-By Eddie Hammett, church and clergy coach for CBFNC
The biblical model of church has included a ‘gathered’ community (ecclesia) and a ‘scattered,’ dispersed (diaspora) community from the beginning. Much of recent church history has focused on the assembled, ‘gathered’ community of faith that typically meets in an ‘institutional church.’ Such an arrangement has served us well until the last decade, and particularly the last month.
While the institutional ‘gathered’ church still holds a treasured place for many, now the ‘scattered church’ is emerging in some very useful, encouraging, and inspirational ways as our world deals with the coronavirus (COVID-19).
For eight plus weeks, most institutional churches were instructed to limit or prohibit large gatherings (of 10 or more people) to, hopefully, contain the spread of the virus. Some are going online with meetings, through zoom, webex or skype meetings, or streaming of services, or live on Facebook, etc. Such efforts to sustain the ‘gathered community experience’ is new and challenging for most, but appreciated by many.
In this article, I want to focus briefly on the hope I see from the emergence of the ‘scattering’ of church, in homes, communities, and a host of pioneering, creative, innovative expressions of caring for others, connecting with others and being present with others AS church.
These incarnational ministry design efforts are pushing and pulling churches beyond sanctuaries, synagogues, and temples to personalized notes via email or snail mail, ‘shopping angels,’ businesses planning for ‘senior only’ shopping to minimize health risks, and the list goes on. Such action is a pull and a push for many. Pain pushes, vision pulls.
I believe God is up to something new with the church and how we, as members, express our faith in a 21st century world. I suspect what we are seeing emerge through this crisis will change our world and church for decades to come. It may be how God is shaking things up to nudge us to RETHINK, REFRAME, REFOCUS & RETOOL the way we do and be church.
RETHINKING CHURCH comes when the security and safety of sanctuaries and temples were taken from us due to crisis. We are challenged to RETHINK how the people are the church and that the function and forms of church can be changed to be visible and encountered ‘as we go’ and ‘as we stay in place, beyond the sanctuary’. We find challenges and learn to create ‘safe and sacred space and place’ beyond our church facilities. Consider:
- How and where can we create such space in our families, our communities (with less than 10 gathered at one time), online?
- What does it look like to ‘create such sacred space’ outside the institutional buildings?
For example, our community has several medical and first responder personnel. They are on the ‘front lines’ and highly stressed now. I invited them via phone call to a small group gathering, on four occasions, as a place of support. It quickly became a sacred time (even for the nonbelievers). I asked: a.) How things were going for them now? b.) What support did they need from the community, each other, and those who cared? c.) How would they describe what is happening now, from their perspective or faith journey? WOW… did I hear and sense God moving! So did they. Several explained as we dismissed to ‘scatter,’ “Thanks, I needed this today. Can we do it again?” The journey begins again.
REFRAMING CHURCH has much to do with form and function too. The New Testament says more about the ‘function’ than the ‘form’ of church. Typically, when we think church or spiritual formation, it is often connected to a ‘program’, a ‘designated time/space.’
Now, some are moving beyond the predictable and expected, to the unpredictable, unexpected spontaneous manifestations of ‘God with us’ or ‘the Holy Spirit’ in our midst. We tune in more in-depth, we listen to more than a hymn or sermon by a few, to watching, listening to all that is around, to the context of the moment and how our faith speaks to, interprets the moment, the divine appointment or how something ‘secular’ has become something ‘sacred’ in a moment in time.
Our curiosity, openness, innovation, and creativity seem to be ‘unlocked’ as a crisis shakes us up and moves us beyond our comfort zones. We begin asking, ‘what’s beyond my comfort? what’s going on in my/our discomfort? what am I learning in the discomfort?’ Such valuable teachable moments, where we are moving to a deeper understanding and experience of the Divine and church. Learning to recognize and label what is going on, within the context of our faith, brings meaning to what often seems meaningless and routine while making the silence a powerful voice in our soul, our families, our communities. Learning to ‘PAY ATTENTION TO ALL THINGS’ is vitally important to people of faith as church shifts from ‘gathered’ to a more viable and functioning ‘scattering’ community that deepens impact and shows up with courage, creativity, and faith from our calling as God’s people! How do we show up in a crisis, AS church, and ‘BE a blessing’ (Genesis 12:2) becomes our drivers and guideposts?
REFOCUSING CHURCH again has much to do with ‘form and function.’ Typically most have been tied to an institutional church. As great as this is, it is limiting and is not proving relevant and practical for an increasing number of people. The “nones” and “dones” are multiplying as an indicator that many are turning away from the institution, yet still in search of God and spiritual formation. The refocusing is from ‘inside the walls’ to ‘beyond the walls.’ From a ‘spectator environment’ to a ‘player/coach/participant’ environment experience of church. Refocusing also moves beyond preserving the past to forging the future and engaging at the moment with God as paths to seek meaning, purpose, and vitality of faith, worship, and formation.
An example of this is a community watch party, via Facebook, television, or online of the new CBS series “God Friended Me.” A rich, provocative, and thoughtful 45-minute show filled with intrigue, deep social and theological conflicts and plots. Such proves to be an excellent platform for meaningful conversations one on one or online or small groups of those who believe or those who do not believe. (the key character, Miles, is an atheist, who has a podcast to ‘untangle faith-related issues.’)
RETOOLING CHURCH is moving from the predictable, comfortable safety of programmed experiences to courageously taking risks. Walking into the unfamiliar and unknown places that are ‘in the moment’ is a stretch for most. Still, a powerful teacher as God scatters us to make a more in-depth, more apparent impact on the pain, fear, hostility, and often hopelessness in our world. God is stretching the people of God to a deeper faith and walk with God. Retooling involves learning to ‘be in the moment’. We face the discomfort, rather than moving from it. Discerning ‘what God is up to now?’ (not tomorrow or Sunday, but NOW). Being in the present is key to an incarnational ministry design to live as Christ would have us live.
So often those of us, who were raised in and benefited from the programs of the institutional church, miss the ‘now.’ We often spend our resources (time, energy, money, people) on perpetuating the past, or pampering those in the pew today, rather than being in the now with God who is moving us beyond where we have been and are comfortable, to a place, ‘we know not of.’ We learn with Joshua, to pay attention to ‘every step I take’ now! (Joshua1:1-3)
Yes, our world is facing an international crisis that impacts us all in many aspects of our life and faith. Trusting God knows and works in and through crises to care and shape us brings me hope and encouragement. It also causes me to work on staying open to the move of God in and through our communities of faith.
Stand firm, be open, listen deeply and pay attention to creative thought, ideas and ‘don’t be afraid’ to embrace change. God is in control!
©Edward Hammett, Church & Clergy Coach CBFNC, Author of The Gathered & Scattered Church and Spiritual Leadership for a Secular Age. (books/Kindle version can be found on Amazon or through local bookstores) EdwardHHammett@gmail.com for feedback or discussion.