For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.Isaiah 43:19
There’s a lot to grieve about these days.
Schools (at least here in Michigan) won’t be back for the remainder of the school year and all sorts of events associated with the end season of school (proms, graduations, dances, etc.) are not going to happen. Sporting events of all kinds are at the very least delayed but more likely not happening in 2020. People are out of work or their jobs are on hold and things seem very uncertain. And of course, churches won’t be gathering in person for a long time, and that includes over the biggest festival Sunday of the Church Year: Easter.
There are lots of emotions swirling about these days as we come to grips with all the changes that have been thrust upon us in such a short time. It’s easy to get swept up in fear and grief over all the things that we’ve lost or will lose in the weeks – and months – to come.
Thinking about the situation we’re in, I remembered a book that I read for a class in Seminary: Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity. There were a few points from the book that have really stuck with me, and when I picked up the book, I found a page that I had marked when I read it (back in 2016). Here’s the passage (emphasis mine).
Cyprian, Dionysius, Eusebius, and other church fathers thought the epidemics made major contributions to the Christian cause. I think so too. In this chapter I suggest that had classical society not been disrupted and demoralized by these catastrophes, Christianity might never have become so dominant a faith. To this end, I shall develop three theses.
The first of these can be found in the writings of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage. The epidemics swamped the explanatory and comforting capacities of paganism and of Hellenic philosophies. In contrast, Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen upon humanity, and it projected a hopeful, even enthusiastic, portrait of the future.
The second is to be found in an Easter letter by Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, Christian values of love and charity had, from the beginning, been translated into norms of social service and community solidarity. When disasters struck, the Christians were better able to cope, and this resulted in substantial higher rates of survival. This meant that in the aftermath of each epidemic, Christians made up a larger percentage of the population even without new converts. Moreover, their noticeably better survival rate would have seemed a “miracle” to Christians and pagans alike, and this ought to have influenced conversion.
My third thesis is an application of control theories of conformity. When an epidemic destroys a substantial proportion of a population, it leaves large numbers of people without the interpersonal attachments that had previously bound them to the conventional moral order. As mortality mounted during each of these epidemics, large numbers of people, especially pagans would have lost the bonds that once might have restrained them from becoming Christians. Meanwhile, the superior rates of survival of Christian social networks would have provided pagans with a much greater probability of replacing their lost attachments with new ones to Christians. In this way, very substantial numbers of pagans would have been shifted from mainly pagan to mainly Christian social networks. In any era, such a shifting of social networks will result in religious conversions…“The Rise of Christianity” by Rodney Stark, pp. 74-75, emphasis mine.
One of the things that I see as I look around right now is that Christians are beginning to mourn the loss of “normalcy” in regards to their worship life. We can’t gather right now and that stinks. For a minute it was fun – like a snow day or an unexpected day off. But as we begin to look at the reality of nearly 2 months without gathering as we’re used to, it becomes less fun and more trying.
What Stark in his book reminds us is that as Christians we’re uniquely equipped to deal with these sorts of problems in ways that the rest of the world isn’t.
As he goes on in the chapter, he reminds us that Christians are the ones who started hospitals to care for sick and dying. When the rest of the city fled to the countryside to avoid whatever plague had come to town, the Christians stayed behind and put themselves at risk to care for those left behind.
There are aspects of today’s world that are different, sure. We have greater medical knowledge and understanding of how these diseases spread and how to care for those who are sick and we leave that to those whom God has blessed with that skill and understanding. Loving our neighbor in the first centuries of the church looked different in practical ways from how it does today. Loving your neighbor then meant staying in town and attending to the sick where today, at least for those of us who aren’t doctors or nurses, it means staying home so we don’t spread disease to our neighbor.
We’re also equipped to bring hope in a way that the rest of the world can’t. As the quote from Stark’s book says, the system of the pagan world around the early Christians couldn’t handle the onslaught of an epidemic and make sense of it but the Christian’s faith could. Our worldview with the brokenness of sin and its effects on the world make sense of these kinds of events. They’re no less painful or worrisome to us, but we can see how they fit into God’s creation and how the hand of God is working to bring good out of something as tragic as an epidemic. The hope that we can and should be sharing even today in the middle of all of this contagious. (Pun totally intended!)
In my position as Pastor of Worship and Communications, it’s been a whirlwind the last few weeks as we scrambled to pivot to an all online format. But now that it’s settling in I’m getting more excited about what the future holds for the church.
In the last few weeks, I’ve seen more churches embracing digital platforms than ever before. At my church we had been streaming one of our services before this happened and now we’re streaming both. I don’t know about other churches, but we’re not likely to go back to just one and I’m betting others are going to continue to offer streaming after this settles down.
For years, we’ve been telling families that home is where discipleship happens and trying to help parents take up that role. Now that the home is all there is, we’re trying to provide guidance and encouragement but it’s in their hands.
I also believe that this shake up of the church in America is something that we needed. As we spend a couple of months doing things differently, it gives us a chance to imagine and dream about what’s in store for us when the quarantines are lifted. In this momentary pause of “normal” ministry we’re in, how can we regroup and reinvent how discipleship happens? What ministries have we been doing “because we’ve always done them” that we can evaluate and either redirect or leave closed to direct energy at something new God is doing? Digital ministry is here to stay. How do we expand and enrich what happens online to minister to people when they can’t be here with us but that also makes them want to be part of something more than just tuning in occasionally?
There is a lot to grieve about these days and plenty to fear. But it’s also an exciting time to watch the Gospel continue to do its thing and show us that it isn’t constrained by our physical limits. No, I don’t believe that the physical gathering of God’s people ever will or ever should be replaced or abandoned. But we have been given an opportunity in this shake up and it’s an opportunity to see the great things God is doing in the midst of our fear and grieving. Just as epidemics in the days of the early church helped it spread and grow, so too can this situation we’re in today be a chance to reinvigorate the church if we are bold enough to prayerfully follow Jesus’ leading and step out of our comfort zone into what He’s up to!