The church (writ large – not just this congregation or any one denomination or movement) should always be learning. Sadly, we aren’t. We tend to coast. One study I looked at years ago estimated that the average American congregation runs 30 years behind circumstances. At the time (the 1980’s) that would have put the average American congregation operating as though it were the 1950’s. There were – and are – lots of reasons for this. Some of it is simple finances. The average American congregation is very small and seldom has more funds than it needs. Many small neighborhood and rural congregations inherit technology as it is phased out in better funded sections of society. For instance, in the 1980’s, lots of congregations were using mimeographs cast off by the school systems. Somewhere about the mid-80’s the congregation I served at the time inherited a mimeograph with extra drums for colors and a stencil cutter to go with it! The new mimeograph was even electric! The old hand cranked black ink only model (and the little wire tipped scribe for attempting to produce art on a stencil) went into a storage closet. You never know – we might need that someday!
But there are attitudinal drivers for the lag as well. At about that same time, a couple of grocery chains ran a program where a church or school could turn in $X worth of grocery receipts to get a computer. Another $X worth for a printer. This allowed me to get by the financial constraints. I collected everyone’s receipts (and roamed the parking lots of the stores in question rounding up strays) and soon got the congregation a computer and printer. The fact that it cost no money did not mean that it came into the church without objection. There was apparently some concern the Kremlin would be able to hack into our membership rolls. Explaining that the computer didn’t even have a modem netted me a lot of blank stares. I don’t mean to make fun. I will, all these years later, soon be 63 and I find myself less and less enthused about the expanding state of technology! Like most people, I harbor suspicions of things I don’t understand and can’t control. I try to have this wisdom – there are brothers and sisters I trust who can do what I can’t in these areas and they are treasures in the congregation I currently serve.
And behind all this, the Church is about as traditional an institution as you can imagine. We have a founding and an ethos rooted in circumstances 2 Millennia old and growing! The weight of all that tradition has a positive function. When you need an anchor, nothing else will do and you will want no broken links in the chain. The problem comes in knowing when to raise the anchor, set sail, and drop the solid weight of all that tradition into new waters.
Anyway – The church tends to coast and run behind existing circumstances. Consequently, many of us may still be attempting to address the culture of and meet the problems of, say, the early 1990’s and thus lack relevance in 2020. The COVID 19 contagion and our response to it may be forcing us to catch up. I don’t know what all the lessons will be when the whole thing shakes out but I see some things already.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church