Embracing our weakness and limitations, church services look much different these days – but spiritual hunger continues unabated, writes Kevin Makins.
When we started our church in Hamilton, Ont., over a decade ago, many experts encouraged us to make sure we did things well.
"You want to make sure that every week you’re bringing God your best," church planting coaches would say. "Every Sunday should be an experience that leaves people hungry to come back for more."
This never really worked for us. Perhaps we needed a haze machine and spotlights, perhaps a better preacher, but any idealism quickly vanished in the face of actual community with all its glorious mundanity. My sermons were too inconsistent to hit home every Sunday, small groups were equal part Bible study and pop culture conversation, and our always-expanding kids’ program resulted in even the most well-intentioned volunteers attempting to simply survive.
And yet God continued to transform people in our church, not in spite of our limitations, but because of them. Embracing our collective weakness made space for people to be vulnerable about their own limitations. We didn’t need to worry about being good because the gospel assured us we already belonged. All we had to do was show up.
In many ways our church felt like a potluck, which I’ve long argued should be an official church sacrament.
At a potluck each of us brings what we can, even if we can’t bring much. Some help with setup and dishes. Others keep the food warm and make Gluten-Free labels. The tasting notes clash, and a child might steal food right off your plate. It’s messy, and none of it is done particularly well.
But in an act of divine alchemy the Spirit receives our hodgepodge, piecemeal offering and turns it into a feast of victory.
This act of grace is what I long for everyone to experience – to belong to a local family of people, shaping their ordinary lives around Christ and His table, transformed together from something imperfect and incomplete into something uniquely whole and holy.
Jesus takes our hodgepodge offering and turns it into a feast.
There is, however, one tiny and inconvenient problem with this church-as-potluck metaphor – this global pandemic we’re in the middle of.
Since last March the church I pastor has been in a state of constant pivot. Perhaps your community has been as well.
From singing together and laying on hands, to holy hugs and communion, everything we like about church is on an extended timeout.
Instead our churches consist of YouTube videos tirelessly edited by volunteers at 2 a.m., Zoom calls where the family with the loud dog keep forgetting to mute their microphone, and the temptation to skip Sunday morning entirely because church now shares a screen with all the other houses of worship like YouTube and Netflix.
And that is enough to make even someone like me, who literally wrote a book about why church matters, to ask some uncomfortable questions all over again.
Does the church still matter – even when it’s online?
When the world has been turned upside down?
When we’re scattered across our region unable to gather in person?
When it has more in common with a TED talk than family dinner?
One of my favourite stories in Scripture is one everybody knows, the feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14).
The crowds know Jesus tells the best stories and occasionally casts out a demon or seven, so they flock to Him whenever He’s near. On one occasion 5,000 men (plus women and children) come to hear Him speak, and as the day progresses the disciples get nervous. Doing some quick math they realize they have nothing to feed the crowds with.
So they approach Jesus with a suggestion. Send the people back to town where they can presumably order takeout or something. Instead He asks them a question. "What do you have?"
We never have enough, do we? They add up their possessions, and it’s a measly five loaves and two fish. But Jesus is undeterred and responds, "Bring them here."
He blesses the food, breaks the bread and distributes it among the crowd. Everyone eats their fill and in the end the disciples collect 12 baskets full of leftovers. Far more than they began with.
It doesn’t add up. The whole thing defies logic.
And yet it confronts the disciples with a simple reality – Jesus takes our hodgepodge offering and turns it into a feast.
Perhaps this story has something to teach the Church in our current moment.
One of the strangest things about the last few months is that despite our being entirely online, with hardly a "good service" to speak of, new people continue to join our Zoom church gatherings.
I can’t understand what they are thinking.
I get "going to church" during a pandemic if you already love these people and consider yourself part of the family (it’s a sunk cost).
But what the heck are new people doing here?
Did they come for the buffering musician or the do-it-at-home communion? Were they lured by the prospect of a responsive reading with no other voices responding? Maybe they just love technical difficulties?
Stranger still, when I get a chance to connect with these new folks, on the phone or on a socially distanced walk, they all say, "I really love the online church services."
Which drives me absolutely crazy.
"No you don’t!" I want to yell at them. "They are bad!"
Yet they continue to insist these services are holy, the highlight of their week and a balm to their soul during such unprecedented times.
Yet they continue to insist these services are holy, the highlight of their week.
I’ve been trying to make sense of this collective delusion for months and just couldn’t figure it out.
And then I remembered the best meal I’ve ever eaten.
It was my first time portaging through Algonquin Park. The day had started out sunny, but by midafternoon it was raining hard and we had to pick up the pace. With no time for a break we were lucky to eat a granola bar between rowing and carrying the canoe on our shoulders.
By the time we got to the campsite it was getting dark, and we had to set up our tents and tarps by flashlight. When we finally sat down to cook at the campfire I was so hungry, I could hardly register my disappointment.
All we had packed for dinner was some frozen hamburger patties and a few cans of chili. So we cracked the cans open, grilled the patties, tossed it all into a bowl and …
It was incredible.
Somehow the frozen beef patties had undergone a metamorphosis becoming more akin to a medium-rare steak. The beans burst forth with seasoning and flavour. Even the heat of the mush warmed my entire body from fingers to toes.
From an earthly perspective it was undeniably terrible. If I served it for dinner, my kids would steal my cellphone and order a pizza. But when you’re that hungry, you stop being picky and are grateful for whatever is before you.
You might even look back and, despite all evidence to the contrary, insist it was the best meal you’ve ever had.
Perhaps during a global pandemic, as our relationships fray and our rhythms are tossed about, we’re hungry enough to enjoy whatever church we can get.
Even if it’s just scraps.
I still long for the days when we can sing, lay on hands and break bread together in person. I will certainly begin to cry when we lay out the table for our first postpandemic potluck. But I’m also learning to embrace the limitations of this wilderness season.
Maybe Covid is an opportunity to lean into our spiritual hunger – for connection, for transcendence, for meaning.
We can turn our living rooms into sacred spaces, dimming lights, lighting candles and burning incense. We can pray with those we love, paying fresh attention to the faces of our family apart in body, but together in Spirit. We can even carry one another’s fears and grief, our anxieties and uncertainties, and hold them together before a trustworthy God.
The Church continues to be the Body of Christ even while stuck online and at a distance.
This meal may not be good in the traditional sense, but to be honest, at this point in the pandemic I’m so hungry, I will scarf down, with gratitude, whatever scraps of church I can find.
Who knows? Ten years down the line we may even look back at this season and say, despite all the evidence to the contrary, “That was the best meal I ever had.”
Kevin Makins is founding pastor of Eucharist Church in downtown Hamilton, Ont., and author of Why Would Anyone Go to Church? (Baker, 2020).
We think this essay would be great to discuss with your small group or Bible study. We encourage you to point members to www.FaithToday.ca/ChurchStillMatters. Let us know how it goes (editor@FaithToday.ca)!
- “I still long for the days when we can sing, lay on hands and break bread together in person,” writes Kevin Makins. What have you missed the most? What do you long for the most?
- How has your view of church changed during the months of lockdown?
- What has been your greatest spiritual challenge during this time? What has been your greatest spiritual blessing?
Listen to a podcast we did with Kevin Makins back on July 23, 2020 at FaithToday.ca/Podcasts.