Walt Lichtenberger

Rev. Walt Lichtenberger

Rev. Walt Lichtenberger

A seasoned worshiper asked as she was leaving worship, “Pastor, do you think the church is going to get back to normal?” The pastor asked for clarification, “What do you mean by normal?” After the slightest of delays came her wishful reply, “Our sanctuary filled with people.”

From the place of honesty, the pastor heard himself say, “I’m afraid it is not. When the pandemic is finally over, the church will not be in the same place it was before COVID.”

Recently, I’ve had some version of this conversation with others and with myself. It is what I wonder and worry about in the middle of the night when sleep abandons. What is going to happen to the church that I love after COVID? Are we ever going to get fully back together?

There is no doubt in my mind that on the other side of the pandemic, things will be different. After all, nothing is static; life and the future are always in motion.

Autumn reminds me of this truth as I drive through our tree-lined neighborhoods. Leaves, once a deep shade of green, are now bright red and vibrant yellow. Change happens as time flows onward in the natural ordering of things. Spring turns to summer, summer turns to fall, fall turns to winter. Each seasonal adjustment brings with it a microcosm of alterations.

The cycle, though it repeats annually, never does so in precisely the same way. Things evolve; acorns sprout in different places, arbors age and die, wood decays. Our perceptions of these things also transform; we see (and don’t see) things differently each year.

Although one can view and understand the changing seasons from a purely scientific or philosophical basis, I have come to experience these things through a spiritual lens as a person of faith. Following scripture’s wisdom, I comprehend the natural world (my creaturely-self included) with its constant change, as the handiwork of a creator.

I agree with the prophet Isaiah who asked, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth (Isa. 40:28).” And, I say, “amen” to the psalmist who proclaimed, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings (Ps. 36:7).”

It is through a lens of faith in a loving creator that I am envisioning life transformed beyond COVID. But, first, I recognize that the virus has already brought about significant alterations to how we live, shop, learn, work and worship.

Some of it is not good. For example, the virus has increased the intense partisan divide wrecking our land. How is it that wearing masks and vaccination has become political? Our nation desperately needs healing of not only our bodies but our soul.

Also in the negative COVID category, churches have seen a drop in attendance and participation. In addition, folks seem more tired (video meetings all day are exhausting) and have less energy for volunteering. Although these downward trends were present before COVID, the virus has intensified them to the point that they can no longer be ignored. As a result, a resizing of ministry and focus will need to happen in most congregations. For many saying “goodbye” to “what-we-always-did” will involve the hard work of grief.

On the other hand, some COVID changes have been good, such as the new possibilities everyday video conferencing has brought to our lives. What a joy it is to see my parents, who live in Tennessee, weekly. It is the same technology that allows some folks the flexibility to work at home.

For the church, COVID formed a whole new category of ministry — online. Over the past year and a half, churches large and small discovered how to livestream and use Zoom for worship, teaching and meeting. We had to exercise creativity and flexibility, which we have needed to do for some time but never seemed to get around to it.

Even though we won’t be in the same place after COVID as before, I remain hopeful for the life and future of communities of faith. Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are needed now more than ever for spiritual grounding. The connection with our loving creator, though possible anywhere, is heightened in designated sacred places and time-honored practices. Matters of the heart and spirit require nurturing in communities that have experience with such care. Love is something we need to practice with others.

Pathways leading to peace and justice for those who get lost on the margins are also desperately needed. Unfortunately, our consumer-based, inward-focused culture lacks the bandwidth for such things. Communities of faith not only have practice in caring for the poor, hungry, sick and troubled souls — it is our jam. We provide assistance to those in need with a passion, driven by an understanding of God’s love.

I look forward to the opportunities that lie in front of us as people of God, gathered in various congregations across distinct faith perspectives. With new tools and methods for communication, we will meet the challenges ahead. Now is a time for us to build bridges and come together in ways previously unimaginable. To pray for one another, honoring the God present and proclaimed in each. To accompany one another and unite efforts for the good of all those who live in our community. No longer do we need (nor is it possible) to go it alone.

The Rev. Dr. Walt Lichtenberger is the lead pastor at St. James Lutheran Church in Burnsville. He is one of several area pastors who write for “Spiritual Reflections,” a weekly column appearing in this newspaper. He also writes devotions on his website, lightfromthishill.com.