Church is not the building. We’ve heard that often over the last 18 months. But now that some congregations are back in their building, with the rest trying to figure it out, I wonder who will come back? And what will we come back to?
I have heard a variety of opinions around me, which may be a microcosm of many of our congregations.
My husband Keith is feeling like his spiritual life has dried up without opportunity to pray and participate in communion on a regular basis, in a beautiful building, using the Anglican liturgy that he loves. He yearns to return.
My parents love watching as many online church services on a weekend as possible, exposing themselves to sermon ideas and worship styles that they would never have encountered before. But they don’t feel they belong to any of them. Now they are looking to create their own faith community in their retirement home.
One of our adult children is involved with committee work that keeps her involved in her church community.
I have heard others name their pre-pandemic concerns about church become reason enough not to return to church now.
For me, much of my faith experience comes through song. I sing my faith into being. But I’m not good enough to sing by myself. I love the new hymnal, but I have hardly been singing for months now. When I finally do get to sing with others, I’ll dissolve into tears and be unable to actually sing. I can hardly wait to sing together.
And our pastors and worship leaders? Many are exhausted, having adjusted and created new ways of doing things over and over, like health-care workers and teachers. And now they worry about what they can do to engage “their people” and bring them back.
The bloggers, theologians and pastors who pontificate about what church will look like post-pandemic have opinions. The general agreement in Canada and the United States is that fewer people will return to Sunday morning worship than pre-pandemic.
The pre-pandemic trends will continue. White majority congregations will continue to get older and smaller. Congregations with primarily people of colour, often newer Canadians, will continue to struggle with how to adapt as the next generation grows up in Canada. What will the future look like?
I think that programs, buildings, Sunday services and doctrine/theology will continue to decrease in value for many people. Instead, there will be increased interest in relationships in community, connecting in a distributed, micro-church way during the week, sharing authentically of our experience of God with each other. What will the future look like?
Church is not the building. Nor is church the Sunday morning worship service. We know that. We also know that one can never go “back,” whether it is to an event or a community, because we are different and the community has been changed. We know all this, but do we really know this as we think about our expectations?
Church is the community of Jesus-followers, together building the Kingdom of God. Different aspects of church might include worshipful activities such as song and prayer, discipling activities such as teaching/study and mutual accountability, and public witness activities. As we “return to church,” let us acknowledge the varying needs among us. Some of us can hardly wait to sing or pray when we gather together again. Some of us are not sure we’ll ever make it back to Sunday morning worship, but that does not need to mean withdrawing from church. Let us be open to re-imagining church, as the Spirit leads.
Arli Klassen is a member of First Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ont., and serves on the executive councils of Mennonite Church Canada and MC Eastern Canada.