Epiphany Church: NYC held their last church service in November 2020. In the end, there were several reasons for the closing, the coronavirus not being the least of them. We gave it a good run, but it’s just not easy planting a church in Manhattan these days, even before the virus shut down everything. We weren’t the first or the last to close in this span of time either. Church closings seem to be a smaller, less visible pandemic happening everywhere as well. While my friend and Pastor was able to continue on at another church in New Jersey, adjusting for me, has not been as easy. Since the closing, I’ve been welcomed by several pastors and congregations connected to my church in the surrounding NYC/NJ area. I was even blessed to preach a time or two. But, now that my time is not spent exclusively in Manhattan trying to get a new church off the ground, my heart’s desire is to be as close to home as possible. That means Staten Island.
The problem is finding a place that feels like home.
Don’t take this the wrong way, I’m not expecting to find my church. I do, however, expect to find a church that has some similarities. I’m older now, and both my boys are adults, so things people typically check off on lists like youth groups or families with young children, are not on it. Those days are behind me, but I am still a little selfish, and I do have a list. First and foremost, is a church that won’t burst into flames when I walk in, and unless I walk in with a literal dumpster fire on wheels, this is probably an easy checkmark on my list.
The other three are less tongue-in-cheek humor, and more real deep needs for me.
What I Don’t Need
Let me start off first by saying what I don’t need. Believe it or not, one of those needs is NOT a great preacher or sermon. Thanks to the phenomenon of online worship, which you could say is the one change that has benefited the church thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. So many churches that people wished had an online presence now do, even in its simplest forms. My old church had a Facebook account and an iPhone to start and did the job well. Good gospel-focused messages got out.
That doesn’t mean I don’t want someone who knows how to encourage me from the pulpit. What I mean is preaching is the one part of a church service that could be considered me-centered. You’re sitting there, quietly taking in the pastor’s words, writing them down, hopefully contemplating them and praying later. In that moment in the service the focus is you, taking in what was said as one person speaks. It’s like being alone in a crowd at that moment.
So yes, it’s good if you get it a good sermon, but if you don’t, you can find it somewhere else. If you are not attending in person services, that makes it even easier to supplement through social media.
What I Do Need
The things I miss about church have everything to do with people coming together as a local community of believers. They’re moments of shared experiences that makes you feel part of a bigger whole. A transcendent time where there is a type of communal practice of the body of Christ, apart from the rest of your life. There are certain moments in a church service, even if it’s brief and fleeting, where no one is a parent or spouse, and where no one is a boss or a worker. These are moments where no one is an elder or just a regular old congregant. We are one body moving in unison in these moments. In these moments, hopefully we can blot out the rest of the world and be in the midst of our heavenly Father together. So here’s what I need:
I know this may feel like an easy thing to say, but it’s so vital to a congregation to come and raise a voice in song together. Psalm 95:1 says: “Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!” There are countless other references across the scriptures encouraging the same thing. We lift-up songs together, not just instruments, but voices in unison. A beautiful harmony made up of both tone-deaf vocals alongside the angelic chords of others. It is the sweetest, rawest, and simplest form of praise back to the one who deserves it.
There was a young man who met the Lord at my old church, who loved to worship in song. I can’t describe to you how bad his singing was, but it was bad, and it was loud. You could hear it clearly a few rows away. It was also gloriously beautiful and freeing to hear him singing without a care. We just need to sing and praise God together. It is the church as one.
His Communion Gifts
Done right, breaking bread is a form of intimacy. Inviting someone to share a meal with you is inviting someone into your life. It is opening your life up to them. It is calling them friends. When we are at church and get to share that holy meal that our pastor hands us, we are participating in a great intimacy together. We are forged together as one organism in that moment, admitting to our Savior together that we are sinners and we need this meal fed to us as often as the church will serve it to us.
One of the things about planting a church is that we were not bound by an older church’s practiced traditions. We are the ones setting the traditions for our church, a foundation for what we had hoped would continue on past our time there. We had made the decision to hold communion every week, and every week whether we walked the aisles to personally hand deliver the goods, or as we later did, had people walk the aisle to receive, the church shared a meal, shared a gift from God, a gift of grace meant for them.
Outside of our joint confession and absolution, this is one of my most treasured moments in the service. I think deeply, as I’m sure some others do, of the words of institution spoken. The implication of his body and blood given for us on a cross, and here in communion. We know in that moment together, that we are both undeserving and grateful to have it.
To me this is the true binding agent of church life. My best memory of a former church before I came to the Lutheran faith that I’m in now, wasn’t worship or the preached word, but what came after. We enjoyed each other’s company as the body of Christ. As brothers and sisters. My wife and I would regularly be the ones to “turn the lights off” on the way out. Some of the few remaining people from the old church that are still in my life are the ones like us, that were the last to leave. Being a part of a church for me, means being involved in people’s lives. Finding a good church means finding more family. It doesn’t mean every single person, but it means there are people you do gel with. It’s probably the hardest thing to find when looking for a new church home. This requires real connections. Real connections are hard, but they are worth it when found.
Why am I talking about this stuff? Because right now, these things are hard to find. It’s hard to find because of the pandemic that we are still living though. Many churches have made the decision to protect their congregations by withholding things they think could make the typical church experience more conducive to spreading the virus. That means for some churches, no communion, no singing, and no fellowship.
It also means no me.
I don’t begrudge their reasons. I know pastors, elders, and board members believe they are acting in the best interest of their church families, old and young. I’ve been to some of these services and for me, it’s not church. I need gifts, I need worship, I need community. These things are inextricably connected, and without them our church services are full of holes. They are missing parts that fill in the gaps for us. Some of these missing parts are the very things that spur us on toward each new day.
I think we’ve all had moments in church where we felt distant and apart. But I never felt more physically alone than when I sat in one solitary chair all by myself. The mask I wore could have well been a muzzle, as I had to promise I would not lift my voice in song. No gift of faith found in the elements to be had either. I received the benediction and quickly walked out the door into my car.
I’m sure this is not an easy decision for the church. I’m sure they are wrestling with it daily. With so many churches giving us these bare bones services, it’s hard right now to find a place that allows us the freedom to “church” as before. I look forward to these self-imposed restrictions being lifted, so I can hopefully find a place to settle into.
God’s peace to you…