One thing rural communities rely on is repetition. Repetition creates consistency, memory, and tradition. This repetition matters, whether it is football of Fridays in the fall, the festival on the first weekend of May, or knowing who to call when someone in the community dies to get the prayer and meal train going. I’ve learned this is crucial even to simply becoming part of the community. I walk around the central part of Hildebran at least three days a week. The cashier at the gas station now recognizes me. I have used the same tree service, plumber, gutter guy, and electrician several times (old house that we’re updating), and now if they see me in the yard, they blow the horn. My terrier, Rosie, likes to stop and see the cows if we go on our walk early in the morning.
This virus has disrupted quite a bit of that repetition. So many fairs and festivals have been postponed or reformatted. Around here, there is a regular chance that the football game will be cancelled because of an outbreak for one or both teams. Churches are unsure how and when to have funerals, and many of the funeral traditions of communities have been put on hold.
My fear with the pandemic is that the social interruption will leads to a frailty in the community. With the reality that less people will be participating in church and that many who were invested members will likely fade away, what comes next for this repetition?
My first thought is remembering the patterns but learning new ways of repeating them. It may not longer be feasible to have x or y event in the way you’ve done it for decades, but you can find something that it can move into being.
However, one thing I am not going to recommend (although, even six months ago, I might have) is rushing to fill voids with a ton of new things. My thought is to, instead, pick one or two previous things and begin to make tweaks to them for more rich engagement and meaning making. I would also simply see where the members of the church and community are already involved in pattern remaking and support them. Find people who can partner with them.
The church and rural community does not need gimmicky new and improved things to save it. It needs to sit with its identity, ministry, and community and figure out what it means to be the church in the present times. Not the future, not the next days. I keep seeing church and academic advertisements for this being the “in between time” and to get planning for what’s next. It’s been nearly two years. This is the “time.” There is a future, but it will grow out of the present, not emerge as something new.
I have a hope for the church using its repetition skills for meaning making, heritage transforming, and future building. I also know that this will not be smooth, it will not be instantaneous, and it will not be painless. We have new patterns to form and relationships to rekindle. Let’s get to work.