COVID-19, Faith

Church homeless

I haven’t set foot into my church since early March of last year, just before Indiana locked down for the pandemic. That level of lockdown ended after several weeks, and West Park Christian Church decided to reopen last July.

WPCC

It was challenging to arrive at that decision. Some of our elders wanted to open sooner, saying that we shouldn’t live in fear, and that us staying closed was starving our members of Christian community.

I took offense to the first point — it’s prudent, not fearful, to avoid a disease that can kill you, or leave you with chronic health difficulties, or at least lay you up for a solid two weeks while it has its way with you. God won’t protect us from it simply because we gather to worship him. Anyone who thinks so has a gross misunderstanding of faith and the nature of God.

I conceded the second point. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Other elders, including me, took the position that our first duty is to keep our congregation healthy, especially given how many of them are elderly or have health conditions that put them at serious COVID risk. I wasn’t eager to stand before God one day explaining the people who suffered or died because I voted to open too soon.

We reached a compromise: we would ask at-risk people to stay away, require masks for all who enter, and alter the service to limit physical proximity. I’m naturally drawn to compromise so I said yes, but soon after I felt a regret I’ve never shaken.

Margaret and I have not been willing to expose ourselves to COVID risk, so we’ve stayed away. Most Sunday mornings we take in the services of North Point Community Church on our TV via our Roku. We both value the teaching of North Point pastor Andy Stanley; even before this, we often listened to his sermons on long car trips.

But a sermon is not the complete church experience, and it is not the main reason to attend church. We go to church to be a part of a community where we can encourage each other in the faith. Hebrews 10:24-25 lay it out very well:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.

West Park CC Sanctuary

Sure, a sermon is part of the worship experience. So is singing, and praying, and giving — other Scripture provides for all of these practices. But the point of these verses in Hebrews is that we’re meant to be Christians in community. This is a faith we do with others, if for no other reason than we can help each other stay with it and keep growing in it. Classically, we find Christian community in church.

That’s what’s been missing for Margaret and me as we’ve watched Andy Stanley preach every week. I can’t write with certainty about Margaret’s experience, but I can about mine: I feel increasingly isolated in my faith. I’ve lost feeling connected to fellow Christians. In parallel, the habits of my faith have fallen off, or feel increasingly stale. I don’t pray as often. I’m not in the Bible as much, and when I do study it, the words often fail to connect with me. And I’m not doing very much that expresses my faith. My faith is action-oriented: what mission am I on and what am I doing to move that in service to him is critically important. I’m not doing anything related to God’s mission right now. Margaret and I have our hands full holding things together with some family challenges during a time when everything is more difficult anyway.

For a long time, I believed that God wanted me to be a part of my church’s urban mission. We did our best to meet our neighbors, most of whom know the problems of poverty, lift them up as best we could, and introduce them to Jesus. My ability to organize and run things helped my church execute on its mission more effectively.

Since the pandemic, I’ve become disconnected from that mission. What is right in front of me is my family, whose spiritual needs have been underserved and often unmet for months now. I feel compelled to give all of my attention to us.

It’s become clear to me over the last couple years that my church’s leader’s need to live in its neighborhood. People like me who don’t live there just can’t be fully involved, and full involvement is needed. We live a good 30 minutes away. And we don’t feel at all led to move there.

Moreover, as an elder it’s my duty to minister to our people. But I and my family need ministering. We’re out of spiritual gas.

I think that my time at West Park is coming to an end. Margaret and I agree that when we think it’s safe for us to return to in-person worship, that we will choose a church together. (I was at West Park long before we met, and she is technically still a member at the megachurch she attended with her children for nearly 20 years.) We want to find a community of Christians where we can make friends and find mutual encouragement in life and in the faith.

As we contemplate and (soon) search for a new church home, we feel church homeless.

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COVID-19, Faith

Attending to spiritual needs during the pandemic

I haven’t been to church since the first of March. That Sunday, Hoosiers were just starting to get sick from the coronavirus. We sent messages to all of our members discouraging them from hugging and even shaking hands. We didn’t pass the communion plates but rather asked people to come to the front to take the emblems, which elders handed them while wearing disposable gloves.

West Park Christian Church

The following week the state shut down, and so did we.

You may recall that we hired a pastor early in 2019 but by autumn it was clear we weren’t a mutual fit and he moved on. The elders, including me, had been sharing preaching duties with several guest preachers. Just before we shut down one of those guest preachers expressed interest in preaching for us every week until we found our new permanent pastor. We took him up on it.

We tried to offer worship and connection for our members. Our interim preacher recorded his weekly sermons on video and sent them to me for posting on Facebook. They went live every Sunday morning at 9 am. It wasn’t the same as worshiping in person, but many of our members appreciated the effort very much. We also began to have Zoom gatherings for our members, but they were poorly attended. Many of our members couldn’t make the technology work.

The city and state began to reopen in May. Curiously, they allowed churches to congregate well before they allowed any other large gatherings. We elders were not of one mind about how to proceed. A couple elders wanted to resume Sunday services right away so we could be in Christian community and take care of each other’s spiritual needs. I was staunch: reopening was irresponsible. To resume in-person services could result in our members becoming sick — and, given that many of our members are in high-risk categories, possibly even dying. The elders favoring reopening reasoned that our members should decide to opt in or out based on their own conscience and willingness to tolerate risk. There were good and valid points on both sides, but these difficult discussions were hard on the eldership.

We stayed closed for several weeks, reopening the first Sunday in July. But I and one other elder have not attended. We remain unwilling to place our families at risk.

Additionally, serious family stress has taken my attention almost fully away from West Park Christian Church. Except for the elders’ meetings over Zoom every couple weeks, I have neither time nor energy for the eldership.

