The Importance of Time Travel
How will the post-pandemic church pay the bills? Clicking on headlines like this, along with the usual parade of daily updates, warnings and statistics have become part of my grim COVID daily reading ritual. Forever scanning the horizon in search of some sign of clarity for what the future might hold when it comes to public worship or the gathered life of the church more broadly. This particular headline, unsurprisingly, wasn’t particularly encouraging. According to a Barna Group study, 65% of American churches have seen donations decline during the pandemic. Incredibly, one in five churches may be forced to close their doors in the next 18 months. I don’t know if the same numbers would map precisely on to Canadian realities, but the general trends aren’t hard to recognize.
Whether you interpret this data as good or bad news depends, of course, on your assessment of the value of the church. If you see the church as a historical relic, a purveyor of fairy tales, a tool of colonial oppression, a pawn of far-right politics, or any combination of the above, well than, good riddance, right? The sooner the inevitable happens the better. On the other hand, if you see the church as a vital connection to God and neighbour, a source of deep meaning and connection, a source of incalculable social good, Christ’s very hands, feet, and voice in the world? Then these predictions could be alarming at best, an existential crisis at worst.
I would, of course, be more inclined to the latter appraisal of things than the former—and not purely for reasons of self-interest. I suspect we have little idea what the loss of a significant number of churches would mean for us culturally. The amount of behind the scenes unobtrusive generosity and volunteerism that is represented by ordinary little churches that make few headlines is almost impossible to overstate. The community bonds forged and strengthened in a culture careening of the cliffs of individualism and consumerism is similarly difficult to exaggerate. And this is leaving aside the spiritual value of the church—the ways in which Christ is encountered in word and deed, in bread and wine, in song and story, week and in week out. I shudder to imagine what the closing of one in five churches might look like.
In addition to my diet of bleak COVID prognostications, I’ve been reading Alan Jacobs’ Breaking Bread with the Dead. Jacobs is making what I suspect would have been an utterly unremarkable argument at any other point in history but our own: the past has something—indeed, many things—to teach us. Ancient works are—imagine!—more than just repositories of racism, homophobia, and patriarchy. They also contain lessons that we may have lost or forgotten (or trampled stupidly underfoot). Reading those whose assumptions and ways of inhabiting the world differ from our own can be a means of learning how to live more tranquilly in the present. This is Jacobs’ thesis, at any rate.
In one chapter, Jacobs talks about the concepts of “personal density” and “temporal bandwidth.” Both point to the importance of becoming more psychologically stable and historically anchored, particularly in our context of “presentism” where it’s all too easy to engage with little beyond what is thrown up on our news-feeds or is dominating the headlines of a digital culture engineered to keep us entertained, distracted, anxious, angry, and afraid. Jacobs borrowed these terms from novelist Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow:
Personal density… is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth. “Temporal bandwidth” is the width of your present, your now… The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.
Of course, I couldn’t help but think of these terms in light of the church and what its decline may or may not portend. Whatever else is going on in public worship, we are, week in and week out, “dwelling in the past and in the future.” Last Sunday during our worship service, a ten-year-old boy stood up for the Scripture reading and churned through awkward references to “Euodia and Syntche” and their evident conflict in a church in a city called Philippi nearly two thousand years ago. This was followed by a certain preacher waxing eloquent about how “no joy or beauty or love or truth will fade into nothingness” and that we therefore “don’t have to grasp and cling to these things before they drift away forever because they will be part of the new world God promises.”
In other words, for an hour or so on Sunday morning we dwelt in the past and the future. And in so doing, I think we increased our temporal bandwidth, widened our “now,” and accumulated greater “personal density.” In some tiny, incremental way, we became more solid, as a community and as individuals. Where else but church does this dwelling in the past and the future happen with any regularity or intentionality these days?
I worry for a culture that is so eager to pass judgment on the past and unwilling to learn from it. I worry for a culture whose future horizons have shrunk down to the size of what might be delivered by our adversarial politics. I worry that our sense of who we are is being colonized by a tyrannical “Now” that is ruled by reactivity, a puritanical and unmoored moralism, and an attention span that doesn’t have the patience to look backward or forward with any kind of charity, curiosity, or hope. I fear that we are, to borrow Pynchon’s words, becoming ever narrower and more tenuous.
We need the church. For all kinds of reasons. Perhaps now, more than ever.