It is 7:00 in the morning. The phone rings at home. A cheery voice on the other end of the line says, “Good morning. How are you this morning?” Warily, I reply, “I am fine thank you”.

The voice continues “I see you are a first-time customer, so I just wanted to explain that I will come to your front door, knock, then back away twelve feet and wait until you come and collect your purchases. I am seven minutes away, so will be there shortly. See you soon.” And he hangs up.

Sure enough, seven minutes later a van backs up our driveway. A man hops out, drops three plastic bags at the front door and retreats to the landing, until I come out to collect the items.

It seems this is the new face of grocery shopping – no more need to drive to the store, walk the aisles, squeeze a lemon for freshness, check labels to avoid deadly chemicals, ask directions from a shelf-stocker, or chat with a friendly cashier.

In these COVID days everything we do is being re-invented. Almost no part of our social fabric has avoided often dramatic change. We cannot expect that church should be any different. We are not immune to the state of the world’s health and we must find ways to do church that give people confidence that their health and well-being are as protected as possible.

We can resist all we want but, the reality is, we are never going back to business as usual. We may lament our current situation, but there is no returning to January 2020.

So, how do we re-imagine church in light of COVID-19? What may church look like as we seek to discern a vision for moving forward?

I wish I had answers. Alas, I am neither a visionary nor a prophet. But, what I do know is that, we will be more likely to find good answers if we move slowly and ask probing questions.

Unless the house is on fire, urgency and panic are seldom the most beneficial operating modes. We need to take time to listen carefully to our situation and open to the needs, concerns, and longings of those who have in the past looked to church for spiritual nourishment. We need to reassure those who long to return to the past that all is not lost. With openness, good will, flexibility, and creativity we will find new ways to fulfill our role as church even in the radically changed reality we are facing.

If we simply rush to re-create the best facsimile of church as we have always known and loved it, we may please a few, but we will not move forward into a sustainable life-giving future.

As we wait, we need to ask good questions. Good questions are the ones that open up discussion, help us to listen and provide new energy. There are two basic questions we need to ask at this time. Thy are easier to answer if you are a grocery store than if you are a church:

  1. What is church for?

For a grocery store this is pretty simple. The first priority is to provide good quality food at a reasonable price in an efficient manner to the greatest number of people.

But what about church. The problem here is that you will get a number of different answers from a variety of “customers”.

Church is a complex being. There may be differing priorities for people in our community. Some of these desires may conflict with one another. In this confusing time, it is essential that we strip things down to bare necessities and discern what we believe to be our primary function as church.

  • What offering is church uniquely equipped to make towards the human community?
  • What is the particular gift church can provide which will be missing in the absence of church?

We need to make a list in order of importance of our top three priorities that we believe are essential to church.

Having made our list we need to ask,

  1. What are the current obstacles to realizing these priorities in our present situation and how might we diminish as much as possible the impact of these obstacles?

Again, the answers for a grocery store are relatively simple. People can only gather in a limited number in a confined space in order to shop safely. So, grocery stores must either increase deliveries and pick-ups or implement shopping protocols that make it possible for consumers to navigate common space with relative safety.

The problem for churches is that the way of addressing the COVID challenge may inhibit or even completely destroy our ability to deliver the product our “customers” are seeking.

If one of our priorities is to invite people into heart-opening worship, this is difficult to achieve within the confines of an on-line forum. But, it may also be difficult to achieve in a large space with only fifty people present, distanced from one another by two metres in all directions and unable to sing.

If one of our priorities in doing church is to facilitate dynamic human interaction and a sense of living connection, this is going to be difficult in the absence of touching and radically restricted social interaction in our gatherings.

Grocery stores are working hard to find new ways to provide essential physical nourishment for their customers. If we believe that spiritual nourishment is equally important, we are going to need to work equally hard to find new ways to deliver our product.

The communities that survive COVID will be the ones that are creative, flexible and adaptable. Life has changed; if we cannot adapt to change and make ourselves open to new ways of being church, we will not survive. Good change starts by asking good questions and being willing to feel our way in the uncertain terrain of the present and explore together new possibilities for the future.