Transition or Transformation?

Transition or Transformation?

I frequently hear people express their strong desire for us to transition out of this pandemic and return to basically what life was before it struck. They just want to get through this and back to their routine.

While I completely understand this, I humbly disagree.  Not only may it be impossible, but I would ask – is it truly desirable? As Dr. Phil famously kept asking his guests, “How’s that working for you?”  How was it before the pandemic? Was it really all that good for churches or our country?

Depending on who you are, you come up with different answers. For the UCC, it’s not been so good. We’ve seen aging congregations with declining attendance and income in many of our churches and the wider church for years. Lots of churches have been struggling and facing very real and difficult challenges.

In our country, we had an economy that was working for some, but didn’t work for a whole lot more. Just ask our racial and social justice team. Indeed, this virus has exposed some of our country’s many and deep inequities as different groups have been impacted very differently by the virus and its affects.

To want to just transition, or make it through, or survive to the other side of this pandemic would likely put us right back in the same or similar challenging situations many of our churches and our denomination were facing beforehand. And for many, in a weakened state! Moreover, I don’t believe it would be faithful for us to put our time and energy into transitioning or surviving to the other side of this pandemic - to work to have things return to “normal,” to our old ways of doing and being the church.

I believe that in this time, we are called to hear afresh the words of Isaiah that were part of our SNEUCC development and visioning: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43.19)

I believe this pandemic is giving us an opportunity for transformation, not transition, such that on the other side, we will be better equipped, more effective proclaimers of the gospel, and better suited to “Live the Love and Justice of Jesus”, not just now in 2020, but on into the future.

I hear the additional words from God, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49.6)

It is not enough for us to go back, to raise up our own “tribes” and to restore the survivors of/among our churches. We are being called to something more. We are being called to expand our vision, our focus, our concern. We are being called to be a light to all nations/people, not a light to just our own, so that God’s “salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

The door to adaptive change has been flung wide open, and God beckons us to walk through! Like ancient Israel was transformed into early Judaism by the Exile, and the earthly Jesus was transformed into the risen Christ through the resurrection, we too are being offered an opportunity for transformation and to become “new creations” by this pandemic and its effects.

As churches are now forced to live out the adage “the church is not the building, it is the people,” they are finding it is indeed true and are doing well. They are now able to be more fully engaged in outreach ministries, helping those in their communities, and are transforming themselves by finding a new sense of purpose and mission serving those hit hard, by being Jesus’ hands and feet.

Might this motivate other churches to seriously assess their building’s necessity and whether, on balance, it’s an asset that enhances and enables ministry, or a liability that restricts and diminishes it? And depending on the results, explore other options? I hope so.

One pastor told me they surprisingly had a lot more people participate in worship last Sunday than they’ve had in years, because many who would or could not attend in person were able to attend virtually. Other pastors have also experienced this. When this is all over, might we want to continue developing our ability to reach people through the Internet such as online worship and prayer sessions?

What about our carbon footprint? One positive aspect of this crisis has been the effect on the environment as we have witnessed a great improvement in air quality. Do we really want to go back to damaging the environment as before? Finally, what about re-examining, through the new lenses this experience has given us, how we can best accomplish our mission and fulfill our vision?

We are posting stories about the amazing ways our churches have responded. Read them. They are inspiring! Two are: Honk for a Hallelujah and Pastor Plans Tent Ministry to Fight Covid-19 Crisis. I also encourage you to read the blog posts by Conference Staff Debbie Kirk, What can I do? Outreach in the time of Corona and Susan Townsley, You’ve Been Innovating!
Transformation is hard. It’s painful. It’s not something people seek out, but rather seek to avoid. Just read Jeremiah or Habakkuk. Adaptive change is likewise: not easy and not without pain. Yet, on the other side is new life and new creation. I also hear the story of “The Valley of Dry Bones” (Ezekiel 37) with its question “Can these bones live?” God responds by sending God’s Spirit into the bones and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.  As God was with Israel during its transformation in the Exile, God is with us now!

The yang paired with the yin of “crisis” is “opportunity.” In the midst of this crisis, we are being given an opportunity by God/Jesus to be transformed, that we may become better, more effective instruments through which God’s and Jesus’ love, justice, grace, and compassion are made manifest and the gospel is proclaimed in this mid-21st century world in which we live.

Let us not “remember the former things or consider the things of old” (Isaiah 43.18), but rather perceive and join in this new thing God is doing and is encouraging to spring forth.


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David Cleaver-Bartholomew

Rev. Dr. David Cleaver-Bartholomew is the Director of Stewardship and Donor Relations for the SNEUCC. Contact David for:  Proportional Giving How to calculate proportional giving for 2021 Annual Giving/Stewardship Campaign General advice and ...

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