I have not been to church since March. Well, what I mean is that I have not been inside my church building since the pandemic shutdown last March. The church building still resides along Exposition Road with its steeple and red brick exterior. The lawn still gets mowed and the air conditioning system still cools the interior. But church members and visitors do not grace the sanctuary, classrooms, and hallways. The ministers and church staff do enter the building, but socially distance themselves and many continue to work from home. Our large, multimillion dollar building sits almost idle and empty. Once a bustle of activities, the building has turned hollow and less hallowed.
But our church is alive and prospering, even during a restrictive pandemic. We worship Sunday mornings and attend our weekly Sunday class via Zoom. The ministers preach, we pray, and raise our voices in song (although my poor singing doesn’t get drowned out). We hear from speakers and attend bible studies. I even Zoom into my weekly Thursday Mexican lunch – all from my comfortable home. My gasoline bills have gone down which has made Austin driving so much better along with the air quality. Normally we would not be attending our Austin church from June through September as we spend the summer in British Columbia. This year, we never missed a Sunday courtesy of Zoom.
Dr. Ed Silvoso, founder of Harvest Evangelism and leader of the Transform Our World Network, authored Ekklesia: Rediscovering God’s Instrument for Global Transformation (Chosen Books, Bloomington, MN, 2017). He describes New Testament churches as different from our modern setting. “Back then, church always referred to people, never to buildings, and it was made up of individuals who operated 24/7 ‘from house to house’ all over town as a transforming organism, not as a static institution (Acts 2:46;5:42). Its objective was the transformation of people and of society, rather than acting as a transfer station for saved souls bound for heaven.” (page 20)
During the early centuries after Jesus’ earthly ministry, Christians met in homes and public spaces. The magnificent cathedrals and church buildings weren’t built until after Christianity was legal in the Roman empire and these buildings took centuries to construct. My Austin church was started after World War II and the congregation met in public places in small numbers while the building was constructed. Materials and qualified workers were scarce after the war. Over the past 70+ years, the church building slowly grew into its present structure. Just as Christianity expanded over time, so did our church building. But first came the people before the building.
When the pandemic hit, it was vitally important for our Christian community to gather for worship, study, and prayer. Church staff raced towards technology to link our Christian community. The first few Sunday morning worship services were bumpy, but the operations are now smoothly administered. Our Sunday morning class took a few weeks longer to organize, but now the class meets weekly and a few former class members who moved away are participating again. The church is a community of people united in a common bond of love of God and neighbor. While being in-person is preferred to Zoom meetings, Christians always find ways to form communities as witnessed during the last two thousand years.
Our church is in the middle of a capital campaign to raise money towards upgrading the technology and facilities to hold worship during the pandemic within our building. New air cleaning systems are being installed along with touchless technology. This will allow small group worship starting in Advent. While I support the need to return to our church building, the funds also will allow those wishing to stay home to participate in the life of the church. After the pandemic, those who physically cannot attend in-person will be able to participate along with those residing outside Austin. Christians are all ministers, and the church building does not define our faith. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)