Saturday mornings in my house since the beginning of widespread COVID-19 lockdowns have been for large hot breakfasts and music we haven’t listened to for years. My daughters hear the soundtrack of high school, college, and early adulthood for my wife and me while we make toast or pancakes and scrambled cheesy eggs. Though restrictions aren’t what they were, we are maintaining this new tradition that centers us on our family while reminding us of our history together.
The Seasons and Soundtracks of Life
One week, I put on Waterdeep’s Sink or Swim and re-lived the mingled longing for relationship and heaven that the singers and I felt so strongly twenty years ago. While we have the partial fulfillment of loving marriages and families that we didn’t when the album was released, listening in the midst of a pandemic reminded me that much of what they sang about won’t be fulfilled until we feast with Christ.
Another week, I loaded the playlist of the CD mix my wife made in 2004. We were newly dating and were going to be hundreds of miles apart on our summer break from Grove City College. Two friends and I had decided a year earlier to try to make money for school on the popular tourist island of Martha’s Vineyard, but I hadn’t anticipated that I’d start dating the woman who would become my wife in the intervening months, which would lead to a different kind of homesickness than I’d experienced before.
The mix she made spun in the Discman in my dad’s mid-80s Dodge Ram dozens of times while I drove around that summer —the soundtrack to Amélie, Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” Coldplay’s “Yellow”—giving me a grounding that helped the relationship persevere. We never imagined in 2004, that we would listen to those songs again almost 14 years into marriage in 2020 in a general quarantine. But as a symbol of endurance, those songs helped me engage with my family in a difficult time.
Leaning into Tradition and History in Uncertain Times
History and tradition are weird animals. As recent protests and movements demonstrate, we can use them to justify a status quo that isn’t healthy; they can be inertia. They can also serve as a locating point when we feel like we are losing our way.
If we can still hear Sting’s croon in the safety of our homes with our families, we can remember what has helped us thrive thus far and reinvest in those things to move forward into uncertainty. While I’m not a pastor, as a lifelong congregant and in my role as Research Director for the Project on Rural Ministry, I’m learning how rural churches also navigate the ups and downs of tradition and long histories—and what that might tell us as we chart paths through pandemic shutdowns, re-openings, and church recovery.
In August 2019, we hosted the PRM pastors and lay leaders from their congregations at Grove City College to kick off the project. We sat in small groups separating pastors and lay leaders and asked them questions about the opportunities and challenges of pastoring or being part of church bodies in rural communities.
Church and community history and tradition came up as a theme in several of the groups of both pastors and lay leaders. Many churches in small towns and rural communities have been established congregations for a century or more—one participant mentioned 1799 as a founding date.
Through all the changes of economy, politics, war, and, yes, pandemic, those churches have survived. Are there files from 1919 or 1920 that recount what our churches did to adapt to Spanish Flu? How can that history comfort congregants who don’t know where the next paycheck will come from—and draw them to a church that will be determined by the grace of God to push on and support the local community? Even church plants and newer congregations can look to church history as a testament of faithfulness in difficult times.
Individual families sometimes have generations of history in a single congregation. For those family members struggling now, can we tell them the story of how their church has served and been served by their kin? Can that draw them to a place of safety they need—or to reaffirm their need for God and the church? Lay leaders at the conference discussed that small communities like those of many rural churches have a strength to them from their close-knit relationships formed over generations that they have not found when they attend churches in more transient suburbs or cities. Using that history can provide guidance or opportunity, such as connecting the young to their elders in productive ways.
History, Adaptation, and Meaning
But the history has to have meaning in the present for that to work. It has to be a story that still tells us something about ourselves now. Pastors and lay leaders were less enthusiastic about history as excuse not to change—a tradition that is such because things have always been that way, a distrust of a new idea because the person voicing it doesn’t have enough history with the church to be listened to. Pastors are trained to see a congregation’s needs and work with lay leaders to address them, but tradition is a frequent word used to kill ideas.
We are clearly living history that will impact generations, and the opportunity to forge new traditions is real. Churches that were divided over the use of hymns or contemporary praise choruses, churches that wouldn’t change a service time, have all embraced 21st century streaming technology.
What are those new practices that meet the needs of our current moment, and can they start to form those new traditions, anchored in the history of individual churches and the larger tradition of our faith, that guide rural congregations into our changed world? We’ve all felt the loss of connection from the loss of weekly communal worship. Even churches that are reopening now can’t safely meet as we did six months ago; our relationship to our congregations is different.
My family has decided to continue watching our church’s live stream though the church has begun meeting, because we don’t feel comfortable with indoor gatherings of large groups. I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable doing traditional fellowship activity like a potluck meal right now, but I still want connection to people I value as brothers and sisters in Christ.
What are the virtual communities or socially-distanced gatherings that can respect our health needs while providing something more personal than a pre-recorded message or feeling like I’m eavesdropping on someone else’s worship? How are the church structures and properties, potentially the result of generations of faithfulness, providing opportunities to provide small group connections or outdoor worship space?
Our rural churches can tell good stories coming out of this time of pulling a community together in old and new ways, with respect for the needs of all, in pursuit of the ancient but ever-new faith devoted to the love of our Savior.
Born and raised in Topeka, KS, Adam moved east for college and never left. Adam is an assistant professor of English and writing at Grove City College. His role as research coordinator and program evaluator for the Project on Rural Ministry stems from his background in social science-based education research. In this role, he tracks the development of programming and learning that occur through the PRM’s initiatives. Adam has published several articles in education journals that focus on the use of language in educational settings.