“Trouble is opportunity.” I don’t think Sir John Marks Templeton was the first to coin that phrase, but I heard it a lot during my decade working for his foundation. It was one of his investment mantras. When the market was down, he would find the next big winner. Trouble did not interrupt progress, but was a catalyst for it.
My father-in-law offered a variant of this mantra in a text he sent his three kids and their spouses on Christmas Eve. “We need to remember this year. Did it make us better?” It had been a hard year, made harder by the fact we would not all be together during the Christmas holiday. Nonetheless, he wanted to know if we were going to make good out of the trouble of 2020.
As we see positive signs that we are emerging from this pandemic (at least here in the U.S.), both as individuals and as the church, we need to remember the trouble it brought. We need to ask if it made us better and consider the opportunities it has afforded.
Post-pandemic progress may be difficult to wrap our heads around with so many unknowns. As more and more churches reopen, will folks come back? If they do, will they attend regularly? Can we balance both in-person and virtual church? What will happen to giving? What if it does not return to pre-pandemic levels? And as overall church participation continues on a downward spiral, what does the church have to say to those who have left or never considered us in the first place?
For most churches, the past 18 months have been among the most difficult in recent memory. But as we get relief from this troublesome pandemic, what opportunities has it created for progress?
Progress in Religion
Progress is not churchy language in my experience, but it was something I thought a lot about during my tenure at the John Templeton Foundation. Especially as it pertains to religion.
Templeton was interested in spiritual progress. For him, it was forward looking and mirrored what he saw in business and in science and technology. He meant the kinds of advances he witnessed during a lifetime that spanned the twentieth century.
There are several ways to imagine progress in religion, but for Templeton it was often through engagement with science. It included using the tools of science to study matters that were typically relegated to the realm of religion. His vision of spiritual progress is one of the reasons we have shared with you exciting new science on topics like forgiveness, generosity, gratitude, awe/wonder, hope, and humility. His eponymous foundation even funded themes like wisdom, a topic that may not be illuminated via science.
In many ways, I cut my teeth in faith and science under this rubric of spiritual progress. I very much hope the work of Science for the Church contributes to progress. I also hope the church—and the many exhausted leaders who have guided us through this pandemic—can step back and consider how we can truly progress as we live into the new normal with COVID-19 (I hope) mostly behind us.
- In chapter eight of Templeton’s book that details his humble approach to theology and science, he considers “Possibilities for Spiritual Progress?”
- The University of Chicago hosted a major project on the science of wisdom.
- Barna has some data collected during the pandemic that can inform what we do moving forward. Here is a piece on what folks miss from in-person worship and here is another on how COVID-19 impacted American Christians.
- In this May 24 podcast, Greg reflects on the benefits of an active faith and the church’s future.
Wisdom to Make Us Better
Proverbs sets a foundation for the value of wisdom, “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding” (3:13). And yet we have to read the entire Bible to see wisdom in action. Finding a more analytical, practical definition of wisdom can be a challenge. It is not merely intelligence, but a wise person is smart in that they apply the accumulation of knowledge and experience to exercise good judgement in their decisions and choices. It is something like “skillful action.” At least, that is true of human wisdom. Scripture also reminds us that there is a difference between our wisdom and God’s wisdom (I Cor 3:18-23). Godly wisdom takes more than just experience and smarts; it also takes a healthy dose of faithfulness. Again from Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10).
The church has accumulated a lot of new knowledge and experience over the past year: how to use technology in nearly every aspect of ministry; how to leverage the medical professionals among us; and how one of the key ingredients of science—data—can inform our decisions. How can we be wise (in the smart sense) as we apply this new knowledge and these new experiences to make our churches better?
We have also seen incredible faithfulness throughout the past year. I’ve seen countless examples of the church stepping up to meet the needs of others in crises. My church increased its hunger ministry. Others opened their doors to help host students in virtual school. Still others have helped in the vaccination efforts.
While we have missed in-person fellowship, the faithful have also supported our emotional wellbeing via cards, calls, and Zoom. Our churches have found ways to remain together apart during periods where nearly all our interaction was virtual. The saints among us have been undeterred reminding us that God’s faithfulness has never wavered even in the worst of pandemic times. How can we be wise and leverage this faithfulness to make our churches better?
My congregation found glimpses of progress in virtual worship. Members who were homebound, or had difficulty hearing, connected anew via virtual worship. We had many Sundays with more YouTube views than we ever had for in-person worship. This is largely due to a computer scientist and engineer who figured out the how to stream live and recorded material each and every week from the sanctuary. We are now in a better position post-pandemic to reach those who cannot attend in-person worship.
The past few years have been full of hardship. The trouble continues for many. As C.S. Lewis’s character said in the film Shadowlands, “Experience is the most brutal of teachers. But you learn. My God, you learn.” We have learned. Now we must be wise—both smart and faithful in applying all that this trouble has taught us. Let us not miss the opportunity post-pandemic for progress.