I attribute my title to Pat Keifert, who has said this in my presence time and again the past few years. He could stop at “a pandemic is a terrible thing.” And it is. Think of all the ways it has disrupted our lives. I am particularly mindful of those who had family members die alone in hospitals, unable to receive visits from family members. But the toll goes far beyond death and illness. Businesses were destroyed and jobs lost. School children learned in isolation, separated from friends and teachers, and more susceptible to anxiety and depression. Our country’s already fragile compact was further strained over masks and vaccines. The pandemic is a terrible thing.
A terrible thing to waste? I know few congregations who aren’t reporting a decline in membership since the pandemic began. It is tempting to blame the pandemic for this state of affairs, but I think it’s less the case that the pandemic caused decline in our churches, and more revealed the fragility that already existed. The fact is, congregations of all persuasions were already leaking members before the pandemic hit. The losses were more gradual and less universal, disguising the fact that our churches face uncertain futures. What I think Pat is pointing to is that the pandemic pulled back the curtain on our pain, revealing the true state of congregations in North America. Faced with the truth of our situation, our options become clearer. We can live in denial and rush back to the familiar ways through which we were experiencing a slow but sure demise, or we could seek a new way of being and doing. We could shake off the lethargy of the “way we always do it,” and find new possibilities for a new future. Congregations that rush back to the way things were before, according to Pat, are wasting the opportunity presented by a pandemic, by a crisis.
Scott Hagley, in his book, Eat What is Set Before You, suggests that mission is always the product of crisis. This is perhaps a corollary to the oft cited line, “mission is the mother of theology.” The uncertainties of a given situation give rise to new ways of being and doing, which in turn give way to new ways of conceiving of God’s presence in the world. Hagley does a wonderful job of tracing biblical stories in which crisis and uncertainty led to new ways of being and doing, particularly his narration of the book of Acts. Crisis breeds mission to those open to what the Spirit of God might be up to. Hagley will be at our Fall conference, Streaming, Oct 6-8, to make the connections and implications clear. rochesteru.edu/streaming.
Were that the pandemic comprised our only crisis. Wars, refugees, racial tensions, democratic institutions at risk, climate changes and disasters, and mass shootings are but the beginning of the long list of crises that confront both our neighbors and ourselves. They are all terrible things. Are they terrible things that could lead to a new participation in the mission of God? We have no choice but to explore together the possibilities.