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The Pandemic May Have Presented An Opportunity For Churches

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically affected the institutional church, which overnight watched its communities exiled from their buildings.

Because my church has been out on the street, I’ve been given the chance to view building-based churches in an unusual light. Freed to make good on the claim that the church is not a building, I’ve also been liberated to consider what the church is.

My initial impulse for going outside was the need for spiritual adventure, and I've come to consider this may have been an urge that stirred in Jesus.

Having been an Episcopal priest out of doors through 11 winters, where the greatest challenge was keeping my lips from sticking to the chalice, the fact that Jesus was also outside gave me some kind of comfort — at least until I realized he enjoyed a temperate climate.

But as many times as I may have missed luxuries like heat, I haven’t missed the anxiety that left when I left the building. Burdened by declining congregations and expensive, underused buildings, most ministers have been dealing with an exodus for decades.

It would be a mistake to confuse the pandemic with churches' current crisis. As painfully real as the pandemic has been, the elephant in the room is the culture is losing interest in building-based churches. The numbers don’t lie.
The middle-class culture of building-based churches, perhaps through no fault of its own, naturally defines who is “in” and who is “out” — and who is “out” is often those on the margins. And the irony is that many who feel unwelcome in building-based churches are the very ones to whom Jesus went when he left the Pharisaic club.

Binding up wounds and welcoming strangers, the Jewish renegade went out into the world to fully embrace those of us who are lost. The genius of Jesus was not in condemning the physical walls of churches, but in seeing that any walls which divide, divide the whole of creation.

As painful as the pandemic has been for the institutional church, it could also be a catalyst for returning to the vision of Jesus.

The Rev. Christopher Carlisle is an Episcopal priest who lives and works in western Massachusetts. His recently published novel, "For Theirs is The Kingdom," is based on his work ministering on the street.

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