A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
May 7, 2020
In last week’s letter I suggested that the Great Ends of the Church (Book of Order F-1.0304) offer us sure guidance as we navigate our pathway through the current uncharted territory in which the church is unable to gather. In that letter I focused on the second of the six Great Ends, “The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God,” probing how our decisions about when and how to gather again are shaped by our commitment to provide safety for our congregations.
This week I invite us to consider the first Great End, “The proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.” Proclamation is necessarily a public act. The church cannot keep the Good News of what God has done for the world through Jesus to itself.
Sometimes Saint Francis is credited with saying, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.” Whatever its source, the saying reminds us of something very important. Proclamation is only partly about public words, and if our actions are not congruent with our words, our words become less than worthless. Yet let’s make no mistake – publicly spoken words about who Jesus is and what he has done for us are necessary for the proclamation of the Gospel.
Speaking a word from the Lord publicly has become a rare act for much of the church. Most of our discourse is directed internally. True, Sunday worship is a public event to which all the community is welcome. But few beyond the community of faith come to hear the Word of God proclaimed. The church is something like Las Vegas – “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
At least that is how it has been. Until now.
In response to the trauma of not being able to gather its members, many of our congregations are now posting worship services online, whether live or pre-recorded. And people unlikely ever to darken our doors are tuning in. Some pastors report that people are tuning in who have for one reason or other stopped attending Sunday services. Many report that people have signed on whom they do not know – perhaps they know one of the church’s members, or maybe they have just “wandered in.” And some of them keep returning Sunday after Sunday. Whatever their story, however they find us, new people are joining our online worshiping community. We are proclaiming the Gospel beyond the circle of our regular worship attendees, and in so doing are living more robustly into the first Great End of the Church. God be praised!
So, what will happen when our current level of social distancing is no longer necessary, whether that is weeks or months or even a year away? Will we return to our former pattern of reaching primarily those who show up in the sanctuary each Sunday? I challenge us, after social distancing requirements have relaxed, to continue to develop the tools and media we have utilized due to necessity by continuing to stream our worship services online. Invest in doing so for the long haul. Make it part of who we are, not just a stopgap measure.
Paul declared that he would proclaim the Gospel by whatever means, in whatever language, required to reach those outside the faith community with the message of Jesus. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) Online proclamation of the Word may be what this requires in our place and time.
If we are proclaiming the Gospel publicly through online worship broadcasts, how can we maximize our reach? It is amazing how many people find their way to our worship streams without our doing anything intentional to promote them. Many more could be reached if we sought intentionally to get out word about our online worship offerings. Enlist your people to get the word out on their online social networks. Put a link to your worship service front and center on your website, and make sure it stays updated. Those who begin to check us out online may eventually show up at our doors. But even if they don’t, they will still be hearing the Good News in new ways.
Offering worship online is a great way to keep our members engaged who cannot come to the sanctuary on Sundays. That is reason enough to keep it going. Yet the primary reason for continuing to offer this is outreach, not in-reach. What are you doing to assure that these new ways of broadcasting your proclamation of the Gospel continue and grow beyond the current emergency?
Yours in proclaiming the Good News,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister