I remember the first time I worshiped in prison. I was a seminary student, studying to become a pastor, and it was my first day serving as an intern chaplain at a youth correctional facility in Bordentown, New Jersey. I walked into a sweltering gym, lined with rows of plastic beige chairs facing an old wooden podium on wheels. An industrial-sized fan roared in the corner. The prison had no chapel, so this was where we’d worship that morning. There were no hymnals, no musical instruments, no bulletins, no stained glass windows, no Communion tables or baptismal fonts, no electronic screens, no tables arrayed with food and drink for fellowship afterward — just a bunch of beige-suited young men chatting excitedly and some ragged Bibles, carried from their cells. It felt ... meager. Disappointing.
As we began to worship, however, I witnessed the most profound and authentic expression of faith I had even seen. Stripped of all the typical accoutrements of religious ritual, and of a free life, the men stood before God, naked. They sang, uninhibited. They listened to the Scripture, as if it were bread before a starving man. Some wept. Some laughed. Some smiled. Some testified. They spoke a truth that belongs to us all, but which is so easily hidden beneath layers of success, pleasure and stuff: They needed God. They needed a love that is inexhaustible, a worth that is unconditional, a purpose that is selfless, a freedom that is inherent. It was like I was experiencing church for the first time.
Surprisingly, worshiping online, with our buildings shuttered and our programs canceled, has felt a little like that day in the prison: At first, meager and disappointing, and then suddenly, profound and authentic. Westminster Presbyterian Church’s buildings have been closed since mid-March due to COVID-19. Like everyone else, we’re eager to come back. We miss each other: the hugs, the meals, the communal singing, the children playing, the holy quiet of the sanctuary. But life is sacred, so we’re being safe and practicing distancing. We are also learning.
We are learning the essentials of being God’s church.
While there are many reasons why Christianity is declining in the United States, principal among them, I believe, is the failure of the church to be the church. For generations, many Christians contented themselves with Sunday worship, socializing and acts of charity, while neglecting the weightier matters of the gospel: solidarity with the oppressed, the formation of authentic and deep relationships with God, intimacy with Scripture, the expression of radically inclusive love, and daily discipleship that enacts and talks about faith. Our children weren’t stupid; they saw through the surface-level commitments, and decided that if church was just another social club or nonprofit, they could get that elsewhere.
This COVID-19 shutdown could be exactly what the church needs to rediscover itself. There are a lot of programs, committee meetings and aspects of our identity — lost in this shutdown — that we don’t miss, and maybe we won’t revive. Meanwhile, worship is thriving. Like many churches, we’ve had more worship participation online and over the phone (not just in numbers, but in engagement) than we’ve had in decades. God has felt intimately close to us, through new expressions of Communion, Holy Week and Easter.
Love is deepening, as people regularly reach out to one another, offer help and stand together to ensure no one is forgotten. Masks are being sewn, meals delivered, cards mailed, rent forgiven, bills paid, and tears (and laughs) shared.
Mission is expanding, as vital hunger and refugee ministries grow, offers of generosity multiply, and new voices are discovered for economic and racial justice. We’re paying better attention to the vulnerabilities that have long been among us: poverty, domestic violence, addiction, loneliness, a broken health care system, the white supremacy that led to the death of Ahmaud Arbery.
Many are practicing and deepening their faith on a daily basis, through prayer, hiking, reading and family — because like the men in that prison, the need for God is so much more apparent right now.
Society is saying that it can’t wait to get back to normal. I don’t want “normal.” Normal is just suffering covered up. I want to see the church, and our community, redeemed. I want to see us follow Jesus Christ into a brave life of awe and wonder, love and community, truth and integrity. May we never go back. May we only go forward.
The Rev. Patrick David Heery is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, and the former editor of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s denominational magazine, Presbyterians Today. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Heery lives in Auburn with his wife, Jenna, their son, Emerson, and their two dogs, spending much of their free time hiking the countryside.