In this time of coronavirus, we need a new grammar of church.
“Church” is not a noun with a cynosure of place. It is a verb. It is a verb not to be used in the singular but always in the plural: We church, you all church, they church. We may parse new and greater understandings of the divine and humanity as we work together toward creating that commonwealth continually heralded in our sacred texts.
Equally, we should embrace the infinitive of this verb: to church. The infinitive does not bind us to one time but suggests that this work is ongoing and continuing. It shall not be impeded by circumstances or fickle desires, but it will persevere in ways that address and react to the contexts in which it moves, breathes, helps, cries, aids, feeds, cares and liberates. This is not a church concerned with self-preservation, but a movement focused on being in a contemporary world.
It would be irresponsible of me to say I do not miss seeing the good people of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church gather on Sunday morning to collectively give worth to the ideals we uphold. Yet I would also feel a deepened grief and pronounced culpability knowing that such a gathering could cause one of these people harm or death.
My personal longings do not outweigh the health and wellbeing of others.
“The virus has not impeded the church’s ability to address important justice issues.”
The contemporary landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our society. We are witnessing new cases growing exponentially, ICU beds filling to capacity to accommodate COVID patients, and death tolls ranking the U.S. in the prime spot of fatalities. We also are subjected to daily occurrences of people ignoring social distancing and mask ordinances and participating in activities known to spread the virus. Often these actions lead to more fatalities.
Even more seriously, the virus has focused a clear beacon on our country’s failure and the habitual exclusion of brown, Black, indigenous, people of color and their communities.
The virus has not impeded the church’s ability to address these important justice issues. Although Pullen Memorial has not gathered as a large community since March 7, we have not been idle. We shifted our soup kitchen to accommodate health practices while providing groceries to people experiencing homelessness. We are calling on local officials to stop criminalizing people experiencing homelessness and to provide the much-needed mental health specialists and social workers required in our city. We are working with our county to prevent evictions during a pandemic. We are engaging with community leaders to address the discrepancy in fair housing practices. We are supporting protesters as they call for justice, and we are engaging with Repairers of the Breach to call for a true moral agenda in our world.
We also are doing the hard work of self-examination and restitution for our own personal and corporate complicity in a white supremacist culture. We are not alone in this work as we are encouraged by our partners in the Alliance of Baptists, interfaith communities and global connections.
This is “church” as a verb.
Calling for churches to open their facilities during this ongoing pandemic treats “church” as a noun. If the church is reduced only to a place, the vibrancy she needs to be justice and hope in the world will be bound to one hour each week. This inability to witness this work of justice and focusing on the importance of place is rooted in patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy.
“Gathering at a fixed place during a set time is no longer the church.”
Centering the church to a sole location and strictly defining her function as a place of worship is a practice that has excluded many throughout centuries. It historically separated enslaved people from white congregants; it placed immigrant communities of worship in the basement instead of the sanctuary; it banned women from the pulpit; it neglected the poor of the community; it squandered natural resources and contributed to environmental devastation; and, it prescribed harsh proclamations against the LGBTQ community.
Advocating for a place-specific definition of church amid a pandemic equates church to Kroger or Target. The church becomes a place of consumption, and its people become mere consumers, not doers, of the word. This is not incarnation; it’s indoctrination. Confusing this with the mysterious manifestation of the sacred is irresponsible.
Gathering at a fixed place during a set time is no longer the church, and a stance that calls for such an institution undergirds a worldview where solipsism trumps acting responsibly for the collective good.
The church is not closed. We have never closed, and we are churching like never before.
Brian Crisp is minister of missions and adult education at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C.