Guest commentary by Matthew J. Skolnik
Whether your congregation is about to return to your church building with attentive safety measures or your elders have decided that now is not the time to open your doors, it is important to stop and carefully consider the meaning of the now ubiquitous phrase, the new normal.
As people of faith, when we consider what it means to have a new normal, we are not just talking about public health and personal safety practices. Neither are we solely focused on COVID-19 and its effects on systems far and near.
Rather, as we recall long-past eras when God was unfolding a new normal – such as the European Reformation, the Babylonian Exile and the life of Jesus – we remember that God does not do something new in a vacuum.
Instead, there is always a larger context of upheaval that precedes, motivates and surrounds divine newness on this dusty planet. My friends, this is where we find ourselves in the cycle of history. Most importantly, this age of newness goes well beyond our beloved mantra that we are reformed and always reforming, according to the Word of God. This period of reforming is much more intense and significant.
Below, I make the case for one aspect of our new normal as Presbyterians, as I consider our core goals which are expressed in the Great Ends of the Church, and as I wrestle with our immediate stressors.
Revisiting our roots
As God is doing something new among us, our challenge is to not get lost with the latest issue. In this case: How, or when, do we reopen? There will always be new technical challenges that distract us from what God is doing in our midst. This is especially true today, as the church is being reformed on the potter’s wheel for God’s redemptive purposes.
Currently we are beginning to more fully embrace a once-in-500-years reforming that has built-in opportunities to rethink and redesign how we live out our desire — to glorify God as we enact the Great Ends of the Church.
I recognize that some can only manage surviving ministry and life stress at this time. For them, our focus is compassion, care and encouragement. However, there are many across our network who currently have both the strength and capacity to help the church refocus our attention on our core convictions. For those who are able at this time, please lead with the gracious insight and bold actions. Now is the time.
Redefining our urgent questions
From my perspective, the primary skill that is needed as we offer ourselves to God to be reformed in a significant way, and as we are faced with the latest urgency, is to seek and ask better questions. Perhaps this is the greatest gift our seminaries have given the church. Our seminaries are wonderful at teaching leaders to ask the strongest questions we can muster, in the given context, and in light of the Scripture and our confessions.
Right now, the most popular questions I field as a presbytery leader are:
- How do we reopen our doors safely?
- When should we reopen our doors for public worship and other ministries?
These certainly are important questions. Yet, what does our tradition, such as our Great Ends of the Church, have to say about these questions? In case you don’t have the Great Ends tattooed on your forearm and written in the front of your Bible, this is what we have discerned to be the six goals of the church (F-1.0304):
- The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.
- The shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.
- The maintenance of divine worship.
- The preservation of the truth.
- The promotion of social righteousness.
- The exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.
With this in mind, I think it is extremely instructive to adjust our questions ever so slightly. These slight alterations often lead us to more beautiful horizons.
Considering our current questions of urgency and recalling our core goals as stated in our foundations, what would happen if we seriously ask the question: What are we reopening?
Common thought patterns are exposed
Without looking to our guiding convictions or the Scriptures, we are all tempted to provide technical responses to this question like:
- Our church doors.
- Public worship in our buildings.
- Ministry as we used to know it.
At first glance, these answers seem adequate. However, upon further inspection, we begin to understand that while these responses are necessary, they are not primary to our mission and to being reformed into the shape God desires for us.
Our common thought patterns, as expressed through these basic answers, lack newness and God’s restorative power. They lack any hint that God is wooing the world in faithfulness and love, and any hope that they could contain is absent. All the more, as we approach The Feast of Weeks this year, these thought patterns lack the outward directionality and the unifying Spirit of our first Pentecost.
Our common responses, as listed above, are temple oriented — when Jesus was oriented towards people. Likewise, they are institutional — when God seeks out the cosmos.
Without looking to our guiding documents, the faith we profess and the Scriptures, we naturally fall short. But we also know that God is gracious. May God’s grace motivate us as we find our own way while building relationships to fulfill God’s mission of restoration and redemption.
Rethinking the question
As I have wrestled with God and sought to serve better, as I have lead worship regularly online and have participated as others have lead worship in the digital sphere, my first realization as I consider the Great Ends of the Church is one that many have expressed. We are already maintaining divine worship (the third of our Great Ends).
Most of us have figured out the technical side of digital worship, and we continue to work through the adaptive pieces. But divine worship has never ceased.
If worship has not stopped, and if worship is merely the latest “emergency,” what is the primary and missing component within our common ministry?
Returning to the Great Ends of the Church
When we return to the Great Ends of the Church with this question in mind, we are immediately confronted with several issues. Let’s begin with grace and mercy as we start to poke at the first issue together.
It is a challenge to read the Great Ends of the Church without the first of the six Great Ends giving us pause: the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.
Over the past decades we have tried to make this Great End fit into our postmodern minds, but unfortunately, we have only weakened it in the process. For example, the best representative actions of this Great End that our denominational mission agency is putting forward are:
- Community beautification projects.
- Acts of compassion.
Are these ministries beautiful? Yes.
Have I worked as a local pastor to initiate and promote such ministries? Yes.
However, is this the best that we can do when it comes to the proclamation of the gospel? Is this Great End really reduced to actions that mirror what local elementary schools, scouting troops and rotary clubs do?
