We left last week on a bit of a discouraging note, but it was a reality that we needed to look at - the western church, in a time where disengagement is so culturally easy already, faces serious consequences from shuttering her doors. We have to prepare for the possibility that when we open again, a large number of our membership is simply not coming back.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
The history of the church shows that it is precisely in times like these that the church sets herself up for growth. Exponential growth. Because the history of the church shows that she has always been the one to take the lead in times like these.
When there were orphans running the streets and dying in the gutters, it was the church who stepped up and started building orphanages. When leprosy spread like wildfire, it was the church who built camps to care for them. When tuberculosis started to take root, it was the church that was building hospitals and taking in the sick. During the AIDS crisis in the 90s, it was the faithful were stepped forward to care for the dying. Over and over and over again, it has been the church who has led the way through difficult and trying times. It has been the church who has looked at the uncleanness of the world and said, "We will love through this. We will be His hands and feet."
Our culture is different now, and that makes some of this a challenge. In the west in particular, we are blessed to have societal structures (which were started by the church so many years and centuries ago) that are taking the lead. Hospitals are responding. They're asking that we just stand back and let them do their work.
Can we? Should we?
The very systems that we've developed and perfected and passed on to our societies as our blessed gift to them are now pushing us to the sidelines and declaring that this is a time for the "professionals" to do their work. All that faith stuff you want to cling to is cool and all, but this is a time for "more" than faith.
Is it? Really?
I think it's true if we want to say that the church is not going to be the one caring for Covid-19 patients. We're not. We have done well to train the world to care for them, and we ought to let it. We do not all have to rush out and get jobs in the healthcare industry or don our masks and gloves and barge our way into the hospitals to show our care and compassion and connection at this time.
But to say that we are now obsolete is a gross overstatement.
Because the truth is that our communities are, overwhelmingly, not going to contract Covid-19. The infection rate remains low in most places around the world, and the death rate, even lower. The vast majority of persons affected by Covid-19 will never contract the virus.
They are the ones who are stuck in their homes, isolated from the lives that give them meaning and purpose and a sense of direction. They are the ones fearful, not just of the pandemic, but of the panic all around them. They are the ones questioning everything they thought they once knew. They are the ones who are angry, who are bored, who are scared, who are alone, who are confused...they are the ones for whom life itself is right not entirely different than it ever has been even though it is eerily exactly the same. Most of our lives have not changed except in the ways that they have been forced to, and it is to the community of persons lost in the strangely familiar that the church will find her greatest ministry in this time.
These are the front lines to which we are called. In a rare change of pace, the church will define herself in these times not by how she cares for the sick, but how she cares for the well.
We are called to be the ones to care for the scared, the fearful. Whether that means being a sober voice sharing un-propagandized news or going to the store for the vulnerable and delivering a bag of healthy food on the front porch. We are called to be the ones scared for the angry, showing them what compassion looks like...by starting with them. We are called to be the ones unshaken while the earth trembles, maintaining steady steps on shaky ground and showing the difference that faith makes.
The media, the culture, says that if you're stressed right now, it doesn't really care. It says that if you're uncomfortable right now, then so what. It says that if you're frustrated, angry, scared, then you should be. At least you don't have the virus. Count your blessings. But these are soul-deep concerns. These are real hearts that are afflicted. These are real lives that are changing in ways that most humans, especially those without a solid foundation of faith, are simply unprepared to handle.
The church, who has built her history on healing, may be looking around right now at all of these state-of-the-art hospitals and asking, what are we supposed to do? We're supposed to do what we've always done - care for the most vulnerable and disenfranchised among us. And right now, the greatest need is not those infected; it's those affected. We can make our greatest impact at this point in history outside the hospital walls.
And it will be what we do in our communities during this time that will shape who we are when this is over.