Thinking outside the building

Written by Abby Ciona

I think everyone will remember the moment when the pandemic became real for them. For some, it was through an email, a text, a news broadcast, a cancelled event, or a nearby COVID-19 case.

For me, I was on vacation with my family, and we’d been looking forward to visiting a church. Due to the lockdown, we ended up watching the church’s live stream from our hotel room. It was our first of many virtual church services in the year to come.

As soon as we got home from our shortened vacation and went into quarantine, my dad, who’s the pastor of my family’s church, began planning how our congregation would meet virtually.

Our church, Pleasant Valley Church in Brantford, Ont., has already been in a state of flux for the past several years. We used to have a building, but have become a portable church. We were in four different buildings in four years!

We had to keep adapting, imagining creative ways to meet together in each new building. Every move brought new opportunities to grow and new communities to serve. The experiences we gained as a portable church helped us guide other churches as we all transitioned online in the spring of 2020.

The pandemic has been challenging, but it has also allowed our church to serve an even larger community. Being online has allowed us to share the gospel message with more people, making our church more accessible.

The pandemic also helped our church grow closer together as a faith family.

Yes, we miss meeting in person, and yes, connecting virtually can be awkward. But many virtual connection times have often gone to a deeper level than we’ve experienced meeting in person.

Zoom connection times on Sunday mornings allowed everyone to have a voice and encouraged people to interact with those they might not walk up to and strike a conversation with in person. I saw many people get to know each other better during the pandemic than in years previous.

The isolation and fear during this time have taken a toll on many people’s mental health, so we came up with creative ways to encourage our church community. Youth and children’s ministries prepared packages of devotionals, activities, and snacks.

A highlight of our summer ministry was a video project where members of our church all over the city filmed themselves throwing and catching a ball. The video clips were then compiled together to make it look like we were all throwing the ball to each other in a long chain of connections. There was a lot of joy and laughter in our online church community the day the video premiered.

We also ran a virtual Alpha program to introduce people to Christianity and encourage Christians at all stages of their faith. My church has t-shirts with the words, “the church has left the building,” written on the back. It has become a motto for us through our transition as a church.

We know that no matter what change looks like, God opens new opportunities for us to love Him and love people. We have learned we don’t need a building to share God’s love and to worship Him, and even being unable to meet physically doesn’t prevent our ability to serve.

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of “going to church” and struggle to picture church without a building. Many of us fear change and want to stay where we are comfortable and safe. We spend our few hours on a Sunday morning meeting together, but our faith life can sometimes stay behind when we leave the building.

It’s easy to be a light to the world when we’re surrounded by other lights. It’s harder and riskier to be a light in the darkness. Just as church buildings can become comfort traps, online church “buildings” can too.

Have we gotten used to waking up late, going to church in our comfy clothes, eating breakfast while watching the service, and turning off the live stream before the closing words? Have we gotten too comfortable doing what’s easiest and most convenient for us?

We can easily find ourselves trapped behind a screen where we are safe. We can participate as much or as little as we want. We don’t even have to say a word or turn on our cameras if we don’t feel up to it.

We don’t “go to church,” but we also don’t “watch church.” We are the church. It’s hard to face change or try something new. It forces us to be vulnerable and accept that things might not work out the way we planned.

In the hole left when our illusion of power slips away, we can choose to acknowledge that God is in complete control. Usually, this points us to a place that’s a bit unsettling and awkward. But if Jesus is our model, love is neither comfortable nor convenient.

So, let’s think creatively about how we can serve others. We show Christ’s love best when we go out beyond our comfort zones and into the darkness of the world, using our gifts to share His light.