One thing I see rural (and not so rural) church folk struggle with in this pandemic is the fear that when church life emerges post-pandemic, they won’t recognize their church anymore. Many sources will tell you that rural churches are anchor institutions in communities that regularly experience seasonal, industrial, and cultural shifts. The church building and community is a reminder that some pieces of their heritage and story still exist in this constantly changing world.
Yet, as the pandemic set in, many regular gatherings went online, were postponed, or were cancelled. Easter egg hunts, homecomings, and Christmas pageants along with their all important meals were cancelled. Sunday school classes that had been meeting since World War II either met virtulaly or used their literature for personal devotion. While Internet option fills some of the gaps, it is often not a guarantee as rural broadband often does not exist or does not have the capacity for multiple live streams and Zoom meetings.
Along with the programmatic differences, the community will not look the same either. Many of the churches have experienced several deaths due both to Covid-19 and the realities of life in general. Several commentators also project a significant drop in church attendance and membership as the pandemic has given people excuses to drift away from communities.
Moreover, the pandemic and the 2020 political cycle revealed huge political and ideological divides in rural communities. (Yes, rural communities are not all of one mind). The response to the pandemic has strained relationships in families and communities.
More importantly, the pandemic continues to shine a spotlight on systemic race, class, and geographic disparities in terms of working conditions, education, and healthcare. On top of this, rampant unemployment due to layoffs and furloughs will likely last longer in rural communities as industries (including the service industry) streamline or close up altogether in many areas. Many rural communities were already experiencing significant cultural shifts, and the pandemic increased their severity in terms of cancelling of long running festivals and fairs, closing of historic businesses, and increased rates of depression, addiction, and deaths of despair.
As we begin to emerge out of the pandemic, life will not be the same. That is a guarantee. The church cannot and will not be the same. I, and many others, views this as a positive. Yet, I know many whose stories, families, and identities are tied to the church. On the surface level, this means the building and campus of the church (and this gets us in building use fights), but it deeply tied the spirit of the church and it’s heritage as a place of hope, stability, and resurrection.
As I prepare any rural ministry materials that deal with the pandemic and the seasons that follow, I acknowledge that in midst of the storm of the 2020-2021 pandemic and political cycle, the church is still a rock for so many. It is with this lens that plan to engage the coming seasons of the church. While the church cannot be the same, we can work to relaunch the pieces of the heritages, cultures, practices which offer both a firm rootedness in the richness of place and means of furthering the mission of Christ in the world.
One example of this that come to mind include the repurposing of spaces once geared toward ministries that ended in the pandemic. This might mean a transition of children’s Sunday school classes into spaces for tutoring, midweek children’s programs, and spaces for child advocacy groups to meet. However, many churches are hesitant to let go of the regular children’s Sunday school program, because of the rich history it has. Intentional times for grief, confession, imagining, and planning need to take place. We cannot simply say, “Oh, that space or that thing isn’t being used anymore, let’s allow strangers to come in and use it or take it away.”
Furthermore, our faith formation as a whole must focus on resurrection and hope for the coming year. The hope, however, cannot be disconnected from the grief, lament, and death both literal and figurative that will likely plague us for years to come. It has to be an honest hope. A hope that is pointed toward Christ and that launches from the rich combination of culture, heritage, ecology which are our rural contexts.