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Is the Church Essential?

By Don Beyers

Although it is too early for us to say how the COVID-19 virus will transform our church, we can be sure the implications of the pandemic will reshape ministry for many years to come. Yet I wonder, how might it change us today?

This could be the defining moment for our church.

In recent months we’ve wrestled with questions about our church’s vitality, with some predicting the death of the church in years to come. Arguments have abounded for why we experience such sharp decline. Secularism and the end of Christendom are among the reasons offered. But who among us could have imagined that a single virus would radically change the way we are as church?

Now is the moment for us to be the church. This is the moment to rediscover the essentials of ministry and for us to bring about a new era in the life of our church. This is the time for the church to live into its vocation and to be a beacon of hope for all. How we respond today to Christ’s call to love one another as he loved us will determine the church’s future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to return to the fundamentals of our ministry: forming a relationship with Jesus Christ and God’s people.

Upon hearing of the closure of churches and the suspension of public worship, I was uncertain of what I was going to do as priest. So much of my ministry has been shaped by the administration of my parish and the prayer life of our community. Prior to the pandemic, I lamented the administrative demands of ministry that made it difficult for me to spend time in pastoral care. Now I am rediscovering the joy of my vocation as a pastor.

I am not alone either. The morning after the suspension of public worship, my inbox and voicemail were inundated with offers of help from dozens of parishioners and community members. Many wanted to care for those unable to get basic supplies, others offered to call isolated members. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of my community and their natural response to minister to one another. They were living as the Body of Christ.

Moreover, the closure of our church doors did not stop our prayer and worship. In a few short hours we learned how to live-stream prayer. Our first Sunday worship drew dozens of viewers, many of whom were families participating in the worship from their living rooms. Morning Prayer and Eucharist continue to form the fabric of our prayer life, along with Bible studies and discussion groups, albeit digitally. To be sure, there are theological questions about our methods for sharing communal worship digitally. Yet extraordinary events call for creative steps to involve and engage the People of God in prayer and fellowship.

Is the church essential? It is now more than ever. While diocesan and national liturgies and ministries link us to the universal Church, the ministry of the local parish will provide a vital link of hope to those isolated in a time of uncertainty and anxiety, even if it is a simple phone call on a regular basis. All of us entrusted with ministry, lay and ordained, have the opportunity now to be the presence of Christ to all. This is the time for us to be the “field hospital” as Pope Francis so often reminds us.

As tragic as COVID-19 is, perhaps it will compel us to rediscover that our primary ministry is to care for God’s people, proclaim life in the moment of darkness and death, and be a unifying sign of hope for all people. We are not about upholding institutions, nor are we called to be business managers. We are called to be the presence of Christ to all.

The Rev. Don Beyers is rector of Christ Church, Bolton, Ontario.

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