If so, we are irrelevant and we have lost God’s creative, life-giving and redemptive power. My friends, this is an issue that God is reworking within us as we are be formed again on the potter’s wheel.
What have we closed off to the world? The verbal proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.
I am not arguing that we should stop community beautification projects and acts of compassion. In fact, many among us can and should increase these efforts. Rather, the point that I am making is that we do not regularly speak God’s love to those nearest to our homes, schools, places of employment and church buildings.
Some will respond that we proclaim the gospel to our congregations or smaller gatherings. However, this assertion misses the point. When we mostly proclaim the gospel within our walls and wonder why no-one new shows up to listen, it is like one who speaks into the corner of a room under their breath and wonders why people at the party do not talk with them.
Can you imagine the ministry of Jesus if he primarily spoke in his local synagogue? Can you fathom the ministry of Paul if he didn’t climb Mars Hill? I cannot.
The bottom line is that we haven’t made much of an effort to proclaim God’s salvation for humankind in the realm that matters — our larger communities. With gentleness and love, it is safe to say that our national website is an inditement of us all. I claim this failure as my own. Please join me in this ongoing act of repentance.
Some practices to reopen the proclamation of the gospel
There are many factors that contribute to our lack of verbal evangelism. It would be helpful to inspect these factors later. For now, let us begin to address our shortcoming in regard to the first Great End with energy, intelligence, imagination and love (W-4.4003).
Shift the “audience”
For those of us who formally proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind from the pulpit, we have preached during various seasons of the year, at times of death and birth and at weddings. We have shared the good news before baptisms and as we have prepared to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
We take this work seriously. We do not throw a few thoughts together and simply stand to speak. We read, we study, we pray and we talk with others. As we do so, we carefully consider our congregations and their needs and struggles.
This is attentive and mindful work that is nothing short of a labor of love. But, with all of this effort, we almost exclusively speak to our corner of the room though we are attending a larger party.
One of the ways that I have been reformed during COVID-19 is through the fuller realization that we possess access to means of mass communication that our ancestors could not even imagine. One of the blessings of this time is that we have started using these technologies in mass.
The next step is to add opportunities that shift the “audience” from our congregations to our larger communities. We have amazing formats before us, from memes to social posts, and from documentaries to messages that prime hearts for the gospel.
Congregations, ask your pastors to practice speaking to you as if you had no experience with Jesus. Once they begin to adjust, encourage them to find ways to share this voice with your local community.
Pastors, work with other people who preach, and set goals like: I will spend half of my time building up the Body of Christ, and half of my efforts proclaiming the gospel for the salvation of humankind to the larger world.
Shift the location
Many of us are heartbroken that churches who open their doors in the near future may risk putting our most vulnerable citizens at greater risk of COVID-19. In addition, my fear as a presbytery leader is that our congregations will snap-back and once again become entrapped in the institutional model of church that is described by extremely busy calendars with little community engagement.
One way to guard from this very real tendency is to not go back to our buildings until we shift our communal and spiritual DNA to be in the world. Just because we left our church buildings around issues surrounding COVID-19 does not mean that we have to return to our buildings based on COVID-19 trajectories. God has disrupted us this spring. Why interrupt God’s redemptive work of disruption before we have been fully reformed?
Pastors, ask elders to list ways your churches can be more fully in the world (at the larger party), and develop rhythms of ministry that regularly and more frequently get you out of your building. Set goals as a session like: We will only gather in our building for 10% of our ministry time.
Shift the expectation
I was baptized in a Presbyterian church when I was just a few weeks old. It was a very elegant sanctuary, bathed in shades of white and red. The chancel was raised above the pews, and the pulpit was raised above the chancel. The pews sat in two long columns with an impressive red aisle down the middle.
The expectation designed into the architecture and built into the community was pastor-centric ministry. But our core beliefs and tradition teach us that we are a community that is made of a priesthood of believers. As we have professionalized the ministry, we have unfortunately and unknowingly subsumed ministry from the community of faith.
Now is the opportunity to empower everyone in our community to proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind. As we do so, we shift the expectation that pastors proclaim to the expectation that we all proclaim the good news of Jesus.
Elders, train, equip and ask your congregations to reset their expectations. Help them not simply come to a church building to consume religious goods, but to come to the community of faith to be strengthened for ministry.
Congregation members, set goals like: We will work weekly to build Christian community in our neighborhoods.
What are we reopening?
In this article, I have done my best to encourage the church to recognize the unique period of history that we are within, and to explore ways that God is inviting us to be reformed during this once-in-500-years pivot point.
In doing so, I have pointed us to the Great Ends of the Church as a guide to help us wrestle with God, ourselves and one another. I have also highlighted the first of our Great Ends.
If we are to continue on this journey, we need more voices to experiment and explore our first Great End. We also need more leaders to help us rethink and enact the remaining five Great Ends. These Great Ends are the larger context to the question: What are we reopening?
May you be blessed by these words and encouraged by their possibilities. May God grant you peace that strengthens your heart in the most stuck ministry environments. May the Spirit of Christ resurrect the church in this era and in a way that only God can take credit.
MATTHEW J. SKOLNIK is the general presbyter of Muskingum Valley Presbytery in eastern Ohio. He enjoys motivating mission, equipping leaders and encouraging the church. Matt has lived with his family in Ohio for 12 years, loves nature and laughs frequently.