too much to bear. Most pastors I know fluctuate between concern for their scattered sheep and frustration over the impossibilities of regathering. Nobody—leader or laity—would describe church as “easy” or particularly fun right now. And as the virus continues to spread, it seems that this won’t change any time soon. We lament this. But this difficult season also contains particular gifts for the church.
Refining Our Leaders
Pastors spend a significant amount of time thinking about Sunday morning. The pandemic has not changed that. If anything, the constant changes and challenges of this season make Sundays even more focal. The difference is that we currently feel less confident about Sundays. Will the livestream crash this week? Will our numbers drop? Will the sermon be meaningful through a screen? Will people even come back if they have to wear a mask? These questions reveal how much is outside of our control. As much as we might want to, we simply can’t ensure a smooth or easy worship experience for people right now.
This is painful, but also freeing. It frees us from a false confidence in any “product” we might provide. It forces us to realize that our performance does not tether people to the Church—Jesus does. He is building his Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). As we grapple with our insecurities during this season, we have the opportunity to find a new and deeper confidence in him. We continue to do our best, but we remember that he is the best thing we have to offer anyone.
Discipling Our People
The disruption of church-as-we’ve-known-it is a loss for everyone, but it is also a discipleship opportunity. As we invite people to worship in ways that are unfamiliar or inconvenient, we can identify their particular sacrifices as part of the worship itself. This demonstrates that church is not a consumable; it is a community. The church is who we are, and worship is what we do.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes worship as the presentation of our bodies to God (Romans 12:1). Our present challenges provide many opportunities to offer ourselves as a “living sacrifice.” We sacrifice the privilege of being together in order to protect the vulnerable in our community. We invest extra energy to cultivate relationships via Zoom or socially distant gatherings. We give tithes in a season of financial vulnerability.
The sacrifices continue even as we regather. In the absence of nursery and kids’ Sunday school, we welcome young children—with all their wiggles—to listen to the sermon with us because they belong to the Church and to God. We agree to wear masks, or to refrain from singing, or to worship outside in the heat because worship is not about what we get, but about what we give.
These sacrifices do hurt, but in view of God’s mercy, we can trust that these sacrifices are also transforming us. They are shaping us into true worshipers, purifying our love for God and strengthening our life together. As we continue to grieve the losses of this season, we can also be expectant for the new life it will bring.
Bonhoeffer said it well:
“We do not know God’s plan. We cannot see whether God is building up or taking down. It could be that the times that human beings judge to be times for knocking down structures would be, for God, times to do a lot of building, or that the great moments of the church from a human viewpoint are, for God, times for pulling it down. It is a great comfort that Christ gives to the church: ‘You confess, preach, bear witness to me, but I alone will do the building, wherever I am pleased to do so. Don’t interfere with my orders. Church, if you do your own part right, then that is enough.'”Bonhoeffer, Berlin: 1932–1933, DBWE 12:480.
Our worship is our work. During this time of disruption it may feel small or uninspiring or socially awkward. But it is enough; and it may be the means by which God chooses to build us up.