Kevin Makins is the founding pastor of Eucharist Church in Hamilton, and author of the book Why Would Anyone Go to Church?
The smell of chili rose heavenward like incense, while the sanctuary warmed with small talk and sounds of children climbing over the old wooden pews. It was the first Sunday in March, and the church I pastor was hosting our monthly potluck. I didn’t know this would be the last time in 2020 that we’d be worshipping in the church building together.
Of course you know where this is going. A week later the NBA was cancelled, a sign to any fence-sitters that this “novel coronavirus” might be with us for a while. Perhaps a month or two. Maybe into the fall. Certainly not until Christmas. Weren’t we all so cute?
Over the past nine months, our church has grown dizzy from the “pivot.” We’ve streamed YouTube services and Zoom gatherings, worshipped on beautiful, physically distanced hikes and in rainy parking lots. We met in backyards and public parks, held midweek services for morning and evening prayer, and changed how we do everything from our Sunday school and refugee settlement programs, to weddings and funerals. Our 10-year anniversary party, originally imagined as a huge gathering, became a bike ride across the city. I even had one pastoral meeting with a kid over Fortnite. (At least it wasn’t another Zoom call.)
None of this was our preference. But at each step of the way we’ve been guided by a powerful and terrible question: How can we best love our neighbours? What makes it easier is that we are not alone.
The vast majority of churches I am familiar with are doing the same thing. Over the past nine months, one of the world’s oldest institutions has, through a combination of technology, networking and creativity, found unique ways to continue being the church at a distance.
Most have done so at great cost to themselves. Many were barely surviving as is. Church attendance continues to face a multigenerational decline and historic buildings continue to fall into disrepair. The rhythms of gathering, well-worn by decades of faithfulness, will be deeply affected by this break, and many congregations will never return to “normal.” Yet thousands of churches continue to sacrifice because they believe it is the right thing to do.
Of course, this isn’t the narrative we hear.
The loudest noise has been made by those who demand the right to gather in-person. One B.C. church recently made headlines after being fined $2,300 for refusing to cancel its services. Another recently held a “praise protest” in Ottawa. These groups argue it is their legal and constitutional right to meet in-person for worship. They may be correct. But of all people, those who follow Jesus should be aware of the difference between what is legally “right” and what is morally good.
Instead of fighting over what we are entitled to, I’d like to suggest a better narrative, applicable to businesses, non-profits and churches alike.
Just around the corner is Christmas – a time when Christians across the globe stop to ponder the mystery of God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus, the Christ. The story is fundamentally one of rights and privilege, in which Christ, being one with God, did not consider infinite knowledge or power something to be grasped, but became a vulnerable baby, born to a poor and disgraced woman on the underside of power. Jesus modelled radical self-sacrificial love, blessing everyone, forgiving his enemies and even laying down his life, being executed in shame on a Roman cross.
While I am an orthodox Christian who loves the Church, I care less about what a group claims to believe, and much more about the posture of their heart. Perhaps this Christmas we should look at the heart posture of every business, non-profit and religious organization. Are their actions fixated on their own rights and privileges, or do they desire to lay down their rights in order to love their neighbour?
Perhaps that will reveal where we can most clearly find Christ this Christmas.
As for my church, we’re anticipating our Christmas Eve service, which has pivoted yet again, from a carol sing in the park to a candle-lighting relay across town. It’s not what we planned or expected. Our weary hearts crave a chance to be together physically. But for now, we light our candles, pray for our neighbours and trust that the light will shine in the darkness, as it always has.
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