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Can the Virus Unite Us?

Nothing brings us together like a disaster. The same kind of thing happened when Harvey hit Texas a couple years back. People from all different ethnicities, religions, denominations, nationalities, political alignments, social status, and economic levels all came together to help one another.

I moved to Orange, TX the same week Harvey hit the town. The church I was to become the pastor of in two weeks flooded. With a little help from my pastoral connections, a Texas Baptist Men group started in our direction to begin the mud out process. The only hiccup was they needed a place to stay.

I had just left working at a First Baptist Church, so I did what came naturally. I drove over to the First Baptist Church in town, walked in the front door, introduced myself to the staff, and asked them if our volunteers could stay at their church so they could work in mine.

It was an awkward request in general. What made it even more awkward is that the church I was to pastor split from First Baptist Church several years earlier. Even with an ugly past, they granted our TBM group full access to their facilities. The graciousness and generosity I received from FBC during those trying times made a forever friend out of me.

There's something about crises that makes pettiness seem so...petty. Old grudges suddenly seem silly and childish, and many of them certainly are. In an emergency, who has time to draw tribal lines?

Although it's not driving us together (for obvious reasons) in the same way, I have been toying with an idea: When the dust settles, will the Coronavirus force us to unity? Baptist churches are especially notorious for splitting from one another. But what if we started thinking in the direction of unity even right now? Maybe we should.

If smaller churches are going to survive this pandemic, it may require a widd sweeping effort of what I'm calling a long-term unity effort.

You may be wondering, "Is is that serious?" The answer is yes. I was sent a video the other day of Marriott International's president and C.E.O., Arne Sorenson, announcing that he would not be receiving a paycheck for the rest of 2020 to help the company overcome this crisis. He announced that COVID-19 had negatively impacted Marriott more than 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2009 combined. In this video he stated that hundreds of Marriott hotels were closing with the real possiblity of never reopening.

If this kind of thing can happen to the Marriott hotels, how much more could it also happen to hundreds of small churches?

According to LifeWay Research, 57% of all churches nationwide average fewer than 100 people in weekly worship. Many are barely making it financially week to week. According to the group of pastors I commune with, tithing is down in their churches. Some smaller churches are without real leadership or direction. Some are already struggling to envision a future. What are these churches supposed to do?

The solution could be long-term unity. Think the effort around Harvey, but for much longer. Smaller churches may need to start considering the real possibility of merging with other small churches in order to survive this crisis.

I'm no expert at church merging, by any means. So, here are a few thoughts from author Lyle E. Schaller in his book Small Congregation Big Potential: Ministry in the Small Membership Church. This is great book for any small congregation trying to survive and carve out a future right now. Chapter thirteen is titled, "Should We Merge?"

One of the key ideas that Schaller suggests is to not think of it as church merging so much as church union. What's the difference? "Congregational mergers," Schaller says, "tend to be based on a widely shared assumption there is a shortage of resources. They tend to be driven by a desire to perpetuate the past rather than create the new. They tend to cause the leaders to focus on means-to-an-end issues and on inputs rather than on desired outcomes."

He even says many small church mergers fail because, "worship tends to perpetuate a small-church culture rather than replace that old culture with a midsized church culture." Unions, on the other hand, focus on creating something brand new.

"The most successful congregational unions tend to be those involving three congregations, no one of which represents a majority of the constituents, and everyone agrees the goal is to create a new congregation under a new name with a new role and identity that will meet in a new (at least new to all participating congregations) meeting place with a new definition of the primary constituency, a powerful future-driven policy-making process (rather than to perpetuate or re-create the past), and new ministerial leadership."

I'm not saying it would be easy. Just think of all the meetings, discussions, decisions, and committees that need to be made just based from that one paragraph. But if the sobering trend that Marriott International is facing has any relevance to the church, and I believe it does, all this effort at unity may be more than simply a good idea.

Long-term unity may just be the way the church survives.

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