The Church and Covid-19

Covid and the Church

Reflection by Rev. Dr. Charles Boayue, Jr.
Greater Detroit District Superintendent

July 1, 2020 – Back in February 2020, I was busy like most of you with the routines of ministry and my life: my wife was about to celebrate another important birthday; a pastor was ready to go on leave; a few other pastors were preparing for their retirements after decades of faithful, productive ministry; Cabinet was running smoothly through its appointment-making process in advance of a consequential 2020 General Conference, seeking to complete its work before May; I was thinking through when to schedule the annual One to One meetings between the district superintendent and each clergy person appointed in the district with the expectation that I was attending the 2020 General Conference and North Central Jurisdiction Conference as a clergy delegate; considering whether and when to request my sabbatical leave from the Cabinet before completing my six-year tenure; planning a personal vacation to Liberia either in June or August 2020; ascertaining the schedule of my speaking commitments across the district and nation; following political events like presidential debates within the Democratic Party and looking forward to the end of the presidential primary season; being excited about how Duke Basketball would do in the March Madness college basketball championships; etc.

Things and times seemed uneventful and predictable back then.  I expected the same old, same old from day to day: pastors serving in the trenches from the biggest to the smallest churches and deacons creatively connecting the ministries of the Church to the needs of the world around us; continuous church decline across the board with a few remarkable exceptions; theological arguments about human sexuality without end and political posturing about whether police should be allowed to use deadly choke holds on suspected people, especially those already in cuffs and defenseless. Churches in the Greater Detroit District, and presumably across the United States continue to decline in membership, ministry, and impact.  Society is falling apart into political silos and everything seemed uneventful and predictable.

Then Covid-19 hit.

The emergence of Covid-19 marks a new day in many respects. The death toll is unimaginable in the United States. Among the places hardest hit is our own Detroit metro area or the Greater Detroit District.  Life is no longer the same. We should not gather, like we used to, for corporate worship in the same space; we should not assemble anywhere in large groups. We should not appear in public without face masks. We should maintain a safe distance from one another whenever we encounter another person. We should stay at home and not go out except for essential business.  We should wash our hands regularly and sanitize things that are touchable. The list of prohibitions is long and the experience of living out those prohibitions is restrictive and uncomfortable.

Little did I imagine that things would turn so easily and so quickly.

Now, I cannot plan my vacation to Liberia until I have assurances that it would be safe to travel there.  I cannot plan my sabbatical while Covid-19 is raging, unless I learn to plan differently and unless I can embrace a new ethic of existence and of being.  I may be speaking for many in our pews and in our pulpits when I suggest that Covid-19 is a turning point, not only for how we live but also for the kind of society we ought to be.  Its disruptions cry out for creativity, imagination, re-visioning, a paradigm shift, and a new creation.  Apart from its horrible toll on human life, Covid-19 can be viewed essentially as a life-changer for us as individuals and for the Church.

Look at what we are now forced to consider because of Covid-19: doing almost everything differently than we used to do them. Isn’t this exactly what church growth and vitality experts have been asking the Church to do for half a century? If the devastating effects of Covid-19 on our way of life is to be remembered fully, I suggest that we take another view of the situation and make the best out of it.  Some call this strategy “making lemonade out of lemons.”

Imagine how virtual congregational worship (whether pre-recorded or live) can help the Church go outside its “four walls” to encounter and engage the world in a vibrant new way.  Imagine how diverse our membership could become when we offer Christ to the world without previewing who is listening? Imagine the different kind of authenticity our sermons, Bible studies, and teaching modules would be when we plan to teach without advance knowledge who all the students will be.  Perhaps, some of the reasons why our churches are emptier today than 50 years ago may have something to do with how detached from the real world we have become. 

Someone said that when you put a frog in a bowl of water at room temperature, you can slowly heat up the water until you kill the frog without the frog noticing.  But when you take a frog and throw it into a boiling bowl of water, the frog will jump quickly out because of the traumatic experience of going quickly from room temperature to boiling temperature. That same logic holds true for the Church.  We have slowly moved away from being the center of community activity, advocation, and life (which, for example, the Black Church certainly was in the years before and during the height of the Civil Rights Movement) to becoming a siloed community with a fortress mentality.  Because we have come to this reality slowly, we have adapted to many of its ill-effects quite completely.  I have surprisingly even visited a church were its members have a list of the types of people they do not want to join “their” church. I have heard a few churches demand the type of pastors they want. Here, I am not speaking about the critical issue of due diligence.  I am talking about churches that do not want a Black pastor or a Latino Pastor, or a Woman pastor.  These Churches are clear what they do not want, and their clarity is troubling because it does not seek the best pastor for the challenges and opportunities of ministry.  It does not connect with the hunger and thirst out there in the world for an authentic witness to the saving grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  It does not seriously consider the Biblical witness to the Church as being “neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.”

Covid-19 is a turning point, or better stated, Covid-19 is an opportunity for confession, repentance, and new life!

If we stop being afraid and defensive about what we have lost and what we are about to lose (and we have lost and could lose a lot), and focus on how God “works all things out for the good of those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose for them,” we might discover that “in every disappointment there is blessing.” Perhaps God is beckoning us to hear the “calm, still voice” amid this corona virus storm.  When we do, I believe we will find new ways to be the Church for a New Day! Amen!!!