One of the perpetual questions posed to churches goes something like this:
“Would your neighborhood notice if your church closed tomorrow?”
We’ve all encountered this question in one form or another, and usually we do our very best to answer in the affirmative. We may see ourselves as a bastion of good will in the community. Perhaps we have ministries that address the direct needs of our neighbors. Or we might even have staff members who are connected to other leaders in the community, giving us a regular and tangible connection.
But what is becoming clear is that this question has become significantly more concrete in the last month and a half. Largely, churches have refrained from gathering in person for about five weeks (here in MN) and our buildings are more or less empty as we continue to do our part to diminish the spread of COVID-19.
We are not meeting as regularly for committee meetings, choir rehearsal, and worship planning. The number of regular daily interactions that take place in a church building are simply not happening. This is a good thing insofar as it reduces our exposure to one another, and continues to keep our community members safe, at least as far as we can have an impact. To be clear, I am 100% on board, enthusiastically, with churches heeding the wisdom and advice of the CDC and local governments and refraining from gathering in person.
But I can’t help but wonder how our neighborhoods are experiencing the closing of our church doors.
Now this question will always be different for different contexts. Some congregations are made up of members who mostly live near the church building, others draw their membership from a wide geographic area. My own congregation, located in Dinkytown near the University of MN, has very few members who live in the immediate neighborhood, and those who do (students primarily) have largely returned home while the University is shut down.
Friends and colleagues who serve in congregations of the former kind have mentioned that they feel perhaps even closer to the neighborhood amid this crisis. Members and staff are working diligently to connect with one another, to offer pastoral and community support to those who need it. Because their membership is made up of neighborhood residents, there is a sense that connection was never severed, and may even be deepening.
In a congregation like my own, where most members don’t live in the community, a similar deepening of connection among members has taken place. I think there is something universally connecting taking place across our churches. The stay-at-home orders and the fear about catching or spreading the virus has forced us to be significantly more intentional about how we gather and support one another. This is a beautiful emergence at a time of crisis.
At the same time, the neighborhood, the residents, the small businesses, the unsheltered folks, the physical space, are all experiencing something very different.
Unsheltered neighbors have shared that there are less and less safe and secure spaces for them to rest and use the facilities. There has been an increase in police harassment as unsheltered neighbors become significantly more visible in neighborhoods where no one else is on the street. Some of our neighbors rely on the generosity of neighborhood restaurants to eat cheap or free meals, but many of these businesses have closed.
Small businesses, especially restaurants and bars are facing incredibly uncertain futures. The neighbors who own these businesses are staring down the barrel of the end of their livelihood, and the very real possibility that they may not be able to reopen when this crisis has ended. The kind of business turnover that our neighborhoods could experience has the potential to transform the face of the neighborhood overnight.
Other residents are struggling to pay rent or to find enough to eat. Some landlords are working with residents to ensure their housing is secure, others are callously pushing residents out if they are unable to pay ( here is a fact sheet about renter’s rights during COVID-19 in MN).
This is a small fraction of what is taking place in our neighborhoods while our buildings are closed. Obviously, these are experiences that are being felt by our membership as well, not only by non-member residents, but I think it is important to remember that our community is larger than those who gather on Sunday morning.
The questions I have in this moment are about how and where the church invests its time and resources and why. It makes more than enough sense that so much of our creativity and ingenuity in these months has been dedicated to how we worship together, and largely I think that is exactly where we need to dedicate much of our efforts. The church proclaims the Word, administers the sacraments, and serves the people. That is our job, and I’ve been so grateful for the incredible ways my colleagues and friends have transformed worship and engaged meaningfully in challenging questions about the nature of church.
But as someone who’s full-time job is community engagement and organizing, I am wondering how best to stand with our physical neighborhood and those neighbors who may never join us on Zoom for Sunday worship. I admit that I don’t have good answers. I have some threads that I’m following in my own context such as mutual aid networks, emergency food shelves, and the like. And yet, what I can feel most viscerally is the very real absence of the neighborhood in our gathering, and the absence of our gathering in the neighborhood.
While I’ve been encouraged with many of my colleagues by the expansive vision of the body of Christ that can gather online, I have very real reservations about church that isn’t deeply and profoundly rooted in a geography and a neighborhood. I think when the church is removed tangibly from the neighborhood disaster follows, not only for the neighborhood but for the church. This might be something to flesh out in a later post, but despite the innovations and the creativity we’ve discovered amid COVID-19, if we lose our connection to our physical locations, our neighborhoods, I fear a very real loss of identity and mission.
Unfortunately, many of our churches have already shut themselves off from the neighborhood in which they gather. We tend to invite folks in, while rejecting the neighborhoods invitation to come out. We think of our community as solely the membership of the congregation, and very simply have no understood self-interest in engaging the neighborhood beyond increasing the member-rolls.
We may find that rather than asking whether the neighborhood would notice if we shut our doors, we may instead need to ask if we would notice the neighborhood once we’ve closed our doors. The answer to that question is going to have a lasting impact on our mission and vision moving forward as communities of faith post-COVID-19
I certainly don’t want to appear to be criticizing or casting judgement on the incredible work that churches across the country have been doing. I’ve been so impressed and wonderfully surprised by all the beautiful ministry that has emerged in this time. But my call is to point the church back to the neighborhood in which it finds itself, to represent the neighborhood’s needs and gifts and voice. What I am hoping is that as we continue to adjust our ways of being community, we remember that we are a people gathered in a place, even when we gather online.
I hope we ask ourselves some important questions:
- How do we marshal all the creativity and innovation we have tapped into to be present to our physical neighborhoods?
- What is our collective and personal self-interest in maintaining this connection to the neighborhood? Do we have one? If not, why?
- Who is our neighbor? Which of our neighbors are unable to gather online?
- How is COVID19 impacting those neighbors who don’t gather for Sunday worship?
- How will COVID19 impact our relationship to neighborhood when the stay-at-home orders end?
These are just some of the questions that I find myself wrestling with. I assure you; I don’t have any right answers. But what I know for sure is that we avoid these questions at our own peril. The church, at its highest ambition, is not abstract, it is not primarily invested in the self-actualization of its members. It is called to be Christ to the world. How will we continue to be Christ to our little corner of the world when we are prevented from being physically present?
I hope if you are reading this, that you will consider commenting with some suggestions, questions, ideas, hopes, and concerns of your own. I am writing this because I believe that we can only address these questions together. Leave a comment below or on Facebook about how your community is connecting to the neighborhood, or how you could imagine doing so. How would you answer some of the questions above? What questions have I left out?
Originally published at https://nicholastangen.com on April 15, 2020.