Still Living in a Shutdown World: Has the Church Gone AWOL?
We often hear that the life of a Christian is meant to be incarnational. As followers of Jesus, we are meant to be in the world, influencing others and making a difference, living a life modeled after Christ, doing our best to reflect Jesus to those around us.
Imagine a world in which we were forced to put this to the test, pushed away from everything that is comfortable and safe; imagine a world in which Sunday worship and small groups were off-limits. At one time this sounded unimaginable, but because of COVID-19 we have been invited to fully live out our incarnational faith.
Across Canada and beyond, church leaders began to scramble at the start of the pandemic. Our buildings were closed and empty, but quickly we were learning how to do YouTube and Zoom gatherings, trying to recreate the Sunday morning gathering—desperate to maintain normalcy. Yet it was evident that ‘normal’ was not going to be our reality, at least not in the foreseeable future. For this reason, many of us began to focus on survival, and we forgot our primary mandate as Christians.
The ‘new normal’ fuels its problems
Driving through our deserted streets, seeing building after building closed, I began to wonder if anyone outside our own membership had noticed that we were closed. As well as our in-person gatherings, many of our outreach ministries had been put on hold. How would we care for our neighbours in the midst of a pandemic? We began to see significant needs in our communities. Isolation and loneliness, which used to be hidden, became apparent—possibly because our extroverts were now forced to stay home as well. The fire of addiction was fueled by all this added time “to kill,” with sales of alcohol and other substances showing record highs, and with significant line-ups on display during the operating hours of these stores. But this is to say nothing of other more hidden addictions that operate primarily online, such as gambling and pornography.
As Christians, we shared memes that said, “The church is not closed, it is deployed.” Was this our way of allowing ourselves to be comfortable with this reality? We shared many platitudes, like “these are unprecedented times,” or “there is no guidebook for this,” both of which are true. When I read through Scripture and about moments in history, I wonder if Christians living in other eras felt the same way. Were they as tempted as we are to retreat to some semblance of normalcy?
God’s shalom for us
In the time leading up to the crucifixion, Jesus prepared the disciples for what was to come. Like us, when life became chaotic and confusing they returned to what was normal and what they understood. For them this meant fishing, whereas for us this meant replicating our Sunday gatherings. I believe the same words that Jesus spoke to the disciples are being spoken to us during these days—“Peace to you!” (Luke 24:36b)
In the midst of the chaos, confusion, frustration, and uncertainty, those words of shalom still have the power to bring life. Wholeness and tranquility from the One who breathed life into each of us continues to be extended in these days, just as it was to the disciples in those dark hours.
What is interesting is that as the Church, we are often not able to receive that word of peace because we haven’t been formed to receive it. Just as it is to our broader culture, that shalom is countercultural to what we understand. However, as agents of God’s Kingdom and bearers of Good News, it is our call to also be bearers of this shalom, and to be deeply formed by it ourselves.
And for others
Our challenge, now more than ever, is to communicate and impart that Good News and shalom to a world that has become indifferent. How many of our church leaders were asked to comment on where God is in the midst of this pandemic? N.T. Wright has written a wonderful commentary on that question, but was anyone outside our tents, outside our Christian circles, asking that question?
We are told that, statistically, a significant number of people still have belief in God, in some supreme being, or more commonly in a greater energy force outside of themselves. But those people take that question no further. Their lack of deeper seeking may suggest that they are comfortable knowing that something created them, but they believe that the Creator has since lost interest, and is simply relaxing on some cosmic beach. Welcome to deism, 2021.
As I walk through my neighbourhood, how do I share this Good News that I have received and the Hope that I have experienced? I believe now more than ever, we need to be equipping and empowering our people to be able to live as people of hope, to be able to tell our story, and share why we do what we do. It is not enough to simply be good people and hope that somehow people stumble upon the Gospel. We don’t need street-corner preachers. We need everyday people empowered to share their stories and to impact their neighbourhoods and communities.
Time to stand and move
I believe we have been given a freedom. Yes, the Church has been deployed. Are we willing to go? Or has the Church gone AWOL? Our deployment means wrestling with how we bless and care for our neighbourhood. That will look different for every congregation and person, because our resources and skills are different, but it is time for all Christians to stand and move.
Let’s begin by asking God to open our eyes to see where people are living in isolation—let’s check in on them. Call or email them to make sure they are being cared for. Kids are now back in school amidst increased layoffs—do they have the school supplies or food for lunches they need? In some communities, our buildings served as safe spaces for people to meet and eat. How can we, safely, continue to provide this? Let us challenge ourselves to be creative and find ways to safely offer necessary help to our communities.
We go because we are sent. We go, with word and deed, because people are searching for hope and connection. As people of Hope, let’s give it away. To a world that is still in the midst of chaos, confusion and uncertainty, let us be bearers of God’s shalom.
 Absent without leave, or, more formally, absent without official leave.
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