The Council of Korean-American Churches of Greater New York is hosting a 3-day webinar (June 22-24) to share thoughts on how to prepare for a world post-pandemic. I will be giving a talk on “Post-Pandemic Ministry: Opportunity to Renew the Essentials,” through which I hope to encourage the audience that crisis can be transformed into opportunities for grace.
A post-pandemic world will require churches to refocus priorities and rebuild the essential foundations from the ground up. Angela Lee Duckworth, well-known through her TED Talk and book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” (2016) might offer us some insights on how-to. Challenges as well as opportunities lie ahead, but what makes people reach new heights is sustained perseverance and passion for an important goal. Our innate talents can take us so far, but resilience, courage, and sense of purpose can turn life’s challenges into opportunities to renew life itself. She shares how her Chinese immigrant parents’ perseverance and hardworking ethos in the midst of difficulties instilled ‘grit’ in her to become a pioneering scholar she is today. And we have similarly seen that ‘grit’ in the Biblical models of leadership like Joseph and Daniel.
Reflections on perseverance reminded me of the wonders of ecological resilience that I’ve seen over the years. After wildfires swept through Southern California in 2018, rare golden flowers named fire poppies blossomed over the California mountains. The fire had turned dead trees into ashes, returning the nutrients to the soil, and gave a boost to new life. Another wonder that I learned while living in the South is the life-giving effects of storm churning in the Gulf of Mexico. A hurricane would churn up the water, bringing tiny organisms and small swimmers from the bottom of the ocean floor to the surface. Then all sorts of fish migrate back to feed and the marine ecosystem would come back to life. In some sense, the pandemic swept through like fire, and it sure brought to surface all sorts of hidden aspects of our society. It still remains a challenge but I believe we can turn it into an opportunity for renewal.
As the pause in the human activity gave a break for the sky and sea to clear up, the pause in many church activities has helped to discern what is truly essential for the life of the church. These past three months, we have seen the importance of building up every believer to live a life of worship, no matter the circumstance. Renewing the essence of the church implies nurturing each member of the body to worship in spirit and in truth, to live a missional life wherever one may be.
Online worship service will keep playing a vital role in post-pandemic church ministry, but dependency on technology is a double-edged sword. Despite its benefits, the screen technology in worship has also contributed to passive and private consumer Christianity. The time calls for churchgoers to step up as the embodiment of church in their respective areas of life. Learning Bible verses and hymns by heart could be the stepping stone for this purpose. Some may call it old-fashioned, but I would like to call it a ‘holy discomfort.’
I am thankful that family worship has made an important come back in the lives of our congregation. Through these years, compartmentalized worship services – divided by age and language – have been one of the major obstacles to greater spiritual unity within Korean-American immigrant churches. Lack of resources in the earlier years of immigration was a blessing in disguise: Parents and children worshipped together and built a common spiritual ground to share at home. Back in the day churches weren’t privileged with professional praise bands, but hearts were united by simple gospel songs that families could sing along. Church and worship were a space that everyone hands-on served and built together. Over the years that beautiful culture has dissipated and been replaced by divided subgroups with separate spheres of interest.
Physical distancing will most likely remain as a part of the new norm in every aspect of our lives. It may potentially drive people’s emotional distance as well, naturally bringing to surface our innermost hunger for deeper personal engagement and interaction. Churches will need spiritual ‘high touch’ channels to meet the deeper longings to connect with God.
A post-pandemic world requires not only moving ahead of the curve but also rebuilding from the ground up, and churches are no exception. The time calls for our passion and perseverance to run the race marked out for us. We may have to navigate the difficult journey ahead. But throughout history, the purpose and mission of the church were sharpened by the challenges, not the status quo. I pray that we can together turn present challenges into new opportunities for renewal.