Before the pandemic hit, the governing board of Old South Church had begun the slow, unwelcome business of exploring Old South’s future. With two buildings, and a shrinking congregation, we had important questions and issues to discuss. The questions and issues we faced (and continue to face) were ones that not one of us ever envisioned when we first became active in church life many years ago. Thankfully, we were not in a state of crisis, unable to pay bills and so forth, and that offered an opportunity to be thoughtful and deliberate, and free from a sense of panic.
Our pre-pandemic explorations were, of course, in-person gatherings, either at church or in someone’s home. As in-person gatherings, they offered certain things that we completely took for granted—an opportunity to eat together; to share space; to observe non-verbal cues (consciously and unconsciously); and to enjoy that sense of familiarity and trust that accompanies gatherings of people who have known each other for a long time.
When the pandemic invaded our lives, we put the work of considering our future on hold. But, with the lingering reality of the pandemic, we are taking up the work once again. And now that we have transferred these conversations to Zoom, it’s clear enough that we’ve lost something significant.
In our first big meeting to take up this work once again, I noticed several aspects of our meeting that I found unsettling: a couple of people forgot that we were meeting at all, despite the effort to organize a meeting when everyone could attend (I seriously doubt this would have happened with an in-person gathering, especially one involving food); with no shared meal, the meeting lacked a sense of companionship; on Zoom, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to pick up on non-verbal cues; and, that sense of familiarity and trust was diminished.
It would be nice if we could just put the whole thing back on hold and wait out Covid. But, I don’t think that’s an option. Plus, I’d like to take advantage of the new lessons we are learning while we are still in the midst of them. While Zoom has serious limitations, I’m still amazed at how many people have found their way to our online existence and have embraced this new format when it comes to worship. Surely, we are capable of significant “out of the box” thinking. We are capable of more than we think.
The road ahead is daunting. While worship has moved rather neatly to an online platform, Zoom group conversations over weighty matters is entirely another thing. And, to further complicate the situation, we are moving steadily into the darkest time of the year, as the virus numbers surge in our state.
Will we be able to overcome the challenges we face, it order to reflect on and consider how we are being called to be church, now and into the future? Will be able to find new ways to speak honestly and openly, trusting each other and forging new pathways of relationship? Will we be able to embrace new thinking, as we have embraced new ways to worship?
What does the future hold for our little church? It’s a serious question, and a profoundly unsettling one. Yet, we must acknowledge that we are not alone. Over the course of Christian history, countless faithful people have faced seemingly overwhelming challenges and obstacles. We are a few among so many over such a long period of time. And, we must also embrace, in new ways, the declaration that Jesus makes in Matthew’s gospel: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)
Challenges. Obstacles. Zoom. Jesus. So long as we stay focused on that last one, we’ll be just fine. No matter what happens.