It’s hard to believe, but it’s only been a couple of weeks since most of our congregations and faith communities suspended in-person worship and moved to meeting and connecting through a handful of useful technologies. It feels like we’ve been living under the cloud of COVID-19 for years, and I know a whole lot of Church staff who are starting to feel the wear and tear of constant change and daily readjustment.
This past Sunday, the congregation where I work gathered on Facebook Live and YouTube (this has been a challenge as we negotiate overburdened internet connections and spaces not built for streaming audio), and in the afternoon our Sunday School connected on Zoom for some check-ins, prayer, and to see one another’s faces.
There are so many new and frustrating problems emerging in this new way of connecting. Internet connections, bad audio, educating folks to connect with a technology they’ve never used, and this pressure to feel constantly and persistently on top of it. But despite the hiccups, I am convinced that what we are seeing in this moment, on our best days, is the deep movement roots of the Christian Church.
What do I mean by movement roots?
For many of us the church has existed solely through the mediation of the institution. We think of church through the lens of denominations, buildings, and programming. This isn’t a bad thing, and I certainly don’t want you to come away from this post thinking that I am here to pile up on the institution. In fact, I wrote last month about the need for our institutions in Movement work. But, the relationship between institutions and the people they serve, the movements they help to maintain, is one that requires careful attention.
Truth be told, there is nothing like a crisis to reveal the relative weakness of our institutions. They don’t have the flexibility or the ability to rapidly transform in the ways that a crisis requires. What we have always done is suddenly stripped bare and found wanting. We saw this on a national scale after 9/11 and the 2008 economic collapse, and we’re seeing it now amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Institutions are developed as movements build power and effect change. They exist to marshal the power of a movements, to organize and develop decision making processes, and draw resources to the movement’s vision and mission. Institutionalization and the organizations that are developed in the process are an incredibly important part of a movement’s life cycle, but they are not the genesis or the fuel that keeps them moving. Our relationships, our shared self-interests, and the resulting, seemingly spontaneous group actions are.
Relationality, mutuality, compassion, and solidarity are the movement values that have been highlighted for me in the church’s reaction to COVID-19. At our best, we’ve acknowledged our need to connect and to speak a word of grace to one another, without allowing all the institution’s foibles to impede that (for the most part).
We have realized that perfection and polishing take a back seat to human relationship and the sharing of voice and vision. Congregants have newly examined their role as disciples in a community of faith and have sought out meaningful ways to serve the most vulnerable members of our communities. Many of us are learning more about prayer and worship and service than we have since confirmation. And most of this learning is coming through the simple but profound moments between two people of faith seeking and offering that word of solidarity and comfort during chaos.
Congregations have transformed worship overnight and have been invited to examine what is essential and what is optional. Certainly, some of this has been painful and challenging, no more so than the conversation about how the sacraments are administered when the assembly is gathered online. This isn’t an unimportant conversation by any means. It may in fact be one of the more vital theological conversations we have following this pandemic. But I am convinced that what we are seeing is the spontaneous visioning of a movement asking itself, “what do we believe?”.
Movements ask questions about belief, belonging, and imagination. When we find ourselves speaking to the gaps and the neighbors who are not at the table, we are engaging in movement work. When we find ourselves responding to the sudden revelation of an injustice or the hurting of our people, we are engaging in movement work. When we find ourselves thinking about what is possible, what the world as it should be will look like, we are engaging in movement work. When we find ourselves spontaneously moving towards connection, love, and relationship, we are engaging in movement work.
Phyllis Tickle famously said that every 500 years the Church has a yard sale and asks itself questions about what is essential and what is expendable. We have been in the midst of that transformation for the better part of 20 years, but in moments of crisis like this one the reimagining is concentrated and is pressed to the fore of our collective attention. I pray that we will take advantage of these concentrated questions and will emerge from this crisis with a deeper clarity about what makes us a community and with a deeper trust in one another.
adrienne maree brown in her powerful book “Emergent Strategy”, says “My dream is a movement with such deep trust that we move as a murmuration, the way groups of starlings billow, dive, spin, dance collectively through the air – to avoid predators, and it also seems, to pass time in the most beautiful way possible”.
This is, I think, how the Holy Spirit moves; spontaneously, powerfully, collectively, and with deep joy. We are experiencing the stripping away of our habits, our best practices, and our good order. This is painful, there is no question about it. And many of our community members are suffering as a result. But our response, the spontaneous and unpretentious action of people of faith, is revealing the Movement Roots of our church. We are finding that we can rely only on our relationships with one another and with Christ.
What will we learn in the moment? What will we carry with us when the crisis has ended? What will we graciously leave behind? It seems clear that our world will be a different one post-COVID-19, and the church, as a result, will be different. Will we lean into those movement roots and reestablish ourselves as the body of Christ, with all its attending relationality? Will we embrace the deep joy and spontaneity of our faithful murmuration? I hope so.
In these coming weeks, pay attention to the ways that you sense the Spirit pushing and prodding within your community’s interaction. Lean into the relationships and the connection that is found in the sharing of a word of grace and solidarity. I believe that the church is at its most powerful when it understands itself as the movement of a loving and merciful God. This current crisis is revealing those roots in profound and messy ways. May we take comfort in the depth of our relationships and in the knowledge that the Spirit is moving, wildly and joyfully, as a murmuration across our communities.
 brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy (p. 71). AK Press. Kindle Edition.