Addressing a ‘Perfect Storm’
Along with racial, political, social, and economic unrest during the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a “perfect storm” that has buffeted Christian churches across North America, said David Fitch in an online presentation last week for Vibrant Congregations.
“What we have seen is massive cultural upheaval. I don’t think we understand how significant it is,” said Fitch, the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Ill. He is also the founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community, a missional church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.
“Everything we call church has been disrupted,” added Fitch, who will be the kickoff speaker for the Glocal Mission Summit, an online event scheduled for May 13-15 and organized and sponsored by Resonate Global Mission.
During the current time of upheaval, said Fitch, churches are asking, “Is discipleship over Zoom a good thing or a bad thing? Are we just going to pick up where we left off once COVID-19 is over?”
In May 2020 several groups that focus on helping congregations take fresh steps in ministry and mission decided that one way to help make this happen, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, would be through an online opportunity to connect with some of the best evangelical thought leaders, said Larry Doornbos, director of Vibrant Congregations.
As a result, he said, they created a monthly Zoom gathering called Church Now Conversations (ChurchNowConversations.org).
In February on Church Now Conversations, Colin Watson, Sr., executive director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, and Eddy Alemán, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, spoke about challenges facing their denominations. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of the book Jesus and John Wayne, will speak on Thursday, Apr. 8.
After sketching a number of disruptions facing the church in the past year, Fitch said there is no easy solution — “no magic bullet” — that churches can use to address the difficulties, ranging from controversies over politics to issues about racial strife and reconciliation, that they have faced.
“But I think there is this: Now is not the time to consider returning to normal. I think we have a unique cultural moment to ask the big questions,” said Fitch, author of the new book What Is the Church and Why Does It Exist?
“This is an opportunity to lead churches back to who we are and to realize why we are doing it. We can reshape something for the kingdom of God.”
Fitch suggested that churches, in rethinking their purpose and mission, consider what is said about early Christians in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Instead of focusing on beliefs and doctrine, although they are important, he said, why not do this — turn to and emphasize the ancient practices of the church?
“Think of practices that gather people into the living presence of Christ, practices that help discern what God is saying. Can we lead our people there again?” Fitch asked.
The God we follow is the God “of love, and not coercion,” said Fitch. “We can practice being open to God, who works things . . . to redeem us through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.”
Author of Faithful Presence, The Great Giveaway, and The End of Evangelicalism, Fitch coaches a network of church plants in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and he writes, speaks, and lectures on issues that the local church must face in mission, including cultural engagement, leadership, and theology.
Instead of thinking of the church as simply the place, or as the closed circle in which we gather for corporate worship on Sundays, Fitch told viewers, we ought to branch out beyond that.
Consider church as also including the sacred spaces in which we might meet outside of those services — the firepits around which neighbors gather, the backyard barbecues, picnics in the park, the neighborhood streets where we walk our dogs, and even our workplaces.
Also, look for church as you go among the homeless, the broken, the forgotten, the nameless, and people who are faceless to society. Look for the hurting, people who are living as shadows on the margins.
“Go there as a guest and stay there long enough to see what God is doing . . . because this is where God speaks to us,” he said.
In his ministry, Fitch coaches hockey to get to know the players, and he spends a few hours every Thursday afternoon connecting with patrons at a local bar. He also began an effort to establish what he calls “a house fellowship.”
Over a two- or three-year period, he invited a few members of his church, Life on the Vine Christian Community, to become part of a Friday-evening dinner gathering at his home. It took time for enough people to sign up, but eventually a group began to meet around his dining room table.
“We open with a prayer and ask the Holy Spirit to be with us as we eat,” he said. “We sit around and slowly learn to listen and talk to one another.”
They ask one another to reflect on such things as where they have seen God at work in “their suffering” in the past week, said Fitch.
Devoting themselves to learning from one another and praying and breaking bread, they have evolved into a sort of house church, he said.
And although this kind of meeting isn’t the answer to how all churches need to respond to the “perfect storm” that has battered them in the past year, it is an example of a way to step forward into the future by turning to the past.
“We start with the house fellowship and then lead from there,” said Fitch.