It is that time of year again when I am staring down a thick stack of letters on my desk. They are, of course, the annual campaign appeal, and one should be coming to every member household of Grace Church as soon as I can sign them all. I am still working my way through the pile, but already many names have brought me up short. It happens every time I realize that here is a person whom I have not seen for seven months. It was mid-March – seven months ago – when the pandemic closed the doors of our church and scattered our flock. Numerous families left the city and are only now trickling back to homes and offices.
I must confess that I do wonder – and worry about – what the long term effect on our congregation will be. How many who left are not coming back at all? When the pandemic finally passes, and it is truly safe to gather again in the ways we did before, how will our habits have changed? My guess is that the remote experience is here to stay in every aspect of society. Business travel will not be what it used to be. Why fly to and from Asia for one meeting in a windowless conference room when you can Zoom instead? Retail shopping was already changing, but the pandemic has accelerated the notion that you don’t need to go to a crowded mall or department store to get what you want. What about attending church? The livestream ministry has been a lifeline keeping us connected. But when Covid-19 is conquered, will you recover the habit of physically coming to Grace Church on Sundays?
Never bet against New York City. The pandemic will end and the Big Apple will recover. But it’s not going to happen overnight, and the city that emerges will be different from the one we left behind. Likewise, the family of Grace Church will be different from the one that gathered for three Sunday services on March 8th of this year. A congregation is, by nature, a fragile and fluid thing. We are a community moving through time: constantly changing, now more rapidly than we might wish.
Meanwhile, pay attention to this Sunday’s Epistle (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8). St. Paul was making an appeal to a tiny congregation being buffeted about by time and circumstance. From afar he wrote of his great affection for them: So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
As for me, the stack of letters awaits!