Sure Guidance for a Traumatized Church

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
April 30, 2020

Let’s be honest. The church has been traumatized by its incapacity to fulfill an essential function, namely, to gather God’s people together for worship, fellowship, and public witness. The very term “church” is from the Greek word that means “called” – summoned together by God. Together. It is impossible to be “church” and not to be together.

This coming Sunday’s lectionary includes Acts 2:42-47, which shows that the earliest Christian church began its life in the wake of Pentecost by practicing togetherness – to worship, to break bread, to bear witness, to live in community. In doing so, they were being more instinctual than intentional. When the Holy Spirit infuses God’s people, the effect is always just that – God’s people are knitted together, as Paul so eloquently declares in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13.

So for the church to be scattered flies in the face of its essential identity. To be scattered by mandatory social distancing is traumatic to the church’s very core.

In a time of trauma, it is easy to lose our bearings. Just ask anyone who is trying to drive through an unfamiliar city amid frenzied traffic and is running late for a critical appointment. (How do I know about that??)

So how do we find a pathway forward that is faithful to our calling, when we have been bumped way off course? What sort of GPS can get us back on track?

Our Reformed heritage points to six “Great Ends of the Church” as markers of the church’s purpose. They are the goals to which our life together points us, whatever our current situation or trauma. As cited in our Book of Order (F-1.0304), they are:

  • the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
  • the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
  • the maintenance of divine worship;
  • the preservation of the truth;
  • the promotion of social righteousness; and
  • the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world

Keeping these core purposes before us assures that we are on track to fulfill the church’s calling. Today I invite us to give special consideration to the second of the six Great Ends. Being attentive to it – along with the others – is critical to our fulfilling our calling as the church in all times and places, but especially here and now.

Shelter. Nurture. Spiritual Fellowship.

As a core purpose of the church’s existence the “shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God” stands as a constitutional mandate for every congregation. Yet it is more than canon law; it is an expression of the very heart of Jesus.

One of the key metaphors of the relationship Jesus has with us is that he is our shepherd, and we are his sheep (see especially John 10:1-18, also in this coming Sunday’s lectionary). A shepherd guards the flock from predators. In our current trauma, the church must do all it can to provide shelter from the COVID-19 virus. Whatever it takes, we must step up to the plate to provide maximum possible shelter to all who belong to and seek our fellowship. That includes social distancing, thorough sanitation of any facilities we use, appropriate screening and masking of those who enter our facilities, abundance of caution in how we deliver pastoral care, and the list goes on.

We cannot nurture those whom we do not shelter. That gets to the second part of the heart of Jesus – he not only shelters his sheep, he leads them to life abundant (John 10:10), to green pastures. The earliest church gained followers, its historians report, because of the way in which its members provided for each other’s needs. “See how they love each other!” outsiders marveled at the early Christian community. And that made them want in!

“Spiritual fellowship” includes, but is not restricted to, in-person interaction. It is most fully nourished by physical togetherness, but in seasons of separation it can also be richly practiced. As a pastor, I have often felt that some of my most significant pastoral care has taken place over the phone, when physical presence was impossible. It can even happen through email and text messaging. Most assuredly through old fashioned letters and cards. Yes, even through Zoom! All these ways that we seek to continue being present to each other nurture our spiritual fellowship, and become even more significant when we are unable to be physically present to each other.

What is your congregation doing to provide the best possible shelter? How is it continuing to nurture love among its members? What means of technology is it using to continue being present to all for whom it cares?

Yours in caring for the flock of God,

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