By Elie Haddad
The pandemic has been disruptive to our normal lives in so many ways. All of us around the world have taken measures to adapt at this time of disruption. We have changed the way we do things. This raises many questions. Is this change permanent? Do we go back to normal once the pandemic is over, or will there be a new normal?
Churches around the world have experienced different levels of disruption this past year. Most have adjusted. So, what will happen after the pandemic? Should church ministry go back to normal? Or have we learned new lessons that will forever change the way we experience church life? What do we have to look forward to?
These questions we are not only faced by the Church. These are institutional questions as well. Let me start by reflecting on our own journey at ABTS. Like all educational institutions globally, we have moved our programs online. Part of this decision was an emergency measure in response to the disruption and the inability to continue residential and classroom-based instruction. The other part of the decision was more strategic, based on the emerging training needs of the Church in the region and how best to deliver accessible theological education and leadership formation going forward. The change in the delivery method at ABTS is not temporary. We will not go back to the old normal, but that does not mean that community life and other aspects of face-to-face training are no longer important for us. We are adapting and discovering new innovative ways of accomplishing the same objectives virtually.
Life at ABTS has changed not only for faculty and students but also for staff. With the various degrees of lockdown, most of our staff are having to work remotely for long stretches of time. Will work from home become the new normal? This is still not an easy decision for us. We have not figured out how to overcome all the challenges of working from home such as managing teamwork, keeping the staff motivated, evaluating performance, forming corporate culture, and providing productivity and connectivity tools. Surprisingly, some large tech companies that had entirely moved to a work-from-home scheme are no longer favoring this arrangement as a permanent solution, even with their great ability to provide the right technology and connectivity. Many will be experimenting with some form of a hybrid work model. All indications show that, though we will not stay in emergency mode, the way we work will not go back to a pre-pandemic normal. A new normal will likely set in.
Back to the Church.
Before the pandemic, a church building or location was a very important identity marker for a church community. When we are asked to define what church is, we can all agree that a church is not a building but rather a community of redeemed people on mission with God, or some variation of that. But the way we use the term is incompatible with that definition. We go to church or come from church, implying that a church is a location. Or we say that we have church on Sunday morning, implying that the event of a Sunday morning worship service defines the church. This is cognitive dissonance. Our beliefs are not always aligned with our words and practices. In a sense, before the pandemic, our implicit belief was that if we are gathering in a specific location, especially on Sunday morning, then we are being the church. Of course, I don’t want to trivialize the importance of community life and what happens on Sunday morning in a church building.
The custom of “going to church” on Sunday morning has been disrupted globally for a good part of a year. In my own church community, we have not met in person on a Sunday morning since last March. Now, that is a major disruption! It was interesting to see, not only in Lebanon but also around the world, how quickly churches adjusted and started to stream their services online. In a sense, the implicit belief evolved from “if we meet in a building on Sunday morning then we are being the church” to “if we are streaming our sermon online on Sunday morning then we are being the church”. With this logic, it would not be a surprise if church life goes back to the old normal after this pandemic.
But something significant has happened with the Church. I can at least attest to what we are experiencing in Lebanon where two prime observations are worth noting. The first concerns the August 4th Beirut explosion. This was a major disaster of unprecedented consequences striking a high number of people who were already reeling from an economic crisis and a health crisis. Right away, starting the next day, we saw large numbers of church communities on the streets of Beirut sweeping, cleaning, repairing, feeding, housing, comforting, healing, caring, and loving, all in the name of Jesus. What is incredible is that it did not take church committees hours or days of deliberation to make the decision to respond. Rather, responding was the most natural thing to do. That was the result of God gradually transforming our church communities preparing us for a time like this. In essence, this was the Church being the Church.
The other observation concerns the response to the pandemic, especially in the last few months. The Lebanese healthcare system is no longer able to cope with the ongoing spread of the virus, and people are becoming more vulnerable. It is heartwarming to see so many church communities focusing their ministries on caring for those who cannot care for themselves. Churches have even sourced medical supplies and oxygen concentrators to be available for the sick when our over-burdened hospitals cannot provide care. At a time when the most sensible thing to do is to stay at home and care for one’s own family, many are putting themselves at risk to care for others. This is another example of how, in the midst of this great need, the Church is being the Church.
Will the Church go back to normal after the pandemic? We all miss fellowship with our church families and elements of community life that we are eager to get back to. But aren’t there lessons learned during the pandemic that should forever transform our church experience? Can our church identity markers be re-examined? Can our definition of church be revised, not away from Scripture but more in line with Scripture? Maybe the overarching question should not be whether we go back to normal or not. Rather, what is the next frontier for the Church? God has been shaping us and molding us in these times of adversity. I look forward to seeing how what God is shaping today will become a new and sustained reality for our churches tomorrow.
Elie is the President of ABTS and field staff with CBM who is passionate about the Church and its missional engagement in the Arab world.