Indeed, the past year has been one of much loss, grief, and pain. Challenges in identity, community, ministry. Please forgive me getting this out after the year has rolled over. These reflections have been a long time coming. Longer than most of my posts here. I’m sure we’ll still be processing for many years to come, but as we’re looking forward with hope in 2021, I do believe that this past year has been deeply revelatory and forming for us as a community.
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a friend from another church. He was telling me about an end of the-year “think tank” of sorts between different church leaders on how to adjust and improve Sunday Worship via Zoom. He shared lots of ideas from that gathering: thoughts on music, streamlined processes, different uses of technology, etc. Surely this year has been one where we’ve been forced to adapt so it was encouraging to hear that these fellow church leaders were constantly innovating. But the more I considered these ideas and our church community, the more deeply I began to appreciate the ways God has sustained us as we are; that the big draw for our church wasn’t our polish in worship service. It wasn’t quality of the sermons or the music (even though I think we are faithful to the gospel and have great song leaders in our church!). What ultimately kept our people together was not any gimmick or good that we were broadcasting over Zoom; it was the people.
PC: Uncle Sam
PC: Treyton Moy
Though we did not have true foresight when we decided on our Sunday Service format in March 2020, I’m grateful that every single week since lockdown, our Sunday Service has been live. Our church is not primarily an organization that produces goods for people to consume; we are the good, imperfections and all. I don’t think any of our worship presiders is exaggerating when we say our favorite part of Sunday Service is the brief, chaotic, period when everyone unmutes their mics and greets one another. We’re not listening to a recording. We’re not consuming a good. The church — the people of God — are engaged in something beautiful and sacred… together.
I had these thoughts in mind when I was giving the sermon during our last Sunday Service of 2020, when all of a sudden my Internet cut out (2020 must’ve thought, “this is my last chance. now or never to disrupt their service!”). If I were a pre-recorded sermon, it would be so easy for our church members to check out and “switch the channel” to another church service. If the sermon was just a good to be consumed, then that would make sense! Somehow in that moment, while no one in the church could hear me… but I was able to hear everyone else! I heard the awkward silence as people were hoping for my Internet not be “unstable” (as Zoom would soon inform me). And soon the Spirit got to work, hold us together. There were no changes to the number of participants — no one checked out. And, Rob led the church to pray for my connection. I was back in a few minutes, preaching the remainder from my building’s stairwell — motion-sensor lights triggering on and off every 2 minutes and all. What a wonderful experience to see the church together in an unexpected moment of testing.
Grace in Community
Not only in our formal gatherings on Sunday, but what an encouragement to see the life of our church extend beyond our Sunday Service. From engaging in Q&A in our brief Bible studies that I’ve affectionately called “Three Pastors Walk into a Bar” to the song leaders in our church giving of their time and energy to encourage the church through InstaLive praise sessions in the middle of the week to encourage our congregation through some of the darkest months of the pandemic, I’m proud to be part of this community. And no reflection on our church community this year would be complete without mentioning the daily — yes, daily — video posts by one member of our community to lighten the mood and bring joy to our lives through reviews of garden tools, tours of semi-empty public spaces, Billy on the Street-esque encounters with people on the street, live drive-bys to see holiday home decorations, and oh so much more! You know who you are. You’ve left a mark on my memories of this year.
I’m also grateful for how the Spirit has been doing this very same work in our community groups (CGs). Our CG Leaders really stuck it out in keeping our church community connected and together. I’m am so grateful for their commitment to gathering and meeting (virtually!) when the shock of Zoom fatigue was high for all of us. Our community groups also engaged in some difficult conversations — many of which we are still processing and working through now. Different stories and histories on race. Different perspectives on politics and policy. Conversation topics which have divided our public spaces and threatened to divide us in our church community. I believe it was the grace of God and the presence and power of the Spirit that enabled us to weather the many difficult storms together, bearing with one another in love. One of our CG leaders shared with me that it was their grounding in Christ and the established love and fellowship between their group members that gave their group the confidence to engage in divisive topics and in so doing stretch and build one another in love and compassion. We’re far from perfection on this, but this year has taught me that the people of our church are not one homogenous block. We don’t always see eye to eye. But God has called us his own and our striving for unity in diversity is a testament to his Spirit at work in us. He’s working still and we depend on him still.
Because of our need of him was more strongly accented this year, the season of Advent took on a different tone. There was a need that we acknowledged not only in our minds — with our theology — and not only with our eyes — in all the corruption we could see around us — but a desperation that we could collectively feel in our gut. Our world is broken. We are broken. And we need a savior. Our theme for Christmas as we closed out the year together was “What does Emmanuel, ‘God with us,’ mean to you this year?” And the response from the church, testifying to God’s presence with us through this year, affirmed God’s promise: that he will never leave us nor forsake us. Various members of our church submitted testimony and videos. Bakers making cookies for our covid-19-adapted cookie swap. Artists sent in beautiful expressions of longing and hope. Musicians and readers lent their voices to retell the story of the birth of Christ through scripture and song. In many ways, our Christmas Eve Service was our culminating testimony of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to us when everything else in the world seemed uncertain.
This year has affirmed to us that God is ever with us most tangibly through the gift of his body, the church. This past year has forced us to slow down and see one another more fully, not for our gifts or talents, nor for the goods we can produce, but because God has bound us together in love through his Son. It is my hope that as we move forward together in 2021, we will cherish one another more and that this practiced gospel love will spread will be our testimony to the world that the Spirit indeed dwells with us.