Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Church of the Future

Dear Friends,

You arrived at church an hour before the service starts. The average Sunday attendance used to be 125 adults but now only thirty people can be in the building in order to maintain the required six foot distance. Only two people, unless in the same family, can be in a row of chairs so that you don’t have to move close to each other to get in and out. The center aisle between the chairs is required by the Health and Safety Order to be eighteen feet wide and many of the chairs are now in storage. After the worship team, pastor, ushers and sound system people are counted, only twenty members are allowed in at each service. Visitors are not allowed in at all and are given a brochure with the instructions to watch the online service. For the past two weeks you were turned away at the door after the church had reached the legal amount of worshipers. They now have six services every Sunday, but thank God you made it in time for the 9:30 service today. 

The usher guarding the door takes your temperature using an infrared scan of your forehead and stamps your hand letting everyone know that you’ve been scanned and you’re not running a fever. One of the inside ushers hands you a service bulletin and escorts you to an approved area to sit. The church feels empty and what you miss most right now is sitting next to your friends. You also think about how much you miss the hospitality time and the lunch after the service but there is no way to maintain the required distance when sitting at the tables. When the service ends, it seems wrong to walk out the door, not shake hands with the pastor, and then just get into your car to leave. You put those distressing thoughts aside now as the service starts. 

The pastor reads the greeting and you strain to hear him. Because of his mask, his words are muffled and it’s difficult to understand what he’s saying. You stand to sing but you know you can’t actually do so. You love the hymn they are playing but it’s impossible for you to sing in a mask or face covering. You wind up breathing too much of your own breath and the extra CO2 makes you dizzy. During the traditional passing of the peace, when the congregation once moved around the room to greet and hug each other, all of you now just stand and wave at each other, turning the sanctuary into a undulating wave of ocean-blue medical gloves that brings a smile to your face. 

The most meaningful part of the service for you is Holy Communion, and the ushers now escort each person one at a time up to receive. In order to maintain the six foot distance, the pastor holds in his gloved hand a 16" BBQ tong that he uses to grab onto a communion kit in a plastic bag. He stretches out the tongs to hand the elements to you and says, “The Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus safely prepackaged for you. Tear off the protective plastic safety seal and eat in remembrance of Him.” 

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From the Vatican to the Evangelical megachurches to the denominational mainstream churches, we are being told that we need to be prepared for what they are calling the “new normal” in our church services. Is this really what it could actually look like?

With the exception of my “tongue-in-cheek” words in italics, that service most likely will be what the church looks like for awhile – perhaps a long while. The manufacturer of the “Fellowship Cups,” the prepackaged grape juice and wafer, has described an explosion of orders as the traditional liturgical churches stock up for when they are allowed to resume services. Churches are writing procedures for how to now handle and dispose of the plastic communion cups that will become a medical biohazard after touching hands and lips. Our new normal will eliminate all but the presiding priest/pastor from drinking out of the common cup and the bread or crackers will no longer be torn or broken in pieces by the pastor and placed in the hands of the people. Only machine-processed wafers will be used. Our new normal will most likely include the elimination of hospitality times after church where people gather and church potlucks where food is prepared and shared by different people.

But will we really still be wearing masks during the service? The governor of California has stated that even when some restrictions are lifted, under the “new normal,” masks, gloves and social distancing will be required for an indefinite period of time. Restaurants might have half the tables; schools half the desks. Churches might have half the chairs and be allowed to reopen only with “strict physical distancing protocols.” Under the governor’s “new normal,” large gatherings, (50+) including those in churches will be prohibited. The governor said that there will be no large gatherings of people until “..we get to a herd immunity and get to a vaccine.” Harvard researchers, using a peer-reviewed study, conclude that periods of social distancing – staying six feet from each other, avoiding hugs and handshakes – may be necessary into 2022. In our own city of Los Angeles, the mayor has informed his department managers that large gatherings, including those in churches, may not be permitted until 2021. The mayor told his staff that “small businesses” (small churches) will be “phased in over a period of six to ten months.”

Of course the official government declarations of guidelines and requirements change weekly, if not daily, and so nobody knows exactly what the church of the future will look like. All we know is that there will still be Sunday gatherings of the community of believers that we call the “church.” Jesus said about His church that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. Neither will the coronavirus. 
To Be Continued...

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