“You’ve come far, pilgrim,” actor Will Geer’s character, Bear Claw Chris Lapp, says to the younger mountain man who occupies the other side of their shared campfire. “Feels like far,” Jeremiah Johnson replies, the firelight dancing off Robert Redford’s tired but ageless eyes.
As the motion picture of the same name tells it, Jeremiah Johnson is a man attempting to live his life amidst unpredictable forces of nature in a mountain wilderness. As if that were not ordeal enough, he’s also caught between two conflicting cultures, one Native American, the other America’s westward migration. He’s lost family and home and confronts ceaseless attempts on his own life, the result of moral dilemmas less of his own making than the overwhelming cross-cultural antagonisms encompassing native Crow peoples and 19th century Anglo-American settlers intent on fulfilling the nation’s “manifest destiny” to “conquer the West.”
That brief campfire scene seems timelessly iconic, a simple dialogue applicable to untold moments in human history. Like now. Strange as it seems, we 21st century pilgrims also have “come far” after a year-long existence in a COVID-haunted wilderness where our lives are endangered by the very air we breathe. We’re homebound in a culture racked by manifest division, unable to agree on a shared sense of national identity, let alone destiny.
If that assessment seems too harsh, just ask the Asian, Jewish and African American citizens who’ve been harassed, beaten or shot down during whatever week you read this essay in the land of the free and the home of the heavily armed.
As we rightfully, thankfully, celebrate the possibility of life in a post-COVID environment, we appropriate that two-line litany as our own plaintive confession borne out by the memory of 600,000-plus deaths, of funerals yet to be scheduled; in gratitude to thousands of courageous first responders, teachers, store clerks, ministers and a myriad of other direct and indirect caregivers; and in recognition that together we’ve utilized gallons of hand sanitizer, mountains of masks and too much online everything.
Thus our collective call and response:
“You’ve come far, Pilgrim.”
And all the people said:
“Feels like far.”
Now what? That question and others like it confront churches across the denominational, theological and geographical spectrum. Are lessons learned during the pandemic applicable for a post-COVID re-formation of our churches? Is talk of re-form possible or even appropriate for COVID-exhausted congregations in an increasingly post-churchly society? (I prefer that term to the more common designation of America as a “post-Christian society” since a pretty solid historical case can be made that claims of a “Christian society” are rather overblown as illustrated in the abiding presence of all the “biblical” defenses of slavery, segregation and white supremacy that continue to endure all around us.)
“Change is the order of the institutional day, after day, after day.”
Long before COVID exploded in the biosphere, it was clear that an era of what I have called “permanent transition” had descended on American life in general and church life in particular. Change is the order of the institutional day, after day, after day. COVID expanded the reality of continued transition, forcing churches to re-form their traditional ways of being together from a gathered to a largely virtual environment.
While we all want to recover a more face-to-face, body-to-pew gospel community, COVID-era experiences may expand our vision of and ministry with the church in an increasingly post-churchly culture. If anything, surely the traumas of the last year are reminders that church and gospel have much to offer Americans whether churchly or non-churchly. (If we Christians can stop fighting with each other long enough to do so.)
Overall, American churches responded with courage and creativity in the face of COVID-produced challenges to church life and practice. While technological options already were utilized widely, most were not the normative or primary worship format for most congregations. With online worship, Bible study and fellowship, they became the norm, especially after the CDC announced that singing hymns in close proximity could bless you on Sunday morning and put you in ICU by Monday.
COVID-related quarantines compelled congregations toward experimentation, spontaneity and occasional gospel chaos, which one pastor calls the “total mechanized depravity” of online tech systems. Responding to my recent homily broadcast on Facebook, a friend wrote that he tried to watch but the screen “froze up” so he shut down his computer and drove to Biscuitville. I responded that when I “freeze up” while preaching live and in person he won’t be so lucky.
What if the collective realities of a national/global pandemic facilitate a re-formation of church and church life? If so, we might consider the following:
“Almost immediately, the disease itself became a dividing point with varying, often volatile, opinions as to its seriousness, degree of contagion and its treatments.”
- COVID became a national death threat, the first time since the infamous 1918 flu that an entire American population was endangered by shared disease and death. Given the more than half a million fatalities, American churches may need to re-form their approaches, not only to death and dying, but to resulting inconsolable grief, unabated fear and chronic anger — inevitable habits of the heart that no vaccine can cure. Will that require an enduring re-formation of ministry to the bereaving multitudes?
- COVID required that churches look closely at their congregate base. Who are they, and what are their demographics, their physical and spiritual vulnerabilities and diverse needs, especially those whose age, disabilities, special needs and economic status place them at greater risk? What ministries may need re-forming in order to better respond to those with specialized post-COVID needs?
- COVID exacerbated political and theological divisions already deeply engrained in the American political and ecclesiastical psyche. Almost immediately, the disease itself became a dividing point with varying, often volatile, opinions as to its seriousness, degree of contagion and its treatments, from the wearing of masks to the closing of public facilities, to the securing of vaccinations. What ministries must be developed or re-formed in response to those continuing health-based, inter-church guidelines and the debates, if not anger, that inevitably accompanies them?
- COVID literally emptied the majority of church buildings in the U.S. for more than a year. Returning to those sacred environs should be joyous but gentle. Most of us remain fragile, if not suspicious, of even the safest of sanctuaries. It may take a while before we can pass the peace or offer the right hand of fellowship without hesitancy. Many of our more vulnerable brothers and sisters may require virtual church participation for some time to come. Reunion requires responsibility.
- COVID and the suffering it continues to evoke across the nation and the world is both a calling and a challenge to American Christians in a post-churchly culture. Through it all, the Jesus story still captivates and, yes, even transforms those who’ve never heard it before and those who think they’ve heard it all. That remains our best post-COVID confession.
Perhaps the post-COVID church is a bit like Paul, Silas and the convicts in that Philippian prison after an earthquake “opened the doors.” To save the fearful jailer, Paul cries out: “Do not harm yourself, for we are all still here” (Acts 16:28).
Post-COVID 2021, let us cry out: “We are too, Paul, we are too.”
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
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