A Church that Thrives in a New Era

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, August 5, 2021

A Church that Thrives in a New Era

The acceleration of change in our world over recent decades is astonishing. Our communications, entertainment, and production technologies today are far beyond what they were just ten years ago. Until very recently, continuation of church fellowship while the sanctuary is shuttered would have been unthinkable. But thanks to Zoom, Facebook Live, and YouTube, church members have been able to remain visually connected even when physically separate.

Even without the pandemic shutdown, the world has changed greatly over the past 18 months. Consider just one new development – space tourism. It’s the stuff of science fiction, right? No longer. “Eras” – periods when life stays much the same – were once measured in millennia. Then in centuries. Today, new eras arrive in months. The pandemic season of 18 months (and counting) is not just a hiccup, but an era. Life will not – cannot – be the same after it. How will the church adapt to the new era that lies before us? Whatever its emerging shape, the church will still be built on timeless foundations, something we have summarized in the “Great Ends of the Church.” (Book of Order F-1.0304)

The second of the church’s six “great ends” is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” While we rightly claim that all people are children of God, this statement is meant to focus on the church’s calling to serve its own household. What might that look like as we emerge from the pandemic era?

The first “great end” of the church faces us outward – proclaiming the Gospel publicly to the world. The second reminds us that the church can be effective in world-transforming outreach only to the extent that it effectively protects, coaches, and practices robust mutual engagement within the community of faith, week in and week out.

1. Shelter. Protection. The church’s awareness of its responsibility to protect the faithful has expanded during the battle against COVID. Sessions grapple with how to assure the saints’ physical safety when they gather. Deep cleaning. Masking when advisable. Distancing when necessary. Awareness of how our collective behaviors affect potential transmission of pathogens. Promotion of vaccination, such as I offered in last week’s letter – counsel that is needed with increasing urgency as the delta variant runs amok among the unvaccinated.

However, our charge is to assure more than the saints’ physical protection. It is also spiritual protection from what Jesus calls “wolves” – those whose messages mislead and take advantage the sheep. Such messaging is more rampant than ever thanks to social media, something the pandemic has amplified. The church needs to protect its flock from being misled, by telling its members the truth more plainly than ever. Tell it straight. Make it plain. (Habakkuk 2:2)

2. Nurture. Coach. Maintaining the status quo is not enough. We need to grow, not just to subsist. The pandemic has reminded us that the church’s calling goes beyond simply assuring that worship and education opportunities are available each week. Members need to grow in their love for and service to our Lord. A thriving church does not buy into “if you build it, they will come” thinking.

The church that thrives in the coming era will continue to use multiple means to offer its members opportunities to continue growing in their faith, love, and service for the Lord – whether or not they can show up on site. It will urge its members to participate, not simply hope they do.

We never outgrow our need to grow. New technologies enable us to develop new strategies for lifelong discipleship. Let us not lose this ground we gained during the pandemic!

3. Spiritual Fellowship. Hearty mutual engagement. The earliest Christians were noted for koinonia, the fellowship of the saints. (Acts 2:42) It was not merely a matter of being with one another, but a particular way of being together, intentionally attentive and responsive to each other’s joys, sorrows, triumphs, and obstacles. Deep listening. Robust response. It’s what led the early church to develop new ministry initiatives, such as a special program of care for widows.

The term “spiritual fellowship” can be used as a cop-out from being actually in the thick of things with each other, as though we can be “spiritually” connected while keeping to ourselves in practice. That is not its intent. Its meaning may be better grasped if we substitute “spirited engagement.” It means that we are all-in with each other. As we emerge from the pandemic, we will need to listen and respond more fully to each other than ever before. New programs may be needed; old programs may need to end. Listen. Respond. Repeat. All-in, together.

Yours in mutual care,

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