The Bible is full of stories of people going through trials or challenges and coming out on the other side in a situation they never could have imagined. Abraham was called to go to a new land where he knew no-one and possessed nothing and was led into an unimaginable life as the father of nations. Israel went from the verge of destruction, through the Red Sea and into the wilderness beyond. David walked down into a valley to face a giant and emerged onto a long road to the throne. In the New Testament the disciples faced the death of their rabbi and emerged to eventually change the world. Paul, so confident about the road he was on, was knocked flat through an encounter with Jesus and it took years of walking a new road before he emerged as a primary catalyst of the gentile church.
Throughout church history this same theme has repeated itself. Trials have led to an often forced reimagining of what it looked like to be the people of God. Persecution in Jerusalem led to the good news of Jesus spreading out to the surrounding nations in the first century. Roman aggression against the church fostered dramatic spread of the gospel through the first 300 years of Jesus followers. Closer to our time, the oppression of people who represented "the church" helped fuel the Protestant Reformation and (significantly for us) the Radical Reformation, as the way of way of Jesus was rediscovered by faithful men and women.
Many have been observing the massive shifts in our world over the past decades. Even outside of the reality of church life, technology is transforming how people think and interact. (There were only about 44,000 TVs in the entire United States in 1947. In 2019 there were almost 269.5 million smartphone users in the U.S.) As we move through this current COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been forced to discover some of the benefits of this technology. Others of us are feeling the negative effects of only being able to connect online - both physiological effects of not having in person contact and some negative effects on us that come through too many online meetngs. (If you aren't familar with it, Google "Zoom fatigue" to find out why you're so tired after a long time on a video call.)
Churches are not immune to the shifts our world is facing. Some churches have embraced change and technology at a rapid pace. Others have avoided both change and technology with vigor. Most churches, though, have fallen somewhere between those two extremes neither pursuing change or fighting too hard against it. When change has been seen as an inevitability or as a necessity to remain "relevant" we've gone along with it. Sometimes without too much complaining.
But now, as COVID-19 has forced our world, and our churches, into a rapid change most of us could never have imagined, how will we respond? What will the church of tomorrow look like? What must we hold on to and what must we let go of to faithfully embody the community and mission of Jesus in our new world? This trial is forcing the church of Jesus Christ into a new wilderness and no one knows where it will take us. (To borrow from The Princess Bride, "Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.")
Although we don't know where we are going, let me offer two words of hope as we enter into this new world. Actually, it is one word - together - with two directions.
As we look ahead into and unknown future, let's make sure we keep our eyes up to God and around to each other. We'll make it into tomorrow - together.
P.S. If you're feeling alone as you read this, please take a moment to reach out for help. Message [email protected] or text 705-549-8477 and let them know you just need someone to talk with. Someone will follow up with you.