News and Views

Crisis for the Church: Danger and Opportunity

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By Daryl Williams*

We are living through a significant moment in history. Globally, COVID-19 has upended everything that we know. It has changed how we live, how we work, and how we play. The threat to life and livelihood has caused people across the globe to rethink how we do everything.

We have moved from being a social society to a society that is socially distanced and, in many cases, living quarantine or at the very least sheltering in place. This abrupt change to our everyday lives has sewn chaos into the fabric of every part of society. This chaos has many of us wondering how we are going to make it through this time.

While I can’t say with any certainty how we are going to make it to the other side, I can say with complete confidence that what we do now will define the future we will have. The decisions that we are making amidst this chaos will be the blueprint that creates the world we will be living in when the future inevitably arrives. This is true for our government, our personal lives, and for the church.

Yet in all the chaos, upheaval, and what can only be described as a crisis, I see hope. I see hope because I believe that good can come out of this.

At the end of World War II, Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” He made this statement in response to the massive undertaking that would be required to rebuild Europe and set the world back in order after the chaos of World War II.

In Chinese, the characters for the word “crisis” (危机) are composed of two different characters married together, meaning “danger” and “opportunity.” It is my belief that, for the church, the crisis that COVID-19 has created gives us both danger and opportunity. The future of the church will depend on how we respond in the crisis as we live through it.

There are five major dangers and opportunities that the church is facing right now that we must successfully navigate.

  1. In this season, the church is facing the danger of becoming more rigid but also has the opportunity to become more flexible. The disruption caused by this crisis has many church leaders longing for the good old days. We want to get back to the normal, usual flow of what we have always done. This longing to get back to normal can cause us to dangerously hold on to what was, as opposed to being flexible and trying to see what can be. Churches often dream of the opportunity to try new things but can’t find the right time. Right now, we can’t do “what we have always done,” so it is the perfect opportunity to be flexible and try something new.
  2. This crisis creates the danger of churches turning inward to take care of ourselves, but it also creates the opportunity for us to turn outward and reach new people. In this season, it would be easy to just make sure we take care of our own. After all, people are frightened, worried, and looking for the hope that they often find in the church. Yet, those feelings of fear, worry, and a need to believe in something are also plaguing people who have never set foot in our churches. If we turn inward, we will certainly bring comfort to our flocks, but we are called to change the world. That only happens if we use this opportunity to reach outward and spread the gospel far and wide, not just water our own plants.
  3. This crisis presents us with the danger of sticking to the ways we have always done things but also gives us the opportunity to innovate and do things in new ways. For many of our churches, we have been worshiping and engaging the community the same way for decades, if not centuries. We have depended on people to come into our buildings to receive what we have. This crisis presents us with the opportunity to use new technology to enhance our ways of doing ministry so that we reach new people in new and innovative ways. We have the opportunity to engage people digitally as opposed to simply hoping that they will come to us.
  4. This crisis presents us with the danger of keeping everything for nostalgia but also the opportunity to clean house and realign for effectiveness. Many churches have been keeping the same ministries in place for years simply because they have always done them. The problem is, that particular ministry may not have yielded results in decades. This crisis gives us the opportunity to end ineffective ministries so we can better resource ministries that could be more vital today. We have to remember that churches are not meant to celebrate the past, but that they are meant to build a better future for people.
  5. This crisis presents us with the danger of running ourselves into the ground to keep our ministries going but also the opportunity to fully rely on God to take care of his church. None of us are quite sure what to do, but we do know that we don’t want to have our churches fail. So many of us are running full speed ahead, working harder than ever before to make sure that our churches survive this crisis. While we must do our part in this crisis, we have the opportunity to really trust God. Trusting God in this crisis means taking time off, resting, and doing self-care to ensure we are ready to continue ministry when this crisis is over. We just have to remember time off and self-care means trusting the Lord to do the rest.

The chaos that COVID-19 has created is an opportunity for us to be a better and stronger church when this is over. We can be more flexible in how we approach ministry, we can reach out to more people, we can be more innovative, we can be more effective, and we can get some rest for the journey ahead.

It is up to us what we do in this crisis. But the one thing we can’t afford to do is waste it.  

*The Rev. Daryl Williams is the Senior Pastor at St. Paul UMC in Oxon Hill .