Luke Edwards

What is Church? An Essential Question For the Church in a Time of Social Distancing.

In a blog post a few years back, I stated, “One of the greatest contributions of the Fresh Expressions movement is reinvigorating the conversation about what church actually is.”

Over the past five years as a part of the fresh expressions movement I have constantly wrestled with the question, “What is church?” Can new forms of gathering in pubs, parks, and other public places be the church? Great theologians like Rowan Williams, a growing number of denominational bodies, and thousands of inspiring practitioners have all come to a place where they can answer this question with a resounding yes. With the rapid spread of COVID-19 and most of the country social distancing, the whole church has been thrust into a new reality in which this is now an essential question for all of us.

I want to offer some advice from my experience helping churches adapt to changing realities:

  1. Ask the Big Question:

Begin with the question, “What makes something church?” This is the fundamental question of a subset of theology called “ecclesiology.” Look to scripture, ask God in prayer, brainstorm with your congregation, ask your friends, consult your denominational resources, look up your favorite theologian’s reflections on it, journal about it, and then make a bullet-pointed list. Is there anything on the list that you could remove and still be the church?

An example list:

  • Proclamation of the Word
  • Sacrament
  • Edification of Believers
  • Outward Mission
  • Worship of the Triune God
  1. Adapt:

Once you have this list, start to think about how your church can live into each of these areas in the coming months of social distancing. This is also an opportunity to discuss what is important about each of these areas. For example, music is a great way to worship, but you can worship God without music. You don’t have to start practicing them all at once and it is likely that they will not all fit into one online gathering. Start with what’s most important and add more as you can. Think through what platform is best for each area. Remember that the digital attention span is shorter than the in-person, so think about making things shorter. Know that some essential marks of the church might not be possible while social distancing and that’s okay (ex. many traditions will not be able to practice the sacraments in good faith until social distancing is over). Work towards living into each area as often as possible, develop a schedule and divvy up responsibilities. This is an opportunity to empower the laity in new ways!

This is an opportunity to empower the laity in new ways! Click To Tweet

An example schedule:

  • Proclamation: A ten-minute message on Facebook Live every Sunday morning. A 15-minute Lectio Divina on Zoom every Wednesday evening.
  • Sacrament: Online communion via Zoom, an alternative like a Love Feast, or a conversation on Zoom with members about why your church will wait until social distancing is over to participate in communion.
  • Edification of Believers: Assign every church member another church member to call every week to ask, “How are you doing? Do you have any immediate needs? How can I be praying for you?” Small group meetings and Sunday school classes on Zoom.
  • Outward Mission: Shift Wednesday community meal to social distancing compliant take-out. Take a special offering for a local agency every month. Email local officials about your concern for marginalized populations in your town and ask them how they will address their needs.
  • Worship: Monday morning prayer on Zoom. Hymn sing on first Friday on Facebook Live. Record a testimony from a different church member every week sharing what God is doing in their life.
  1. Get creative:

Don’t be afraid to try new things with your church as you explore connecting digitally. You can use previous church calendars and orders of worship as an outline but be ready to adapt everything for a new platform. Failure is inevitable. I learned quickly this month that the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t work very well on Zoom with everyone’s differing buffer speeds. Learn from it and move forward.

  1. Be reflective:

After you try new things, ask yourself, “Was the Holy Spirit present in this? Was this being faithful to scripture and to my tradition? How can we do it better next time?” Talk to others about it and talk to God about it. I remember times early on in King Street Church, the network of fresh expressions I founded, when I would ask God the simple question, “Was that okay?” It always led to a fruitful time of prayer and reflection.

  1. Be kind to yourself and to others:

We are experiencing the greatest moment of disruptive innovation in society and the church in all of our lifetimes. Be patient and kind with one another as we wrestle with new ideas and practices.

We are experiencing the greatest moment of disruptive innovation in society and the church in all of our lifetimes. Be patient and kind with one another as we wrestle with new ideas and practices. Click To Tweet

The Original Fresh Expression

The early church spread in such a moment of disruptive innovation. In Acts 11:19-30 we see the early Christians, scattered by persecution, starting a new form of church in Antioch. Their church looked radically different from the church in Jerusalem. It was so different that church leaders in Jerusalem sent Barnabus to make sure they were being faithful. In verse 23 it says, “When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.”

The Church today finds itself scattered by COVID-19, unable to gather in the ways that feel most familiar, but the Holy Spirit is still working among us, the Good News of Jesus is still being proclaimed. Click To Tweet

The Church today finds itself scattered by COVID-19, unable to gather in the ways that feel most familiar, but the Holy Spirit is still working among us, the Good News of Jesus is still being proclaimed.  Remain true to the Lord with all your heart as your church adapts to this new reality.

Luke Edwards

Luke Edwards

Luke Edwards is the Associate Director of Church Development for the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church and a trainer for Fresh Expressions US. He was the founding pastor of King Street Church, a network of fresh expressions in Boone, NC. Participating in local, regional, and national levels of the Fresh Expressions movement has given Luke a unique perspective into the future of the mainline church in a post-Christian society. You can follow him on twitter at @lukesedwards or check out his blog Faithful Community at www.faithfulcommunity.com

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