Re-Churching the Future

COVID-19 is helping write endless questions right now. But I’m guessing yours sound something like this:

  • How are we supposed to curate a community that can’t commune?
  • What are the best ways to maintain ecclesial rhythms online?
  • How do I best keep my community connected as we journey a forced disconnection?
  • What do we do when we’re able to have small gatherings again?

Obviously, we all are navigating these and similar questions during this time. The future is unknown and our varied contexts will likely demand different responses as society moves forward and deals with this crisis.

Though we are “missional people” in this tribe, we share some common issues with our “attractional model” sisters and brothers. We’ve been forced to take content and connection online to platforms like Zoom, Facebook, or YouTube. As much as we resist it normally, digital responses are the only choice if we want to continue any resemblance of a conversation with our community of faith, especially a larger one.

Redefining Incarnation?

An interesting irony has been forced upon us as we navigate these times of digital online church gatherings. One of the cornerstone theological principals for us as missional practioners has been taken away, forced into re-definition. In fact, we even risk discipling others in the anthesis of this important principle as we engage online platforms to stay connected.

Incarnation is a crux of a word in our thesis that we all should be present in the spaces we live, work, and play. It promotes that if Jesus was God incarnate and present with us, then we should follow that example and disciple others to incarnate in their spaces as well.

The problem is that the very word incarnation means “in the flesh.” This would seem to run counter to a Zoom call, where you can certainly see bodies, faces, and expressions, but the personal presence is missing. To live stream over YouTube to a large group breaks it down even further, where there is no incarnation, even visibly. Communication and sight is one-way, others watching us.

Upspoken Discipleship

To make matters more complicated, don’t we disciple people as strongly with our methods as with our words? In fact, James’ principle where he says, “…I will show you my faith by my deeds,” (James 2:18) supports this idea that our actions speak louder than words.

What we do over time will often teach people a spiritual truth or ecclesiology, even if we attempt to save our desired belief by verbally contradicting those statements. In other words, we can talk all day long about the evils of being reliant on digital technology, that is, until the day we are needing to stay connected by its methods.

This sounds as though I’m against digital platforms and complaining about the situation churches have been forced into. I’m not at all, and in fact think the church is going through a healthy pruning and restructuring right now. I am, however, suggesting that we are possibly re-creating our own future where we need to realize a potential truth and a possible opportunity.

Ex-Carnation: An Opportunity

If incarnation is the presence of flesh, excarnation is the removing of it. In fact, in certain burial traditions of various tribes, removing flesh before burial is a practice that is termed by archeologists as excarnation (sorry for the visual).

As people learn new habits and new weekly rhythms, will their new-found, learned desire be to stay incarnated in their neighborhood? Could these present rhythms where our church community is excarnated from the gathering actually be teaching something valuable, incarnation into places they live and with people they live next to?

Could these present rhythms where our church community is excarnated from the gathering actually be teaching something valuable, incarnation into places they live and with people they live next to? ~ Rowland Smith

To over-emphasize my point, to send someone as Jesus was sent by the Father (John 20:21), may mean that they not be in-the-flesh (incarnate) with us. This habit is being trained into people now as they shelter-in-place and find their relief in a walk around the neighborhood, getting to know their neighbors, singing with others from balconies at a certain time of night, shopping for the elderly who are not supposed to be out, and caring for others in need during this crisis.

People everywhere are rediscovering what it means to be connected as humans in a certain space, a particular street or block. Even not-yet-Christ-followers are learning what it means to be incarnational with neighbors. Present…in-the-flesh.

A Lost Opportunity?

These actions of loving our neighbor are the very life-rhythms we spend much of our time trying to teach to those we lead in our faith communities. They are the cornerstone of our message, “Go and display the Kingdom of God to others.”

So, as we are able to socialize and gather again, will we simply put away these lessons and stories of excarnation from the gathering and forced incarnation to our neighborhoods, or will we see a new opportunity to continue those rhythms with our church? Is there a place for equal emphasis of incarnation into the city, which may mean excarnation from the gathering?

Can we risk de-fleshing the event in support of in-fleshing the neighborhood?


I’m not proposing a new model for your context, that is obviously up to your own discernment. But as leaders I would propose that our digital delivery of content is teaching something that may actually be healthy for the church in the long run.

For example, perhaps we start gathering again but less often, and with the alternative of giving out content online to house gatherings. (Most of us are learning to do that fairly well right now.) Or perhaps, what would it look like for the whole community to gather every other week and then host a watch party and meal the off-weeks?

Might we promote equal-incarnation to both the gathering and the neighborhood? Perhaps you choose to continue weekly gatherings at the event but you also provide online content to those that will excarnate from you in order to incarnate with others. Could we merge our past ecclesiology and what we’ve learned into a healthier mission?

Tuning In

What is the current landscape telling you? Ask your people how they are actually liking or disliking the rhythms of being at home. Let your ecclesia help determine your future ecclesiology, one that serves the gathering of God’s people, but also promotes incarnation in the right places.

They say that crisis breeds innovation, and innovation takes bravery to carry out. What will the times today tell you about re-churching your future? More importantly, are we brave enough to listen?

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About the Author

Rowland Smith

Rowland serves as National Director of Forge America Missional Training Network, is a staff pastor of missional culture at a church in Colorado Springs, and directs The Pando Collective, a micro-church and missional expression network that was launched from his local church. He also teaches as affiliate faculty at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of Life Out Loud: Joining Jesus Outside the Walls of the Church, and most recently, was lead editor and organizer for the multi-author book Red Skies: 10 Essential Conversations Exploring our Future as the Church. He is married and has four adult children.

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