As I sit quietly meditating this morning, I can hear the raspy coughing of my wife and children in the rooms down the hall.
The plague has come to our home.
Last week, we became one of the numbers on the ticker graph of every major news station. Our family of five is infected with COVID-19. We have become a statistic. We are now numbered among those we’ve been praying for every day.
It started with one child, then like dominos our family fell. Each person in our family has experienced symptoms a little differently. My wife Jill, son Alexander (16) and daughter Angel (12) are hit the worst, and have debilitating fevers, coughing, stomach pain and headaches. My oldest son Michael Jr. (17) has experienced light symptoms, tiredness, headaches that diminish the ability for complex mental tasks, loss of taste and smell.
We could literally be a case study of a family that followed all guidelines to minimize the chance of infection. We wore masks, quarantined most of the year, social distanced when in public, and washed our hands frequently. We haven’t held an in-person worship experience in our sanctuary since March of 2020 when the virus was first circulating. We even kept our children at home in online school most of the year.
However, as we have all learned this year, our caution is dependent upon the willingness of others to follow those same protocols. Sadly, the virus was turned into a political talking point, a “hoax,” and charges of its seriousness “exaggerated.” Someone please tell my sixteen-year-old bed-ridden son that the virus is exaggerated. Or the family members we buried due to complications from the virus that it wasn’t that serious.
During this time of forced quarantine, I’ve had some time to be still and reflect over 2020. I was one of the individuals who saw the paradox of a deadly virus as a moment of profound opportunity for a dying church. When dozens of in-person trainings, book tours, preaching invitations, and speaking events were all canceled or postponed—I took to my screen.
I led or participated in hundreds of sermons, trainings, local church workshops, coaching sessions, and speaking engagements all from my laptop. Somedays a digitally extended version of myself visited multiple states and jumped continents in a single day. I taught at two different seminaries, created a new house of studies at one, and wrote several books. I learned to create my own website, how to use Canvas, started blogging, became an amateur graphic designer, and live stream production manager (not well but give me a break!)
Like so many other churches across the US, by moving our church completely into online space, we started to connect with new members all over the country. We learned to stream services, joined new members, cultivated digital fresh expressions, and planted an online campus of our church. We did all this with my laptop, a cell phone, and no paid staff.
We met with our traditional congregations weekly by Zoom, formed a “Care Band Care-a-van” to visit the isolated, and launched weekly drive-through community dinners that fed thousands of people.
I have not had a single Sunday off stretching back to 2019, the entirety of 2020, and now moving into 2021.
For the pastors reading this, I know I’m about to preach to the choir, but many of the key leaders in my congregations have expressed discontent with Jill and I’s pastoral performance during the pandemic. Many people left because of our reluctance to return to in-person worship even though the governor of our state has offered no guidance or leadership in the situation. Other long-term members left due to our naming the evils of racism, nationalism, and Trumpism.
The remainder who are disgruntled (and they are a minority) don’t feel like any of what we’ve done in the digital space benefits the inherited congregation. They feel we have left people behind. That there are more important things we should be doing as leaders.
We have realized that they don’t consider any of these things valuable because it is simply outside their mental model and love language.
Can any other pastors and Christian leaders relate to all of this? Can I get an amen?
However, we can’t fault them. From their perspective none of this makes sense. Some days it doesn’t make sense to me either.
Here sitting in the fog of the coronavirus with my family, I had an epiphany (on the week that Christians celebrate that). It came in the form of the activity on my front porch. Nine years ago I got sick and needed some surgeries. Our local congregation loaded our front porch with home cooked meals as a sign of their love. The meals and the cards have slowed down over the years. There hasn’t been a “pastor appreciation” month in five years. We’ve been through some hard times. Challenging the “isms” harboring in our own pews, have left many empty now. COVID-19 only accelerated what was already happening.
During our quarantine, the front porch has been busy again. This time, alive with not only a couple homemade soups from the few and the faithful, but gifts from our online church members across the US sending Instacart groceries, Door Dash, and UberEATS.
Reading the signs of the times… things have changed. What hasn’t changed is Christian people’s incredible ability to creatively share God’s love.
I’m becoming increasingly aware that what we have done yet again, is planted a new kind of church, from the rootstock of the existing one. These are seeds of the future church as a whole.
One of the things I did during quarantine was co-author a new book with my friend and colleague Rosario Picardo, Fresh Expressions in a Digital Age: How the Church Can Prepare for a Post Pandemic World. To be honest, I’m not too thrilled about the sub-title. I don’t know that we will ever know a “post pandemic world” in our lifetime. We may find ourselves in a Covidian Era, in which viruses spreading through a hyperconnected global village will be the norm. Mutations, vaccines, masks, social distancing, these may be enduring realities. Most certainly, digital life will be a significant part of the future.
In our new book, we offer some insights that we found to be essential over the past year. I sit here as one in whose home the plagues of Egypt have not “passed over.” I now realize just how important the learnings we collected from leading practitioners across the country actually are. Here I want to offer a series of reflections, some about how our family progresses through the virus, some about the importance of slowing down. But I’ll also scratch the surface of the e-haviors we propose in the book. I hope they will be helpful to others who have been or will be infected with the virus or its emerging mutations. And for the pastors who are experiencing mutinies, criticism, and attacks from inside the congregations you serve.