How the Church Reacts Now Will Shape Her Future in the U.S.

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Q: Is it enough then that we do not murder our neighbor in any such way?

A: No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.

—Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 107

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks:
The Church engages in the pure preaching of the Gospel; 
It makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; 
it practices church discipline for correcting faults. 

—Belgic Confession Article 29: The Marks of the True Church 

Alternative Title: How a Catechism and Confession Could Bring Spiritual Renewal in Our Country (maybe a bit of an overreach and certainly not as click bait worthy). 

As the summer season draws to an end and we move closer to the beginning a new academic year, my focus turns to the university, new and returning students, and fall ministry plans. Yet in the midst of all that may or may not take place on the campus of Iowa State University in a semester subject to constant correction and revision in light of our current pandemic, I find myself reflecting on our church and on the church.

I’m convinced that how the Church reacts now, to COVID-19 and to the rising tide of justice issues, will have a significant shaping influence on her future in the United States for years to come (for good or for bad). And I believe that the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession present us with valuable tools for reacting in ways that glorify God and lead to the church flourishing through loving care, confessional creativity, and trust in God.

As another wave of the pandemic sweeps over us, the church has an incredible opportunity to live into the call of Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 107; to lead and to love; to be a healing balm or a clanging symbol. The pandemic, as well as the summer of protests and riots, has offered us an opportunity to acknowledge and embrace the God-given gifts of those members in the fields of medicine, numerous sciences, and government by taking their wisdom, insight, and instruction seriously; to reflect and lament our efforts to seek justice, to stand with the poor and oppressed and against the abuse of power and evil at work in all aspects of society [1].

In each of these ways, the church is positioned to catch glimpses of, and witness to, the healing, reconciliation, peace, and renewal that mark the coming Kingdom of God to a world consumed at this moment by pain, division, unrest, destruction and decay.

In addition, as churches navigates risks, rules, and restrictions with regard to gathered covenant renewal worship, the opportunity is there to find new ways to expand our mission into that space between the computer screen and the (traditional) worship space. With the three marks of Belgic Confession Article 29 as our guide, there is space for cultivating our Christian imaginations, adapting our liturgies and practices of worship for use outside, in homes, or through smaller groups; hosted and led not only by pastors and paid staff, but elders and teachers trained in the Word and equipped by the Spirit to provide pastoral care by tending the flock as additional under-shepherds for such a time as this.

Just because congregations cannot currently meet in their once-a-week buildings as they previously did doesn’t mean that the church has been closed or is being persecuted, it simply means that in this moment of trial, we need to become ever-dependent on God as we engage in fresh expressions of what it means to be the church in worship to God and in life together.

And speaking of cultivating our Christian imaginations, the church is also being challenged to consider fresh expressions of being on mission in the world; to engage others with the gospel and work for the common good. How might churches utilize their physical spaces to accommodate the needs of the communities in which they find themselves (child care, education supervision, internet access, etc.)? How might congregations, and individual Christians, meet the new needs of our neighbors in this post-COVID environment? What does it look like for us to leverage technology to build relationships, provide spaces for exploring Christianity, and engage in substantive conversations with non-Christians? Could this be a unique time for spiritual formation and vocational discipleship? It is important that we recognize the numerous missionally significant spaces pregnant with latent potential such as the home, neighborhood, and the workplace.

This is one of those cruciform moments in the life of the church, and of her members, particularly in the United States. We will come out the other side, but the question is: In what shape? Will the slow decline in church attendance and Christian identification continue, perhaps accelerated by churches that flaunt their freedom in defiance of state orders, and Christians who alienate the very people they wish to reach through thoughtless, hateful, or (as in the case of so many conspiracy theories floating around) ridiculous social media posts that dismiss people’s fear, anxiety, and for some, the very real pain of sickness and death. Will churches permanently close their doors at a faster rate, crushed to death by an inability to adapt to new ministry contexts, financial constraints, or undue longings for safety and comfort?

Or will we take up the challenge presented us in the catechism; will we stretch ourselves in living into the framework of the true church found in the confession. Some may say these documents are too narrow or are constrictive, but I find them quite broad and freeing as the church looks into an uncertain season. And while I cannot say for certain, I believe if the church will take up this challenge—wholehearted obedience to God’s commandment and fresh expressions of faithful confessional ecclesiology—we could see a promising future of spiritual renewal as the church’s love, mercy, and good news resonate in ways unheard of before. Can you imagine it?

But none of this will be easy. The call of Christ has never been about that which is easy. “Take up your cross,” says Jesus, “and follow me.” All of this will require further self-denial, difficulty, and, perhaps, discomfort. There will be fear, uncertainty, and failure. And, yet, God assures us by His Word that nothing can overcome the church (Matt. 16:18), no one can separate us from His love in Christ (Rom. 8:38-39), and that we are not alone: “I am with you always, until the very end of the age (Matt. 28:20).”

May God give you His grace and peace as we enter into this new season of ministry and life. Amen.

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