March 17, 2021 / Russell Lackey

Finding Courage to Build, Even During a Pandemic

We began construction on a new church building in January 2020. By March, all activities were canceled because of COVID.

In 1918, Luther Memorial Church started construction on its sanctuary and shortly thereafter the Spanish-Flu pandemic began. Now 100 years later, the church once again found itself building during a pandemic and wondering how we were going to survive this. Even though we might think twice before ever building again since we are 2 for 2 on construction and pandemics, the real question was and is whether we could find the courage to move forward.

In the book Quietly Courageous, Gil Rendle retells the story of Nashon, son of Amminidab, who was the first to enter into the Red Sea as Pharaoh’s army pursued the Israelites. According to tradition, the people argued about who would first go into the water. As the anxiety grew and with no decision forthcoming, Nashon decided to courageously venture into the unknown. When he entered the sea, the waters did not part. As he waded up to his waist, they still did not part. This continued until he took the step that would have put his nose underwater; then the sea finally parted. Rendle writes, “Quiet courage is needed because the depth of change that the church now faces makes it exceedingly difficult to thrive.” We have good leadership at Luther Memorial just as there is good leadership within many churches, but none of us will thrive unless we are willing to fully venture into the unknown.

To find an example of courage, I need look no further than my dad. As a building contractor, he knows too well the consequences that come from an economic downturn. After twice losing his livelihood, house, and savings to recessions, I watched him find the courage to start over. For him, courage was the difference between life and death. For us, as a church, finding courage will determine the kind of church we will be on the other side of the pandemic.

For us, as a church, finding courage will determine the kind of church we will be on the other side of the pandemic. Share on X

A year later, here are a few lessons we have learned in our pursuit of courage:

Lesson One: Space matters, but creativity matters more.

Though we do not currently have a church building, we do have access to the university tied to the congregation. When the pandemic began we quickly recorded online services in various campus locations: an office, conference room, a pedestrian bridge, lobby, classroom, and anywhere else that was available and that could fit a camera and a lectern.

We held “Drive-Thru Communion” in the school parking lot and outdoor services on the lawn outside “Old Main.” Two highlights from the year include a Palm Sunday car processional as we drove through the neighborhood and an outdoor Christmas Eve service in seven-degree weather. It was a very short service, but it was powerful.

The lack of a building coupled with the pandemic has unleashed our creativity. To say it another way: the temple curtain has been torn, and the spirit of creativity has been released. As the building is completed and the pandemic slows, we mustn’t give in to the temptation to settle into the familiar space and rhythm. We must find the courage to not settle for the comfortable.

Lesson Two: Know your “why.”

Our capital campaign consultants at Partners for Sacred Places guided us in developing a case statement. Little did we know that that exercise would be essential in focusing and communicating our mission.

Knowing why we exist as a church is crucial in a time when people are asking why they should attend church at all. If the pandemic has taught us anything, people in general and emerging adults, in particular, are seeking community, personal and social transformation, purpose, and transcendence. Traditionally, churches have filled this role. All one has to do is look around at hospitals, schools, and so many other organizations whose origins were in the church. Unfortunately, churches are no longer the leaders in developing vibrant and robust opportunities for people. We have forgotten our “why.”

Our “why” as a congregation is sharing the love of Jesus in ways that connect the church, college, and community. One hundred years ago, this vision was cast by Danish immigrants trying to make a way for their families in a new country. Today, the vision calls their grandchildren, as well as students, alumni, and immigrants or descendants originating from other countries to help each other flourish. It is this connection we are rebuilding through our project. The new floorplan is not our future. The mission is our future. The building is a tool to help us live out our mission.

Lesson Three: Nostalgia can derail your mission.

When we first moved out of our church one of the members commented that we were learning lessons that we would never need when we moved back into the building. She went on to say, “I cannot wait to return back to normal.” For her, security existed within the walls of the church, and doing church outside those walls was terrifying.

The pandemic has shown that there is no going back. Longing for the past is normal because it looks backward to a time when we may have felt strong and comfortable. The problem with nostalgia is that it hinders us from dealing with our present struggles. Without going through the struggle, we will never come to a new place of strength. Though we might all long for the meat and onions of Egypt, finding the courage to eat manna today in the wilderness opens up a future filled with milk and honey. Going back is not a viable option.

Lesson Four: Innovation is crucial.

You would never construct a building without a plan. However, that is exactly what we set out to do as a church. Our thinking was that if we simply improve what we do, then we would be okay. The pandemic has taught us that we cannot improve our way forward; we must innovate.

The pandemic has taught us that we cannot improve our way forward; we must innovate. Share on X

Our online ministry is an example of innovation over improvement. Throughout my ministry, I have worked hard to improve my preaching. When the pandemic hit, if I did not innovate how I disseminated the message, I would have preached to an empty room. Online ministry was a needed innovative shift.

Of course, innovation brings new questions to address. Recently, I received a note from a family in Oregon who not only watch the weekly sermon but also have invited friends to join them. Now we are thinking about the nature of membership, stewardship, and faith formation in a world beyond our normal physical boundaries. We would never have considered such questions a year ago. Without the courage to innovate, we will miss the missional opportunities of this moment.

Fifteen months ago, I thought the biggest problem facing our congregation was maintaining normalcy throughout a construction project. I was wrong. COVID disrupted everything. As we move into our new building and as the pandemic hopefully ends soon, it is my hope that we would find the courage to creatively face the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead. We do not have all the answers, but we have a God who travels with us each step of the way.

As for the church member who wanted to return to normalcy. Just the other day, she told me she is excited for the congregation’s next journey. She too has found courage.