Coronavirus: Helping bring about the future of the church?

By | March 10, 2020

Today’s post isn’t about abuse. Instead, it’s about the future of the church. Specifically, might coronavirus point the way towards the future of the church?

What does one have to do with the other? Possibly nothing. Possibly a lot.

Several factors made me think about these issues.

One was an excellent article by Cam Miller, an Episcopal priest. In Plan Your Escape, Miller talks about the importance of revisiting our dedication to creaky old church buildings, many of which throttle the church’s ability to conduct ministry.

Another factor was the news that more than 550 persons who attended Christ Episcopal Church in Georgetown are in self-quarantince. This happened because rector Timothy Cole recently was diagnosed as patient zero for coronavirus in Washington DC. Later, the church’s organist was diagnosed with the virus, as was at least one other person connected with the church.

Most compelling though was news of recent House of Bishops meeting. Originally slated to be held in Austin Texas, according to Episcopal News Service the meeting was held virtually due to concerns about the coronavirus.

Some readers may recall that this parallels my thoughts about the future of Episcopal Church headquarters, located at 815 Second Avenue, New York. A creaky old white elephant, the building consumes far too many church resources, despite previous general convention resolutions calling for the building to be sold.

But what is the value of meeting in person? Having worked very successfully from a home office while employed by AT&T, I learned that it’s important to be able to put a face with the voice on the other end of the phone. But that typically consisted of meeting internal clients a couple of times a year, having lunch, and getting to know the persons in question as fellow human beings.

To be fair, church is different. Christianity is a faith of community. Most Episcopal churches celebrate Holy Eucharist every Sunday, which of course cannot be celebrated virtually, at least given today’s theological understanding.

That said, for many years, things were very different. Morning prayer was the norm, while holy communion was only held irregularly.

That begs the question: Can things like morning prayer be held remotely? I suspect they can. In fact, young families might welcome the chance for their children to play without disturbing others. Same for things like Lenten discussion groups.

Young people might even find virtual services to be where the church finally meets them in their own space. Like it or not, young people spend much of their day on social media. Yet most churches have next to no concept of social media. Might the coronavirus be the shove that finally makes churches wake up?

Best of all, as churches learn to cut loose from the creaking, ancient buildings that cost a small fortune to operate, they free up money for mission. Suddenly, even small churches have money to spare. Instead of the building being the tail that wags the dog, the dog starts to wag its tail.

Would shifting towards a more virtual reality be easy? Of course not. Per the old quip, the final words of the church will be, “We’ve always done it that way.”

But the coronavirus might be the factor that loosens the grip of tradition, especially since most parishes are aging. Since persons over 60 are considered most vulnerable, and the average age of fatalities almost 80, folks otherwise resistant to change may be open to solutions that help keep them safe.

And if the church is to survive, it’s going to need to abandon its Madmen-era notion of big cars, big buildings, stained glass windows and in-person meetings. Instead, we will see more virtual meetings, a more robust social media presence, and a streamlined approach to business operations.

While I don’t believe that God is behind the coronavirus, I do believe that she can turn this situation to the good. Let’s hope the church is open to the lessons to come from this terrible situation.

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