THE Revd Jeffrey Brown, minister and co-founder of Boston TenPoint Coalition against youth violence, loves to tell the story about his transition out of seminary. When Jeff graduated from Andover Newton, the theological school where I now serve as dean, he was full of fascination. He had learned so much about the Bible, theology, and the rich history of the Christian tradition, and he wanted to share it all. Immediately.
When Jeff became pastor of a historic Baptist congregation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he had visions of growing it into a megachurch. That did not happen, but the small and aged congregation — which actually shrank during his first year as parishioners died — taught him how to be a minister. After his first sermon, long and complicated and ending with what he called a “Tillichian twist”, a grandmother of the church took Jeff aside and gave him advice that changed his life: “You have to put it where people can get it.”
During the past two months, I have heard the term “supply chain” more than in all my previous years combined. Supply-chain problems plagued the distribution of personal protective equipment for frontline workers fighting Covid-19. Supply-chain issues thwart the development and distribution of tests for the virus, as different components needed for test kits come from different parts of the world. Now, supply chains that make food available far from where food is produced are under such strain that farmers are culling cows and pouring milk down the drain while families in under-served communities go hungry.
Leaders in every field have to rethink supply chains right now. Christian ministers and lay leaders are no exception. During this pandemic, some churches are worshipping online, in drive-ins, over the phone. Others are creating confusion, chaos, and conflict by insisting that communities come together against all public-health advice. The debates erupting — social-distancing guidelines versus admonitions that Christians must gather — are not theological questions. They are a matter of supply chains.
Jeff Brown got the advice, “Put it where people can get it.” The first thing we must ask when reconsidering our work in this strange and unsettling time is: What is “it”? We must define what we seek to deliver, and then consider how to deliver it in new ways. Faith communities deliver comfort and togetherness. They also deliver challenges to think in novel ways — sometimes ways that run counter to what the secular market economy tries to convince us is true. Faith community leaders would be better served by focusing attention, reflection, and conversation on the “it”.
THE great rethink that Covid-19 is requiring of us is going to change the Church for ever; for bells are ringing that cannot be unrung. One of those bells is the realisation on the part of faith communities that they have a much bigger toolbox than they realised for carrying out the “it” that is church.
Now that people know what it feels like to have their churches “put where they can get it”, they will expect that new supply chain to continue. At first, it is possible — even likely — that these expectations will overwhelm religious leaders, but, like Jeff, we will adapt, and the initial strains will have been worth it.
Jesus tells us, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8.32). The truth is not a delivery system. Rather, the delivery system serves the truth. It is up to religious leaders to focus communities on the truth and then adapt the delivery systems accordingly.
This is a big job, but we are not the first to do it. This is not Christianity’s first challenge; it’s not even our first pandemic. In each generation we must rethink our supply chains so that God’s love might flow even — especially — in hard-to-reach places where it is needed most.
The Revd Dr Sarah Birmingham Drummond is the Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School. This is an edited extract from We Shall Be Changed: Questions for the post-pandemic Church, edited by Mark D. W. Edington, and published by Church Publishing Incorporated on 17 November at £5.99 (Church Times Bookshop £5.39).