In the seasons of covid

There is a song by Donald Marsh and Richard Avery that we used to sing with youth groups and children in the church. The chorus is this:

I am the church!
You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we’re the church together!

The first verse is:

The church is not a building,
the church is not a steeple,
the church is not a resting place,
the church is a people.

The song expressed an important theological concept. The thing that defines a church is not the building or the institutional structure, but rather the relationships between people. But it also recognizes the importance of coming together. One verse says:

And when the people gather,
there’s singing and there’s praying,
there’s laughing and there’s crying sometimes,
all of it saying:

The church is a gathering of people to express their faith and share that faith with others. Even that concept is being challenged, however, in the seasons of Covid. I’ve taken to using that phrase, “seasons of Covid” to describe this time of uncertainty. While many congregations across the country are gathering in-person, others have chosen to limit in person gatherings as they refine their skills of online worship.

It is important to remind ourselves that this isn’t the first time the church has encountered a pandemic. We were doing a bit of research in the archives about the history of the congregation we are currently serving and discovered that in-person worship was suspended during the 1918 - 1920 Spanish flu pandemic. It was a bit reassuring to be reminded that ours isn’t the first generation of the church to have faced such trials. Back in 1918 there was no social media. The church wasn’t able to use tools like Zoom and Facebook that we have today.

Still, there are some real challenges.

Today is the annual “In Gathering” Sunday at First Congregational Church in Bellingham. In previous years, last year excepted, In Gathering has been a celebration of the return to fall programming. The worship service has been filled with music, with the choir returning to lead worship after a summer break. The tradition has also included a bug pot luck meal following worship. There have been special programs for children and youth to mark the beginning of another year of Sunday School. This year, however, there is no choir, no pot luck, and there will be no gathering of families with children. The Covid advisory committee, with the support of the Church Council has advised the congregation that “we wait to offer activities where children from different households would interact with each other in person.”

A worship team of the pastors, liturgist, musicians, people leading Time with Children, and the tech team may work together in the sanctuary. All persons must be vaccinated.

All of that means that In Gathering Sunday is happening without the gathering part. We are having a special worship service, with a few extra musicians, but no choir. There are no wind instruments allowed, so strings and keyboard only and singers must be masked, so we’ll probably only have a soloist in front of a microphone. Susan and I will lead the Time with Children, but there will be no children in the room.

After worship there will be a special Zoom fellowship hour which is the official “meet and greet” for us as the Interim Ministers of Faith Formation. We’ll chat with church members over the computer and get to know the congregation a little bit better.

Then, at 2 pm, there is a Zoom time for Children and Families. The Faith Formation Team delivered over 40 bags to families with resources for learning activities. In the bag were story books, a Bible story, craft instructions, and supplies such as origami paper, play dough, cookie cutters, and a bell. There were even individually packaged snacks. The Faith Formation Team will lead the Zoom session with the reading and telling of stories, instruction in crafts, and other activities. The bags were designed so that families who cannot participate in the Zoom session can engage the activities themselves without the Zoom leaders.

That is it for In Gathering. As the program year advances, there will be regular packets of resource materials sent to be added to the bags that were delivered. The primary focus of that particular program will be to give resources for families to engage in Faith Formation and Christian Education in their homes. We also are beginning weekly Zoom meetings for children on Wednesday evenings as well as a variety of different opportunities for adults including a book group, a prayer group and a lectionary study group. Covenant groups will also be forming. All of these groups are meeting through computer assisted media. For now “any FCCB groups meeting in person (are) to gather outdoors instead of indoors, with masks and physical distancing. That means that even the Faith Formation Board and the Church Council are meeting over Zoom.

Roughly one third of our working time will be spent on the computer in Zoom meetings.

I am the church!
You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we’re the church together!

It is a whole new way of being the church for the congregation and for us as leaders. The leadership team at First Congregational Church in Bellingham have been advised to expect another year or perhaps even two of “on again, off again” church gatherings. Even when we are able to gather, there will be restrictions. Programming that allows children to participate in in person community are unlikely to be suspended until there is a safe and effective vaccine for children.

Despite our grief at not being able to engage in church programs, we are working together to offer resources and continuing programs to engage people. One of the things that has been reported to us is the joy of those who were delivering packets at being able to see some of the children of the church. Masks were worn and appropriate distances were maintained, but we got to have some in person interaction. Sadly, those opportunities will be limited for now.

We will continue to be the church. We will continue to teach and learn about our faith. But we will long for the gatherings to resume whenever we are able. Another verse of the song goes like this:

Sometimes the church is marching,
sometimes it’s bravely burning,
sometimes it’s riding, sometimes hiding,
always it’s learning.

We aren’t exactly hiding, but we acknowledge that the seasons of Covid are a very unusual time. Still we are always learning.

(The words of the Avery and Marsh song are copyright (c) 1972 by Hope Publishing Company, 380 S. Main Pl, Carol Stream, IL 60188.)