Among other unusual things, I belong to that unique fraternity of wandering souls known as backpackers.
Those of us in that fellowship will often load up a backpack with 50-70 pounds of gear and supplies and head out into the wilderness for many days at a time. My trips usually go three days and have taken me to some of the most lovely vistas one could ever imagine.
They have also gotten me bitten by a copperhead in Wilson Creek, N,C,, stung by dozens of yellow jackets on the Art Loeb Trail, despairingly lost in the Linville Gorge, face to face with a black bear in the High Shoals Falls area of Hiawassee, Ga., and hanging on for dear life in what surely must have been the most violent storm in decades on Mount Mitchell.
This, I suspect, is why my dear bride has thus far cordially refused my invitations to participate in these excursions.
But the aching back and legs and occasional life-threatening danger are, to me, quite worth it. There are sights one usually does not see in the city or even in many rural yet inhabited areas. And one of those things is the very rare beauty that comes from one of nature’s most destructive forces — fire.
I remember vividly a time that my companions and I were walking a wilderness trail under tall, old-growth trees. While those trees that have been alive longer than any human have an incredible beauty all their own, they also eventually reach a point at which not only are they not going to grow much taller if any at all, they also choke out the sunlight and prevent any new growth from forming under their canopy. They then spend decades dropping limbs and branches, causing a pile of deadfall that further prevents any trees, flowers, or anything else from emerging.
Suddenly, though, everything changed. We reached a very large area that had lots of sunlight coming through, clear spots to walk, young trees full of life reaching for the sky, and even flowers blooming. It was such an unexpected juxtaposition that I asked the most senior and knowledgeable person in our group why it was like that.
“Fire,” he said as he stopped and turned to me. Then with a wave of the hand as if circling the area with an invisible marker, “This whole area was gutted. But nature does as God designed it. New growth is now taking the place of the old.”
I can still see it in my mind, and I still smile at the wonder of it all.
Churches in America have in some ways been much like those old-growth forests, for good and bad. And I have been musing recently on the fact that COVID has in many ways changed the church just like a fire changes a forest. And please understand that I am not at all referring to any deaths among beloved members that some churches have endured; I am referring to the fact that a lot of church members have been out of church for nearly a year now, and many of them were key workers in important areas. And yet through it all, God seems to have done as He always does and “worked all things together for good to them that love God” as He promised in Roman 8:28.
I suspect that every pastor is like me and longs for the day that everyone returns, and yet, we all know that not all of them will. And we also have had to go on without them in the meantime. But the God of the church, who is also the God of nature, is allowing new growth to form.
There are new voices singing specials, people that we never would have known could sing or wanted to sing. Just this past week our church was stunned by the beautiful booming voice of a new youth choir soloist. There are new Sunday school teachers, people who have stepped in under crazy circumstances and who have infused a fresh energy into classes. There are new families who have gotten in as others have gotten out and are a blessing just by their faithfulness to every single service. There are new people leading in prayer and doing so with fervency.
The post-pandemic church will be a beautiful thing, I think. It will be a church where those who do come share a common passion to let Christ truly be preeminent. It will be a church with less ritual and more relationship. It will be a church that is more careful with finances, mindful of who can be counted on to keep giving to the work through whatever disaster comes next. It will be a church where people assume that they can be used if they want to be used rather than sitting back quietly and watching as a handful of “regulars” are the ones always seen and heard. It will be a church much like the church of the first century where people “hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” as Acts 15:26 so powerfully says.
New people will continue to come, some of the ones who have been out will return, others will simply be gone forever. The church that emerges from the pandemic will never, ever be the same.
And I am looking forward to it.