Being an elder is not meant to be primarily an administrative role. Elders are meant to be involved with the congregation as shepherds. That was challenging enough for me before the pandemic because I live 30 minutes away from West Park, which is really a neighborhood church. It is impossible now.

I don’t know why it’s not been clear to me before, but it’s clear to me now: West Park’s elders really need to live in or near the neighborhood. Maybe the situation at West Park has evolved to this and I’m just now catching on. I don’t live in the neighborhood. I don’t believe I’m called to live in the neighborhood. I don’t want to live in the neighborhood.

Since lockdown Margaret and I have been watching the online services of North Point Church in Georgia together every Sunday morning. We both love the teaching of their pastor, Andy Stanley. He brings such a fresh perspective, always well reasoned from the Bible. We’ve benefited greatly from his sermons during these months.

But we both know we want to be in community with Christians again. We miss it greatly. But it’s not clear to us that we will return to West Park. We feel like our lives are leading us in a new direction, yet to be determined.

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Faith

New pastor

West Park Christian Church

Our church’s longtime pastor retired, and we found a new pastor. The ease with which we found this fellow was not a given. We were quite worried that it would take months or years. In our fellowship of churches, the independent Christian Churches, there is no central governing body that issues new pastors, as the Methodists do. When a Christian Church wants a new pastor, they have to advertise the job just like a company does. Frankly, there isn’t much interest in little urban churches like this one. You’re not going to build a big career here. You have to want to do this difficult service.

But we all know that this neighborhood needs this measly one-horse church if only to have someplace where people can come without crawling to the many vices easily found here.

While our new pastor didn’t have a heart for the urban mission when he first visited us, that flame lit while he got to know us. Bit by bit he’s bringing a more modern church experience to us. Frankly, it doesn’t work for me. But I’m not who we’re trying to attract. Millennials and Gen Zers make up more than half of our neighborhood and they aren’t coming to church. Our old-fashioned ways repelled them when they did visit.

What isn’t changing is how accepting we are. People come to West Park from any number of backgrounds and challenging life situations. We seldom know what to do that will materially help them. We’ve learned to just love them and let God sort their lives out later. Sometimes our acceptance and how we interpret Scripture create a bit of a tangle for us, but we’ve chosen to bias toward acceptance. It creates a space where people feel safe, and where they feel they can let their guard down and be who they are. That’s when the Holy Spirit can get in.

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Windows at West Park

Church windows
Pentax ME, 35mm f/2 SMC Pentax-FA AL
Eastman Double-X 5222
2018

In the little church I attend on the Near Westside of Indianapolis, the sanctuary windows are all stained glass and feature the names of original members. Their descendants attended until the last of them died about a decade ago. Today, these names are historic curiosities to the current members.

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Film Photography

single frame: Church windows

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Film Photography

Portraits in a church basement

It’s funny how much I had to push up my courage to ask these people if I could take their portraits. I go to church with them; we know each other pretty well!

I shoot mostly old buildings and old cars because I like them. I like people, too, but they have feelings about being photographed that my usual subjects don’t. But my fellow congregants sure do enjoy it when I bring them prints of the portraits I make. And when I make their portraits I can speak with them as people far easier than I can otherwise.

So for our recent pitch-in lunch, I mounted a 50/1.4 onto my Pentax ME and loaded a roll of Fujifilm Superia X-tra 800. I set the lens to f/2, which I figured would give me the depth of field I wanted, and used the camera like a point-and-shoot.

This is Debra, a woman of few words but of vast faith. When I need prayer, I ask Debra first.

Debra

Meet Margaret. This is not my wife Margaret but one of the other two Margarets in our congregation. Our church is a Margaret-rich environment. This Margaret is an elder and has sung in our praise team (and in the choir that preceded it) since 1962.

Margaret

Here’s Dawn, going to town carving a ham. We all come to church on our best behavior but I bet Dawn is quite ornery outside the church!

Dawn

We had a guest preacher this Sunday, Nick, pictured here with his daughter whose name I didn’t catch.

Nick and daughter

Dave is a longtime member who at some point moved out to the suburbs. He drives in every Sunday.

Dave

Jenny and I had a moment of connection recently when she saw on Facebook that I’d been to the Anthrax concert. She was surprised that I even knew who Anthrax was. I project a pretty buttoned-down image.

Jenny

We see Amber only sometimes. She’s a young adult making her way. Amber could well be the happiest person I’ve ever met. Every time I see her, anyway, she seems to be on the verge of rapturous joy.

Amber

Amber’s mother Rhonda is on the right, with her man Steve. They’re a great couple and seem to be good for each other.

Steve and Rhonda

I think these compositions are all right and I did get the depth of field I was looking for at f/2. I wish the colors were fuller, but I guess this is what you get shooting ISO 800 film. I had the processor make prints of these so I could give them out, and the prints have better color and less grain. It seems paradoxical, really — the lab made the prints from these scans.

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Snow-covered steps

Snow-covered steps
Kodak VR35 K40
Kodak Max 400 (expired)
2018

At church, we all come in the back door. Our parking lot is back there.

But it means we often forget about our front door. The door that the neighborhood sees. And so on this snowy Sunday, nobody thought to shovel it clean. Were it not for the footprints on the steps, our neighbors might think we were not even open. Indeed, when we encounter them around the neighborhood that’s sometimes what they tell us.

It’s a common trap churches fall into: we know our ways. But we want to meet people who aren’t in our church, and they find our ways strange, or even to make no sense. And we wonder why we seldom see anybody new on Sunday.

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Film Photography

single frame: Snow-covered steps

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