Will Things Ever Return to Normal?

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? – Psalm 137:4

If we consider how God worked in biblical history,  probably not.

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Psalm 137 was written during the Babylonian exile. Jerusalem has been destroyed. Israel’s monarchy has ended and God’s people have been deported. As Israel’s musicians grieved, their Babylonian neighbors made song requests:  “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (v.3) The Israelite musicians refused: “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” (v.4) It’s hard to sing when we are so far away from our house of worship.

God’s people eventually did return to their homeland and began rebuilding their place of worship. When the foundations of the temple were laid, the band played and the choir sang (Ezra 3:10-11). But not everyone celebrated:

But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.  No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. (Ezra 3:12-14)

The older generation grew up seeing Solomon’s splendid temple. By comparison, the newer temple is much more modest, and therefore the older people weep as they recall what Israel had in the past. They have returned to their place of worship, but things will never be the same.  The younger generation, who did not remember the good old days, rejoices because they now have a temple where they can worship God. They are excited that God is doing a new thing.

By the Waters of Babylon, James Tissot

Church consultants are telling us that across the nation churches who have resumed some form of indoor worship are seeing only 20 to 30% of their congregations are coming. The doors to the sanctuary have reopened, but things are not the same. Church consultants are also telling us that this could continue to be the situation for a year, perhaps even longer. If this is true, what will we do now?  Will we reminisce and long for the past? Or will we dream, and expect great things from God in the future?

Large worship gatherings will always be a part of church life. But to be faithful in our task of making disciples, we also need to be thinking smaller: Groups of all kinds (prayer, deeper study, spiritual accountability) meeting in all kinds of places (neighborhoods, parks and other public spaces), producing all kinds of fruit (spiritual growth, engaging our neighbors, forming new ministries).

When we reenter the building for worship, will we put our time and energy into making things the way they used to be? That will likely be frustrating, if only 20% of our people are ready to resume indoor in person worship. Or will we celebrate that God is doing something new in our midst – and that he has been doing it outside of the building?

About Corey Sharpe

Where do we get our beliefs? Three theological perspectives have significantly shaped my Christian identity: Evangelicalism, the early Methodist tradition and liberation theology. From my coming to faith in a Baptist church and throughout my education in a Baptist school and college, I was nurtured by convictions that emphasized a spiritual rebirth, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the centrality of the Bible. Even when I disagree with certain aspects of evangelicalism, it has deeply influenced my sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. My seminary studies spawned my interest in early Methodism, particularly its approach to spiritual formation. Its leaders were convinced that only a foundation of doctrine and discipline would lead to a meaningful transformation of the heart and mind. In other words, having the mind of Christ enables me to be more like Christ. Life in a suburban culture obscures the increasing gap between the poor and rich, as well as the Bible’s close identification with the poor. My doctoral work in socio-cultural context exposed me to liberation theology, which helps me see redemptive history as a history of oppressed groups, written from the perspective of the powerless, about a God who is actively involved with the poor in their struggles. I am now the pastor at Huntingtown United Methodist Church in Calvert County, Maryland. Together my wife and I are raising 4 young theologians.
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