Behold I am doing a new thing. Even now it springs up, do you not perceive it?
- Isaiah 43:19a
As we move into week 8 of the “stay at home” era of our lives, we’ve probably started to get used to a new normal. What were new routines, now become standard. The new ways of communicating, shopping, working, and learning have normalized. It is said that it takes 21 days (give or take 2-3 days) to break from one routine or habit and adopt another one. After this time the new one becomes the normal and we have certainly exceeded the 21 days for that to happen. This is true even of the church and the way we do things.
Eventually this lockdown will end and we will be able to gather for worship again. Just when that might be is still unclear - but that’s next week’s blog. But we shouldn’t think that church activities will simply go back to what they were prior to March 16. It’s not like we can flip a switch and go back to before Covid-19 became a household word.
When we get together again, we will likely still need to remain 6 feet apart. So do we rope off every other pew, use painter’s tape to mark out 6 ft. Spaces along each pew? The congregationalist / New England colonial concept of each family having a “box” in the sanctuary might just become the new normal. Redeemer’s sanctuary certainly has the seating capacity for us to remain “socially distanced” even with a larger than normal crowd. Coffee hours and chatting pre and post service in the narthex will probably not happen. Shaking hands and / or hugs will likely still be put on hold (6 ft, distance). Such measures will likely be needed until a vaccine is developed, tested, and widely administered or until “herd immunity” develops (the Swedish model).
Face masks of some sort will also become as common in America as they are in China. Even without an outbreak, most Chinese in the larger cities wear face masks daily. We will most likely need to do this too. How do you sing in a mask? I read an article from The Telegraph, a British newspaper, that said the Church of England is suspending all hymn singing for the foreseeable future. I guess singing allows “respiratory droplets” to travel further than speaking and masks may also impede congregational hymnody - though there is the one show called “The Masked Singer” which shows singing in a mask can be done. Music and singing our praises to God is a big part of what makes worship special for us. How we’ll do that in a post-pandemic world I have yet to figure out.
As for Holy Communion, I would guess the common cup is just out. How are we to comm-une (become one) while remaining socially distanced and making sure that the physical elements haven’t been touched by human hands? In the aforementioned article the Church of England is suspending Holy Communion until such time as it is safe to practice it again. Since they have a Calvinist concept of Communion as just a memorial meal (like an object lesson) without forgiveness, life, and salvation coming through the Sacrament, that might work for them. As we believe that the body and blood of Christ is truly (physically) present in, with, and under the bread and wine and this body and blood is “given and shed for you for the remission of your sins”, such a method wouldn’t work for us. Nor will the Roman Catholic method of imputed grace whereby simply seeing the priest commune can impart grace and forgiveness to those watching him do it. The Sacrament is the chief reason Christians come together for worship and it’s the central component of worship, so just how we will do this safely when we “reopen” is a tough nut to crack. Can the ushers keep folks 6 ft apart? Can we use individual cups and wafers as we do for shut-ins? We’ll see.
Over the last two months we’ve developed and are getting accustomed to many digital means of feeding on God’s Word. Zoom live stream services, podcasts, web logs (blogs), Facebook live, emails, etc. Have all been used to help fill the void left by the prohibition against meetings of more than 10 people. One person jokingly quipped, “There’s more than 50 people at Home Depot, so this week’s service will be held in plumbing.” At least we’d have plenty of pipes for an organ. But these digital methods can at least give us God’s Word, so they are well worth continuance.
But then the problem arises as to if these methods will take the place of in person worship services. If I can get up late, turn on my computer, grab an everything bagel and cup of coffee, then sit in my easy chair or sofa in my pajamas and worship - why would I ever want to go back to the old way? OK, I can’t get Communion through my smartphone, so maybe once per month I’ll show up for services. One parishioner commented that it was nice, on Easter Sunday, to simply put the laptop on the kitchen counter and be able to get Sunday dinner fixed as they worshiped. Is this going to become the new normal? For many congregations, especially those taking part in the Kairos network, live streaming a service from a remote location is already the new normal. Why get dressed up and drive and pay for a building when I can just stream a service or YouTube it at my convenience?
Even if we make all these changes so we can reopen, will people come back? As we are seeing in other states where restrictions are easing just because people can eat out or get haircuts or ___, that doesn’t mean they will. The memory and fear of this virus will be with us for a long time; for some it will be the defining event of their generation to date. Back around Easter time, a month or so ago, there was an article by Reuters news service conveying how the Christian Church was going to celebrate Holy Week and Easter without being able to gather for worship and other activities. One of the people interviewed was the Bishop of the Synod of New York (ELCA) who said that of the 135 congregations under his supervision, it was likely that 40 of them would not reopen even after the lockdown is lifted. The article also highlighted how many congregations were slow to adopt online giving and that without worship there was no way to pay the bills. The article, upon research done by Pew Research, estimates that 5% of Roman Catholic churches will cease to exist and 10% of mainline protestant churches will close - and that was if the restriction on worship was lifted in mid-April! Redeemer is certainly within that 10% of churches which may not reopen. If the church resumes its normal operations (worship, Bible Study, VBS, etc.) but people don’t gather and / or giving does not resume, then that’s it for us and for many other congregations. Of course, this is not a given, but it is a real and present possibility. The Church is people, and if people stay home, then there is no Church - it really is that simple.
Will online services and online giving and doing the work of the Church digitally become the new normal once we emerge from this pandemic? We will continue to get older and smaller and less effective as a community of faith? What is the new normal going to look like? We don’t know what the future holds - but God does. He will not forsake or abandon those He has called through Water and the Word. If He loves us enough to send His only-begotten Son to die and rise again for us, and this while we were yet His enemies, will He not all the more give us what we need to remain faithful to Him now that we are His children?
Next week, we’ll take a look at just what it would take to declare an end to this pandemic. But until then, may the peace of God be with you all.
- Pastor Brian
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.