Pandemic Lessons to be Learned?

The pandemic continues to infect increasing numbers of people over the summer 0f 2020. As part of my #ListenLearnLove blog series I asked my former pastor, Kerry Nelson, to chime in with his thoughts about Pandemic Lessons to be Learned?

He was my pastor when I first moved back to Houston in 2004. He’s since moved on to another congregation, but his insights continue to inspire me. Thank you Pastor Nelson for this guest blog.

Lessons to be Learned?
By Kerry Nelson

Hollywood beat me to the punch. It wasn’t until the coronavirus lockdown that my wife and I discovered movies like “Contagion (2011)” and “Outbreak (1995).” I remember how H1N1 and Ebola made it through a few news cycles, but it wasn’t anything I paid much attention to. I didn’t have to. Then came 2020 and our taste of a world-wide pandemic.

I had no idea that March 15th would be the last time we gathered for a public worship service. Maybe for the rest of the year! Previously this would have been unimaginable to me – and then, as the trauma of the pandemic mixed with the trauma of a deeply divided and conflicted society – life has continued to feel like it is spiraling out of control. Which it is. Which ought not be a surprise given that “control” might be what we want from life but is seldom what we get.

What do we do with these days?

So what do we do with these days? With these times? It reminds me of one of the great sermonic cliché’s  – “Remember folks, it is not WHAT happens to us that matters, it is what we DO with what happens to us that matters.” So what do we do with the trauma of these days? Stay open-minded to the lessons they would teach us.

I’m a parish pastor so I’ll give you three lessons that I believe this season is teaching us about “church.”

1) Using technology to further relationships is here to stay.

We will never go back to the days when online resources weren’t part of family connections, work environments, classrooms, or support groups. We will never go back to the days when everyone was expected in their desks, at work, on time, every day. There will be fewer brick and mortar offices and businesses. That will change how we do life and how we look at the world.

At church, from board meetings to support groups to Bible studies, I don’t think we will do any of these again without giving some of the participants the option to attend online rather than finding someone to watch the kids as they drive to and from the church building. This will be a great thing for family life AND for church life.

2) This season of trauma with its weekly diet of live-streamed worship is causing me to seriously rethink how I have imagined the impact of worship on the lives of our people.

Before the pandemic hit, we offered three distinctly different worship services every Sunday. Two in English, a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service, and one in Chinese. I know why we had two services in English. I was an early adopter of having a variety of styles in worship. The congregations I have served have been doing that since 1994. But the experience of this pandemic has made me suspicious.

Giving our people the option of attending the service of their “choice” has had, I am coming to believe, some disastrous consequences. Offering a “traditional” service that people are happy, proud, and content to attend, produces people who experience worship like a comfortable old shoe that just “fits.” It reminds them of their childhoods. It provides stability in an unstable world. But the dark side is that I’m increasingly concerned that it fosters a childish faith that refuses to be nudged into new ways of seeing and being in the world. It leads, not to maturity of faith, but to concretized immaturity.

As for the “contemporary” service we offer, more and more I am seeing people who are not more deeply engaged in worship (which was the initial rationale and expectation for alternative worship styles) but who, instead, are satisfied to be an audience intent on being entertained. Worship blesses them in their “What’s in it for me?” way of being in the world. This too concretizes immaturity.

Church: challenge or comfort?

Unsurprisingly, both sides of the congregation look down on the other (which they would never openly admit.) Ironically, neither side seems able to appreciate the degree to which their desire to be entertained is stunting their Christian growth.

Live-streaming worship and COVID-19 causes me to seriously question why we would ever return to purposely bifurcating congregations into rallying around worship styles rather than rallying around the mission of the church and its purpose in the world.

When this is over, we will still have worship in English and Chinese. But we will have one, blended, worship experience in English that will lean far more toward challenging people than comforting them.

3) This pandemic requires people to take personal responsibility for their faith as never before.

They can’t go “sit & git.” They are stuck at home. Even though live-streaming allows them to worship at whatever time works for them on Sunday or any other time during the week, the deeper work of the faith, building disciples, is something they will either do or it will go undone. I’m speaking specially here about Christian education.

For over 30 years now I have said, again and again, that the seeds of the Christian are planted at home, need to be nurtured and tended at home, and that the church – at its best – is there to support families in teaching the faith at home, not to supplant them. I believe that is true – and I have never been able to lead or to influence any significant movement toward realizing that. The coronavirus has forced that switch to occur.

Today we send out high quality resources to assist parents in teaching the faith to their kids. Those that do, see the benefits. Those that don’t…well, what’s new?

The joy of the Christian faith is the good news of God’s redemptive power to transform what is dead, to resurrect life to something better. As tortuous and terrifying as this pandemic has been, we can do what the church always has the opportunity to do – redeem it to something better. If we learn its lessons.

Pastor Kerry Nelson is the Senior Pastor of Faith Lutheran  in Bellaire, TX. Originally from North Dakota, he is a graduate of Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, and Luther Seminary, in St. Paul, MN. He has served three congregations in the Houston Metro area.

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One Comment

  1. Stephen Blackmore

    Kerry, I agree that I have thought for some time that the part of religion that Lutherans enjoy the most is worship, for the reasons you cite; it is familiar, comfortable and a stable experience in a chaotic world, and it provides a connection of some sort to their experience of faith. I agree as well with your view on the need to be entertained for those in contemporary worship. It seems to me that these are problems for the church of today. If things remain always the same but the world around us changes, then, are we comforting ourselves at the expense of attracting new followers fo the Gospel?
    However, I have some questions about your idea that after the pandemic is over we just change to worship services to a blended service that is more challenging than comforting.
    My question is; is it the style of worship that is the problem? How did people become so in need of comfort and averse to challenge? Is worship style the problem or is it the symptom of something larger? I do not profess to know what the larger problem might be but I would be cautious about quick fixes. In addition you state that “This pandemic requires people to take personal responsibility for their faith as never before”. So how is that YOU deciding to change the worship style and be more challenging with worship helps them take more responsibility for their faith? My view would be, where is it that we need to engage one another about what our connection is to our worship experience and how that connects to the mission of the church. What are the deeper underlying issues that have resulted in this
    situation? This is complicated, just like discussions about our complacent attitudes about racism. I think we have to engage each other in the struggle about our religious behaviors
    and aim for the conversations that open up opportunities to grow spiritually and then how to translate that to how we do church. I think the other problem is I experience your view of comfortable worshipers and those wanting to be entertained as blaming. Am I bad because I want comfort in a chaotic world? I am one of those people in the pew on Sunday at the heritage service but I would prefer that I have a voice in the process of what is going on rather than be told I am doing it wrong. I think we are in a time where engagement is crucial.
    We as a society as well as a church need to relearn how to have respectful conversations and those are difficult if we start out with someone being wrong. Well I guess I have more than said my two cents worth. I think you have a good insight. The question is what type of process will work best to help people have productive conversations about it. Peace Stephen

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