I’m not ready to go back to church.
I haven’t been inside of a church building for six months. Now for some this isn’t odd at all, but for myself, this represents the longest I’ve ever been away from church or worship. I’ve attended church online, on and off, less so as the crisis persists. Several years ago, I wasn’t officially part of any congregation or attended a church regularly. Struggling with my faith, and disappointed with what I encountered in worship, I mostly abstained from church for nearly four years. I still went to a church occasionally, even though I wasn’t regularly attending and wasn’t planning to do so. Thus, for myself, this separation from church sets a kind of unusual record for me. One that I never planned on setting when I returned to church regularly at the end of 2018.
When in-person church services ended earlier this year, I never dreamed that the coronavirus situation would persist into August. And yet, here we are, still negotiating what in-person church worship might look like. I very much realize that this isn’t the same situation for other churches, even within my own denomination. Some churches plunged back into in-person worship (“faith over fear”) weeks ago, while others have carefully crafted a modified or staggered approach to in-person worship. I live in Florida, currently one of the many “hotspots,” where the virus remains a daily concern.
I am a member of my church’s coronavirus planning committee, and thus the question about going back to church, and what that would look like, regularly comes up. Personally speaking, I’ve been thinking about what it would mean to go back to church and whether I’m ready for that. And whenever I think about going back to church, I don’t feel a strong pull or draw to return. Going back to church wasn’t something I was looking forward to. In fact, it’s quite the opposite for me. Thoughts of returning to church created feelings of hesitation and trepidation. Maybe a bit of anxiety if I’m being completely honest. These are persistent, haunting feelings, which leave me saying, “I’m not ready to go back to church.”
For many days I’ve sought the reason as to why I’m not ready to return to church. At first, I assumed it might have been some lingering feelings related to coronavirus, but when I pursued those feelings and thoughts further I realized that my lack of desire for church came from other reasons. I’m not ready to go back to the old ways of doing church, participating in what was done before the days of coronavirus. Now certainly, much of what is now (and will) take place within worship is new. For example, mask wearing, modifications for singing, social distancing, sanitizing, etc. are all new ways of doing church. However, what these really amount to are “new” ways of doing the old things. Essentially, fixes that allow churches to do what has always been done before. So, while the signs of worship have changed, the symbols remain the same. And my main issue is that the symbols we engage in neither address or acknowledge the change our world and society has undergone. Coronavirus has fundamentally, and forever changed, our society. We’re no longer the people that we were in the pre-virus world, and worship must in some way reflect this change. Not doing so is tantamount to ignoring those changes, promoting instead a world that no longer exists and will never exist again (even with a vaccine). Thus, worship becomes the most depressing kind of caricature, one that’s only able to mimic what life used to be like while also being noticeably unable to do so in a way that’s believable.
Near the beginning of this pandemic, I saw how churches were doing many interesting things with virtual worship. Experimentation was widely practiced and churches that had never been virtual were suddenly posting live videos, online content via social media, and practicing new forms of worship. Churches were suddenly embracing the new, implementing the unfamiliar, and reaching different audiences. And out of the pandemic came an excitement and buzz about the new tools and ideas being implemented for worship. Yet, somewhere along the way these new developments and ideas were eagerly pushed aside in the hopes of returning to the old ways of doing things (no matter how difficult and complicated implementing them proved to be). Instead of innovating, churches have instead moved the opposite direction—finding ways to implement old practices that are no longer hospitable, safe, or (in some cases) desirable in a post-Covid 19 world. Rather than finding new ways to worship (both virtually and physically), we’ve moved backward, looking instead for increasingly difficult methods for singing, preaching, and physically gathering within the same old spaces.
Regardless of the how of worship, perhaps my biggest problem with returning to church is the question of should. Is it justifiable to do so? I don’t know if the old ways (pre-Covid 19) of worship (praising, singing, sermons) are necessarily appropriate when nearly 170,000 Americans have died due to the virus. Nor do the old actions of worship speak to deep racial and social issues that have become overwhelmingly apparent over the last few months. Furthermore, with a record level of millions still unemployed, it’s hard to find a real clear justification for bringing back those old symbolic actions. Perhaps, just perhaps, if new symbols could be found that speak to and adequately reflect this new Covid/post-Covid world I’d be more willing to return to church. But for now, returning to church in order to “go through the motions” doesn’t hold much interest for me. I believe instead that we should be reading “the signs of the times,” learning from what is happening socially and culturally before rushing back to implement worship. It will require a collective and concerted effort at searching for and discovering the birth of the “new” taking place in our world, thus taking seriously the historical situation we find ourselves in. Describing the new, Paul Tillich writes,
It is the same in our historical situation. The birth of the new is just as surprising in history. It may appear in a social group where it was least expected. It may appear in the pursuit of activities which seem utterly insignificant. It may appear in the depth of a national catastrophe. . . . The new in history always comes when people least believe in it. But, certainly, it comes only in the moment when the old becomes visible as old and tragic and dying, and when no way out is seen.
I repeat: the first thing about the new is that we cannot force it and cannot calculate it. All we can do is be ready for it. We must realize as profoundly as possible that the former things have become old, that they destroy our period just when we try most courageously to preserve the best of it.
At this point in history it’s hard to say what new thing will come from this pandemic. But I do believe this, that our best response isn’t to rush back into church in order to hit “reset” and restore things back to the way they used to be. Instead, a deep discernment must take place, one that evaluates and considers what has and is taking place in our society and world. Such a discernment might require us to abstain from church and worship for a longer period of time than we planned for in order to see, to read, and (most importantly) to humbly listen to what is happening. For truly, this is an event worth listening to.
A new thing is happening within our lifetimes, and this new thing is both terrifying and distressing. And yet, it also offers an opportunity. It offers the opportunity to reevaluate and consider what it means to attend church, to participate in worship, to be spiritual, to be religious. As Tillich reminds us, the new often comes when we’re ill prepared for it, at times when the old has begun to fade and die. And in response we can direct our efforts at either preserving the old, exerting great efforts at saving it, or attempt to learn from the moment, realizing the point when the former things have become old.
Following this pandemic, there’s no way to hit “reset” and restore things back to the way they used to be. This world will always be one that’s “post-Covid.” We can’t recreate the world (or church) as it once was. Doing so places us forever under its burden. A burden we must obviously deal with, but one that shouldn’t forever mar church and worship. We must, as Tillich advises, “break the power of the old, not only in reality, but also in our memory; and one is not possible without the other.” Living in a post-Covid world doesn’t mean that we will forever be grasped by its power. The beauty of the new is that it’s able to break the power of the old. The new thing, which we must be waiting and looking for, is able to save us by breaking the old in both “memory and reality.” But this can only be done if we’re willing, able, and open to the new that will ultimately emerge from this crisis.
 Paul Tillich, “Behold I am Doing a New Thing,” in The Essential Tillich (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 279.
 Tillich, 279.
 Tillich, 280.