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This question in many ways has dominated the past 4+ decades of Christianity. While we typically give the answer similar to “the people of God” or “God’s hands and feet in a particular location,” our actions speak differently. We show up on Sundays to a building, we interact with God in that building, and we take what happens in that building out into the world. The problem with this is twofold: one, it denies that God exists in the whole of the world without our intervention and two, it devalues the relationships that actually make up the community that is the church.
In this time when we are struggling more than ever with how to be church amid unforeseen and unpredictable circumstances, it is worth looking at how we can become church in new and creative ways. We need to recognize that we have devalued the idea of church, making it more of a country club, a members-only business organization, and even occasionally a weapon in the world instead of being the open and affirming community God calls us to be. This often has happened not due to intent but due to our inherent desire for comfort. The church has been that source of comfort for many of us throughout our lives. A place (and a group of people within) where, when it seemed everything else was changing, we could refocus and ground ourselves. This isn’t inherently bad, but it points out that the church has not changed with the context around it.
We Have Focused on Place
We have focused on numbers, on large group gatherings, on spaces made for “worship” through song and spoken word. In making our focus about the place, we lost focus on how the church has changed throughout history, from small groups meeting in homes to small groups meeting in public buildings, from groups on the run because they stood up for the outsider to groups who protected and supported those who were most at risk. The very idea of sanctuary became known as a place of refuge or safety for those who did not have protection in the world. Yet when we think of who is safe in our sanctuaries today, we mostly think of ourselves. We think about how comfortable we are there, how we feel at home and connected to God, like on a power cord being recharged.
We are in a moment when large group gatherings are not safe for many, at a moment when we may be more aware than ever of how many people in this world are at risk from organizations and powers that be, at a moment when the church is being called to something new. Yes, many of us are feeling broken and hurt, lost and alone, separated and disconnected from our people and even from our God, but we need not look to just the place where we have felt healed ourselves. We can look to the people alongside us who are called to empathy, to new ways of building connections with each other, to new ways of providing support and care for each other, and new ways of connecting as a community with the purposes and ways of God.
We Are Called to Innovate
I look at so many things that have been created during this time. Some of them point us to what the prophets spoke of: rights and respect for those who do not have them. Many people are moved to transition from songs and words into actions and support of one another, and to seek not our own comfort but the reign of God where we all work to walk humbly, act justly, and love mercy together. We are changing and innovating within the church as well, refocusing our work as a church on the worldly issues and also on being a church for one another. We have small groups that have chosen to continue to meet and learn together and groups who have moved from just learning together to being more fully involved in one another’s lives even as we cannot meet in person.
The changes are happening. We are not the church we were, and we will never be that again. That is not bad; change is part of life and some of our changes were overdue. We now get to be part of the excitement of creation, the creation of new community, new connections, and new ways to understand and join in God’s work. We need to take hold of this blessing and move together into the discomfort and areas of growth so we may support one another and open our circle to all people in all areas of our lives and of the world.
Embracing God Regardless of Place
For God is not limited to a place. We only need to look at the story of Jacob to see what it means to recognize this and what happens when we do. Jacob is a scoundrel, there is no other way to see it. He takes advantage of situations and is left running from his home and family due to his actions. While sleeping he dreams of God speaking the promise to be with him, and upon awaking blesses the place where he is, saying that God is certainly in that place. But more than that, he recognizes that God is already with him and will continue to be with him regardless of place. God is already acting in the world. God is everywhere working to make all things fit even as we have worked to keep them apart. Now we are aware of how divided we have allowed our lives to become: divided from each other and keeping God in “God’s place.” Yet, in the world today it is clear that God is everywhere even as death and pain and struggles are at our doorsteps. We are called to be the community that joins this work and brings the connectedness of God into full view for the world to see. Amen.
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