So where do we go from here? COVID has interrupted our church plans for over a year now. The staff and elder meetings early last year, discussing where we would lead the church community in 2020, seem moot at best. All of last year’s well-conceived plans were tossed out the window. Most of us kept Amazon busy with deliveries of camera equipment, scrambling to figure out how to live-stream services. Another seeming black-hole that developed was how to create community when the community cannot be together. I’ve heard pastors ask rhetorically, but with actual fear, “Will I have a church after this?” With vaccinations on the rise, many are hoping for a return to “the good ol days.” But will we? And is that the best future for the church?
Losing the Queen
My friend and mentor, Alan Hirsch, told me of a metaphor that is helpful in understanding our current tensions as church leaders. Apparently, when wanting to learn how to play chess (I mean really play chess well), there is a strategy where you would take your queen off the board and play your opponents several times without her. For those of you that don’t play chess, the queen is the most powerful piece in your arsenal, and considered the most valuable, besides the king of course, which you must protect to stay in the match. The queen can move any direction, any number of spaces. An obvious result of taking your queen off the board is that you are forced to learn what all the other pieces do, and how they can actually win the game for you! You start to see your complement of pieces in a holistic way, understanding the whole of the game. At some point, when the queen returns to your board, you know how to use all the tools at your disposal. You’re a better chess player because you understand all of your pieces and their specific part in the mission of winning the game.
For me this would have been helpful to know as a teenager. My dad and I loved playing chess, yet he usually beat me. My specific weakness was in knowing how to use my knights. They seemed strange pieces to me, with an unorthodox move of two spaces up and one across. I never could get the hang of using knights, so often they just sat on the board unused to their full potential.
This seems a helpful metaphor in this time of COVID, as the queen (our Sunday morning worship services), has been forced off the board for the past year. The problem is that many pastors and leaders were ill-prepared to play without her. They have been scrambling to stay in the game. Most, even my community, attempted to keep the queen involved by live-streaming her. This influence though, is waning, and we see that live-stream attendance in most cases has dropped over the year of COVID. Even if it didn’t drop in some cases, is this really the measure of our ecclesial success now, online attendance views from YouTube?!
To complicate matters, polls and studies suggest that as much as 30% of the church attending community may not return to regular Sunday morning worship services. While we as leaders can’t wait to get back together, many in our communities might have learned new neighborhood rhythms. They have reshuffled their weekly calendar and Sunday now feels like a day of rest at home. So what do we do with this new paradigm?
Playing Your Other Pieces
With the queen off the board (or at least minimized), how do we teach, disciple, and lead our church community? If the pulpit is relegated to a video stream, can we really transform people and guide them toward a life that looks like Jesus? What does the new pulpit look like, if not on a stage with hundreds in attendance?
Perhaps we need to look at some other pieces the church has at its disposal to play with; the things in scripture actually taught and exemplified by Jesus’ life. If we look around the chess board of ecclesiology and examples of community given by Jesus, perhaps we notice new pieces we never really moved much, but that now can help us maintain our Kingdom momentum, if not expand our gospel influence as we innovate new ways of church community.
When we look at Jesus’ ministry, we notice he often sat at a table with others, talking about the Kingdom of God. If fact the gospel writers make a point to note how irritated the religious were because of the sinners and tax collectors he ate with. Tables have a powerful methodology for us as a culture. There is something about sitting across from someone, eye to eye, face to face, life to life, that brings the guard down and allows conversation that encourage transparency and relationship. Of course, food helps too. As you share the same meal, a certain kind community is built around burgers, or meat loaf, or whatever cuisine hits the table-top. If you really want to put everyone on equal footing, serve corn-on-the-cob. Humility reigns when everyone is picking the leftovers from their teeth.
Tables become places of conversation, but also a good place of teaching. Jesus modeled this. He ate with people he was discipling, and also with people he disagreed with. He sat down with the religious, as well as the irreligious. He taught of the Kingdom of God, the grace and love for those in the margins, he exemplified a different way of looking at life, politics, race, and community. And often, He used a table, because he knew it has the power to equalize status, opinions, and our humanness.
What would it look like, for a season, to reengage a table as the new pulpit, as the central place of faith community? What would it look like to sit eye to eye, face to face, life to life, sharing the frustrations, fears, and failures of the past year together? A table does an interesting thing. It levels the playing field, supports our notion of the priesthood of all believers. No longer is one person the focal point of every chair in the room, but each person is leveled, sitting eye to eye, with just as much perceived power as the one at their elbows. Whether we like it or not, a traditional pulpit is an automatic statement of power, even without anyone behind it. It looms as the place of “right-thinking” and “correct belief.” In fact in some churches, only certain people are allowed to stand behind the pulpit .A table, however, invites community conversation, multiple observations, debate and spiritual growth.
I’m not presenting table ecclesiology as something new to our day. Many missiologists have written about tables and their power as places of discipleship and community. However, the table seems to be like the knight on our chess board for today. We don’t use it as much as we could…or should. It gets some occasional use, but usually in support of the queen (the Sunday worship service).
In this “new season” of church, this time where the expectations are low and people are familiar with staying home, how could you utilize the table more? Might you recenter your ecclesiology on missional chess pieces like the table? Could your staff reimagine a new church community that sits more eye to eye? I’m not proposing eliminating Sunday gatherings either. The church can and should gather to encourage each other, worship, and be inspired. However, we are entering a new season where many in our community have learned new rhythms of church. They now know they can stay home and livestream their favorite sermon, worship band, and other components to create their own worship experience.
Maybe it’s time to help people experience a deeper faith through table-communities. Perhaps we can actually gain momentum in discipleship by putting some of our Sunday centric resources toward neighborhood movements around tables.
These kinds of movements require a bravery to innovate and experiment, where churches look more like sending hubs of community and mission. Our church, for example, has launched a micro-incubator of smaller ecclesial expressions (see www.thepandocollective.com) .We’ve have decided to acknowledge a new future of dispersed church, rather than bringing everyone to the building. For us, it matters more that the Kingdom expands than our building filling up. Embracing a dispersed ecclesiology isn’t an acknowledgement of failure, it’s being brave enough to innovate in a new season that requires new methodology. A smart pastor once told me that driving while only looking in the rear-view mirror will never take you forward in the right way. We have to look ahead.I’m not sure if you realize it, but God already handed you a permission slip to try new things like tables. When Jesus said, “…as the Father sent so I am sending you”, he was inviting you to ask the question, “so how was Jesus sent?” When you look through the gospels, you see a common chess piece, and a common piece of furniture…a table.