We live in challenging times, says the Rev. Scott Harmon. He encourages churches to be ready for transformation as they follow the Holy Spirit into the new thing that God is doing in our midst.
Superintendent Northern Skies District
Distanced greetings, Michigan, from the fields, forests, and shorelines of the Northern Skies District! I pray that the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ is with you in these days of challenge and transformation.
“Transformation?” What am I talking about, you say?
The family of which I am a part tells many stories of its past. One that has long intrigued me, and as family stories go is likely apocryphal, is the tale of two brothers. More than a century ago, as agriculture was transitioning from teams of horses to tractors, their father was a farmer and part-time tractor dealer. He knew the farmers and their needs and had a good reputation in the community.
In time the business grew, as our country did and selling tractors became full-time. His farmer friends began coming to him, asking where they might buy the new Model T’s. Recognizing a need, he started offering new cars right alongside the familiar tractors.
Both sides of the business did well for many years, but the time came for the father to retire. With two sons actively involved in both businesses, it seemed only natural to divide the operation and pass leadership over to each. One chose the stronger tractor dealership, the other to sell cars.
As time went on, the area began to change. There were fewer operating farms, meaning less need for tractors. At the same time families were moving into new homes and desiring new cars. One business grew as the other declined. Eventually, there were no more tractors being sold, and with the feelings of bitterness and envy so often harbored within families, the doors closed.
Growing a family business in the best of times is hard, difficult work. Today, amidst the COVID-19 crises, we are in a season, unlike anything the church has responded to in living memory. Even in the northernmost parts of our state — where summer visitors often think that nothing ever changes – we are being challenged in ways we have never experienced.
Like others all across the country, we are asking what it really means to “be” the church when not able (or comfortable) to “go” to church. How do we support one another, foster real relationship, reach out to our neighbor as we’re going through this time together? The answers are as many as there are creative and daring congregations focused on the mission of living as followers of Christ, yet each requires a form of transformation. Seeing our life rhythms, expectations, and anticipations in new ways.
I’m struck at how all three of these – rhythms, expectations, anticipations – are primarily based on past experiences. Those experiences give us comfort, confidence, even a feeling of predictability and control. Like selling tractors, it’s what we’ve seen, the thing we know, and yet if we’re watching, we might sense that things are quickly changing.
In familiar words through the prophet Isaiah, God calls us to be mindful. Among the Hebrew people, God says, “I am about to do a new thing! Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19) A new thing happening around us, with the expectation that we will be perceptive enough to recognize it.
I’m sure there were members of the family who thought of tractors as the tried and true. What they knew, the bread and butter for the future. So familiar that they couldn’t imagine any other way. In saying “Come follow me,” Jesus didn’t spend much time prescribing the outward form that must take, rather he spoke more to the posture of the heart and the way we treat those with whom we may even disagree.
In mid-March, as we sought to keep our balance amidst a rising tide of anxiety, wise words were shared by a pastor on the district. His words continue to ring true, “When everything is uncertain, that which is important becomes clear.” Today, we are challenged to consider if what it means to be the church is being transformed. We must consider if the relationships that nurture and sustain us in the love of God in this digital world are more valuable to us than bricks and mortar passed on as an inheritance.
The jury is still out on that, and we may not fully recognize the impact of these last six months (so far) until years or even generations from now. What can be said is that a transformation is taking place. Whether we can recognize this transformation as the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing us from behind, that is another question.
Christ’s church, in all its transformed newness, will continue as it has done throughout the millennia. Christian community may look different, feel different, gather, and connect in ways that are different, possibly not even be recognized by those remembering its previous forms. Yet, hands will come taking up Christ’s call anew. So that even amid these challenging and transforming days, we can say amidst all the questions, Thanks be to God!