It’s a radical idea, I know. Every time I pose the question to a harried, sleep-deprived pastor, the answer is the same: “Cancel church!?” The requite gasps of alarm end the discussion as quickly as they start.
But I think the question is worth asking. Especially during a worldwide pandemic.
Church leaders are saddled with a unique brand of weariness: the days the laity slate for rest are the very days church leaders are doing their most harrowing work.
Pastors are people without Sabbaths.
During the onset of Covid-19, church leaders scrambling to move their services online created a double work load for themselves. Additionally, they shouldered the disheartening knowledge that even their most polished offerings bring minimal returns when offered through livestream services — a medium thoroughly removed from embodied community. (We’re already burnt out on Zoom meetings, anyways.)
During the scramble to offer “church” online this past spring, I found it a curious, counter-common sense and counter-biblical phenomenon: in a time where the body of Christ would be best served (and serve) by observing a natural sabbath, using the time for contemplation, biblical lament, and tending our immediate families and individual inner landscapes, instead, a curious clamor arose – to bring “church” online.
Sermons preached online.
Worship music performed online.
All of the practices that had once brought people physically together in a time of communion and worship were now being projected from square black box in your own homes.
And with the recent surge in Covid cases, (many of them linked to intimate gatherings where people are in close proximity to one another for long periods of time), I think this question bears another ask:
What if our worship of Jesus in this time looks more like rest and abstinence, than anything else?
What if we canceled church?
There is something inane, dare I say insane, about the assumption that staying close to God requires attendance to theological lectures, cheapened in quality and expanded in labor to accommodate a worldwide pandemic.
But since when is the church a gathering to hear a theological lecture? Isn’t the “church,” as C.S. Lewis put it, the entity “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners”?
But what about community? You ask. What about worship?
Artist and liturgist Scott Erikson reminds us that worship means “the work of the people.”
Our work is to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly: how is putting a community at so much risk fit into these requirements?
How is trying to white-knuckle our way against the realities of our time and place and squeeze out the last drops of a burnout year worship?
What if we already have enough without overextending ourselves and our leaders?
For decades, we’ve been gluts for the easiest, most palatable, and expendable versions of all that makes life rich and good and holy. We have cheapened our tastes to fit the economical choice – and by this, I don’t mean frugal or wise. I mean a blind buy-in to the flashy and accessible, assembly line versions of what is beautiful and blessed.
Lewis likens this “…itch to have things over again, as if life were a film that could be unrolled twice or even made to work backwards,” as correlative to the biblical passage about the love of money (and what it represents) as the root of all evil.
This is deeply opposed to the story of the Sabbath. The word “sabbath” in its essence means “to give life.”
John Mark Comer explicates the nature of the biblical Sabbath in his book, Garden City, an exposition on work and rest. In it, he explains how, “Sabbath is an act of resistance to Pharaoh and his system,” recalling the biblical exodus story where the newly-freed Israelite slaves were gifted with a Sabbath day in direct resistance to their former slave driver, Pharaoh.
Their new master instead welcomed their thriving, and subsequently their rest, bidding them set aside one day out of seven to enjoy the work of their hands, one another, and their creator.
Comer writes, “The sabbath has a life-giving ability to procreate – to fill the world up with life. No matter how much you love your job or fine-tune your work/life balance, by the end of the week, you’re tired. Your fuel cells are on empty. But rest refills us – with energy, creativity, vision, strength, optimism, buoyancy, clarity, and hope. Rest is life-giving.”
Despite its place in the ten commandments, our religious posture towards this lifegiving practice tragically mirrors the western, industrialized, capitalist precedent, which not only refuses heed this practice but actively villainizes it.
The question for pastors currently is time. Right now, pastors scrambling to move church “online” or coerce their communities into a dangerous situation in the name of “worship” or “community” have shouldered a double work load, combined with added isolation, and built-in anxiety of worldwide unrest, and the knowledge that even their most polished work will only bring minimal returns.
Do the people of God need a constant stream of information, (yes, even theological information!) fueled by the already burnt-out efforts of church leaders, who are usually already stretched to their emotional and physical capacities?
Is this leaning into the rhythms of rest that the Creator set for us?
“Sabbath is a way to say enough! Enough work. Work is a good thing, but it’s not THE thing. There’s more to life than production. There’s pleasure. Sabbath is a way to break our addiction to accomplishment,” writes Comer.
As people of God, we have also been offered a nectar of life, and it has been offered often in the visage of humans – humans who love and tend our spiritual needs with every ounce of strength their hearts can muster.
In this time of pestilence, of uncertainty, of “poised, anxious sorrow” we can demand a frenetic scramble to “keep the film roll” – to repeat our experiences from a safer time on YouTube or risky church service, recording our flashy and valiant attempts to make a living room or half-empty church feel like a house of communion.
But the reality is, a black box isn’t going to replace community. And when meeting together can mean death to “the least of these,” we can minister to each other in different ways – by tending to ourselves.
This goes for pastors most of all – the people without Sabbaths, people who coil their identity around their performance and their service. This is a new practice, and a bone-deep necessary one.
If Christians are the countercultural impetus for healing we claim to be, shouldn’t we also be the first to decry the harried obsession with constant access to the so-called spiritual food that is the sermon lecture and worship band experience? What if instead, we decided to model a different pace – the kind of pace that the creator “built into the rhythm of creation” in Genesis?
If the job of a pastor is to shepherd, encourage, and prepare the laity for the inevitable trials of life, then isn’t a pandemic a perfect opportunity to practice, quite literally, what we preach?
“God isn’t a commodity,” John Mark Comer reminds us. “He’s a spirit… He doesn’t have an idol. The closest thing he has is US, his image bearers…to YHWH, we’re not cheap labor. We’re partners.”
If the work of pastors up until this point has been significant, it was for such a time as this. The living body of Christ cannot be replaced by a livestream. And the whole, joyful heart of a leader cannot be replaced with a sermon. With each layer of removal, something vital is lost.
Communion is about this bounty. A bounty where the wholeness of each individual who joins at the table is actively sought and embraced.
Pastors, your role is vital, too, in this time, but we don’t need more of your labor.
You have so much to offer from the center of you, and that can be offered up independent of the endless hustle.
It exists in a still place that’s accessible anytime, anywhere: in the middle of a pandemic and economic collapse as much as any other. Henri Nouwen writes, “When we are not afraid to enter into our own center and to concentrate on the stirrings of our own soul, we come to know that being alive means being loved.”
We need you to lean in to the truth of the hidden blessing of this grief-stricken time: The way to emerge from this pandemic more spiritually sound and rejuvenated is by practicing trust that your nurturing work is ready to bear fruit. It is trusting in the agency and robustness of the body of Christ.
We don’t need to be coddled. We’re ready for this: and pastors, you can rest – metaphorically, and literally – in that truth. It is in this place your needs will be met, your gifts will be offered