“Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

Those are words spoken by many churches at the beginning of worship as they communicate an inclusive welcome to a diversity of people. No one ever dreamed that “wherever you are” would actually mean people from all over the map. Generally, I think it means “wherever you are on the journey of faith.”

mapBut, increasingly I am hearing from pastors that online worship is now including extended families and friends from around the country and world. Long-time members have invited their parents, their children, their siblings and their friends to join them in worship. It has allowed loved ones who are separated by distance to make worship a family affair again.

This was not possible five months ago. It used to be a rare occasion where a member introduced their family to the congregation saying, “I am pleased to have my children and grandchildren visiting me from Virginia this week.” Now pastors are saying, “We welcome Scott from Florida, MaryAnn from Montana, Maya from Minnesota, and Surgit from Indiana.”

Actual location and geography matter less in an online world. The distance from home to church is as close as a Zoom link. Miles have no impact.

Zoom screenAnother sign that online connection is changing worship planning is seen in the number of churches who cancel their own worship altogether when their pastors are on vacation. Why pay a supply pastor to fill in and produce online worship when one can more easily just send out a Zoom link giving access to another congregation’s worship. Pulpit supply pastors allowed for congregations to worship in their own building while their own pastor was on vacation. Now, simply providing a link to another congregation’s worship effectively replaces the need for pulpit supply in some congregations.

It brings up the question just how important is location and geography in carrying out the mission of the Church. We have tended to start with the assumption that we are serving a particular location or region. When we built churches we assessed the needs of the people who lived in a certain area. But is the gift of this time to remind us to focus first on our essential mission and secondarily on whether our mission is limited to a location.

E-LearningThe church can be many things to people and not all of those things necessarily have to be limited to a certain location or region. A church can focus on being a learning community. There are many learning communities that are primarily online and then offer annual retreats for in-person learning and connection. A church can focus on being a serving community. Millenials will tell us that one does not have to be in proximity to others in order to commit to causes and to service. Many serving communities (non-profits) share a sense of mission, but participants and supporters are scattered throughout the country.

Where it gets more tricky for us in being a worshiping community and a caring community. Certainly there are ways to worship where we don’t have to be physically present to each other, but is something lost in translation. Certainly we can find ways to care for each other across the internet and through the mail, but will it ever replace being able to hold the hand of a dear friend and pray with her at the hospital bedside?

group on beachI don’t think that what we are discovering in this time means that we will completely go from in-person connections to virtual communities. I don’t think that this time will result in the complete suspension of our in-person communities in favor of online connections. But I do think that this time allows us to assess what parts of our ministry are best done in one location and with people of a certain area and which parts of our ministry are not location-dependent and can therefore reach people across the country and the globe.

Does this new time allow us to become modern missionaries bringing the gospel of good news, justice and peace, and liberation and redemption to the world beyond our geographical location?

All of this reminded me to return to the Great Ends of the Church found in our Book of Order (F-1.0304). Read through the six Great Ends of the Church and ask one simple question, “Is this Great End location-dependent or, given our access to a virtual world, an opportunity to reach formerly unreachable people?”

I leave you with the six Great Ends and that simple question applied to each one:

(1) the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;

(2) the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;

(3) the maintenance of divine worship;

(4) the preservation of the truth;

(5) the promotion of social righteousness; and

(6) the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.globe

“Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

We will always hear those words differently now.

Wherever really does mean wherever.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

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