Chicago is called “The Second City” because most of it was rebuilt after the great Chicago fire. Some of the iconic architectural buildings in the Chicago skyline were built during this era of the city’s history. If you take the historical river tour, the guides will almost celebrate the Great Fire. According to their telling of the story, Chicago wouldn’t be the city it is if the fire hadn’t taken everything to the ground.
Our lives seem to be made up of a series of moments where everything is taken to the ground. We graduate high school and we leave a world of achievements and failures, friends and enemies, and a place where at least we knew who we were, and then, we enter into college, join the armed forces, or begin a career and we start all over again. We change jobs and we start over. We get married and we start over. We have children and we start over. We retire and we start over again.
Some of these times of starting over are predictable and anticipated. Other times, like a hurricane making landfall, these moments happen suddenly and overwhelm our lives, leaving us with nothing more than memories and the struggle to carry on.
And there are times when the church is taken down to the ground as well. Throughout our history, the church has been forced to go back to basics after some kind of catastrophic event. The Roman Empire falls so monks hide in monasteries and copy the Scriptures over and over. The Bible survives because of their dedication. The Bamboo Curtain cuts off Chinese Christians from the rest of the world. After decades of isolation, the world was afraid that the Chinese church had been lost. When communications were reestablished, the world found out that not only had the Chinese church survived, but they had thrived. By perfecting the house church model, the Chinese Christians had reached millions of their neighbors with the gospel.
Now, with COVID-19, it’s happened again. Like most natural disasters, the pandemic storm leveled our churches to the ground. The functional structures of most churches were destroyed and some of them won’t come back. Like hurricanes and earthquakes, our landscape has been changed forever. Whatever we build will look very different compared to what was once there.
Let’s not downplay this reality — COVID-19 has devastated churches across America. Staff salaries were cut and others were laid off because giving was down. Attendance has yet to fully recover and most pastors I know are dealing with some level of burnout.
With all of that said, we need to recognize that COVID-19 has given us a chance to start over.
And that’s not a bad thing. How many pastors have said, “Give me a handful of committed believers and we’ll change the world”? Guess what? COVID-19 has pushed us back to a handful of committed believers. The quarantine gave those who didn’t want to come to church permission to stay home. They aren’t coming back. Others found out, like working from anywhere, they can go to church anywhere. These members will tune into the streaming service once in a while, but they will quickly lose connection and fade away from the church. As most lovers can tell you, long-distance relationships rarely work. They don’t last in church relationships either.
The first temptation will be to immediately rebuild what was there before. We will restart our youth programs and children’s programs. We will schedule concerts and special events. We’ll fall back into the same trap of keeping our people busy at church without growing them in the likeness of Christ. You see, our previous structures weren’t working and COVID-19 has proven that. We don’t need to waste any more time trying to keep these operational dinosaurs alive.
The next temptation will be to try anything. There will be enough snake oil marketers telling the church what we need to do next. There’ll be conferences and books talking about how to make your church a superstar, post-pandemic congregation. These ideas will work in some places, but they won’t work in most places.
What we need to do is relax and remember that we’ve been here before. The resurrection of Jesus blew everything away and the church started from scratch. The early church met in small groups and homes. The church in China was cut off and started from scratch. They met in small groups and homes.
Are you seeing a pattern here?
Every missionary who lands on an unfamiliar shore begins from scratch. Now, thanks to COVID-19, we have the same moment. In the power of God’s Spirit, we can build back again from scratch. We’ll start small groups that develop other small groups. These groups will develop churches. These churches will send out missionaries, and these missionaries will go to new places and start small groups.
COVID-19 has taken the church in North America down to the ground. Praise God. We get to start over. After all, resurrections just aren’t for Easter.