Back in the days of going to church in an actual church building I used to comment to my husband, after some—not all—services, “That was good church.” What I usually meant was that some aspect, or some combination of the singing, sermon, and sharing during the worship service left me with a warm glow of inspiration.
I counted on but seldom gave credit to the thing that has really kept me going to church all these years, which is community. The “fellowship of the believers.”
My church is now meeting in person, masked, distanced, and outdoors every other week in good weather. The other weeks we have nicely put-together video worship services and Zoom prayer-and-sharing sessions. These encounters are good, even essential, but they seldom produce the warm glow. Nevertheless, I feel like the pandemic is teaching us all something about what makes for “good church.” It is both testing the strength and revealing the importance of that other aspect, which has been a foundation of my religious tradition and my particular congregation.
We Mennonites are not big on rites and rituals. I sympathize with those whose religious experience centers on such rites, administered in certain ways in certain places. As the archbishop of San Francisco laments, the rules of pandemic may be hampering religious freedom if such practices are the center of your faith (“Americans’ right to worship is being denied by governments. I won’t be silent anymore.” Washington Post, September 16.) Mennonites may feel the loss of singing together in four-part harmony in reverberating sanctuaries, but it’s not a life-and-death matter.
Community, though. That is, for us, a life-and-death matter–living out, together, our quest for and sense of God’s purpose in the world. And I am finding that community has become even more important and just as accessible in this time of limited face-to-face encounters. Perhaps it is because many community-building practices such as intimacy, mutual care, shared purpose, and loyalty can be carried out any number of ways.
Intimacy. We used to share food in monthly potlucks and catch up with each other in conversations over coffee between the worship service and education hour. We used to share matters for prayer at the end of the service. Now we do Zoom sharing and prayer sessions in the off weeks, and these are followed by randomized breakout groups. It seems like people feel a bit freer to share joys and concerns over Zoom than they do when it involves standing up in the congregation and speaking into a mike. And I, personally, appreciate the short breakout sessions that encourage you to catch up with each other quickly rather than dawdle in small talk.
Face-to-face contact is still valuable but this is taking place in smaller groups. Since we moved to this city my husband and I have been part of a community of five households in the neighborhood who meet weekly for dinner and monthly or more often for more extended sharing and study. Zoom, backyards, and bringing our own instead of sharing food have kept us in touch with each other. This has been vital for all of us. Other small groups function in other ways though they probably meet less often.
Mutual care often centers in these smaller groups but it is also a mission of church committees that have continued to function and have indeed become even more active as the needs of individuals both inside and outside the congregation have changed during the pandemic. Every attempt is being made to reach out to people in need. I don’t know for sure how well this is working but I see a lot happening. I have been part of efforts to get food boxes to foreign students at the local seminary and aid for undocumented immigrants. Others have focused on church members who have lost income or suffered other losses. Some call or send cards to individuals who are more isolated.
Shared purpose. The work of the church has continued in surprising ways as individuals bring needs and opportunities to the attention of others. Right now I and others are participating in a voter-education effort spearheaded by a national faith organization whose local staffer is a member of our church. Online seminars and conversations on racism initiated by individuals and one of our church committees took place weekly throughout the summer. The asylum seekers my husband and I have hosted are being integrated into the church community in many ways, at other people’s invitation. Many are asking, “What can I do?” and we are finding answers in our shared concerns, projects, and creativity.
Loyalty. All of the above are signs of the kind of commitment that is essential to building and maintaining community. But perhaps the most surprising indicator of this commitment is that financial contributions to our congregation have not suffered during the pandemic. Are we, as a group, wealthier than most? I can only speak from my own experience when I say that I have been inspired by these chaotic times to put my money where my heart is, and that includes my community of faith in a big way. I sense that others feel the same. Such loyalty may have been bolstered over the years by the frequent feel-good experiences of a good Sunday morning service. Now, however, it is clear that it is the community that matters most to me.
I am humbly grateful to be part of “good church” in these trying times, even as our nice church building, with its nice solar panels, stands empty. How are you finding the equivalent of “good church” these days?