GROWING IN GRACE
By all expert accounts we seem to be nearing a place where the end of this pandemic is in sight (side note: please keep wearing your masks and get your vaccine if you’re able to get one).
What started as a brief delay in our routine has become a marathon of more than a year. We’ve marked special days in different ways. We’ve lived our daily lives somewhere on the spectrum of fearful to incredibly anxious. And what might be among the hardest for most of us, we’ve seen our rhythms of church life altered in ways we can barely recognize.
While many of us just want to return to “the way things used to be,” I think that is a terrible mistake. Life doesn’t move backwards. It can only move forward. And there are lessons we can take from this past year to make our churches stronger. Here are five:
- Don’t lose those newly formed online muscles
By mid-March 2020 we were all frantically working to learn how to utilize the internet to continue being the church. Buildings were closed, we were isolated in quarantine, and the internet was all we had to connect with people. And then we learned an important lesson: the internet is not so much a tool as it is a place. We meet each other there. And we learned how to “see” people and connect with them. Many pastors were over-functioning early on, thinking we had to offer some sort of online connection daily. And that was good for a while – at least it helped us begin to build these new muscles. Over the last year we have learned a lot about how to connect with people online. As we begin to shift our attention back to in-person gatherings, we don’t need to lose these newly formed muscles. These are the muscles that will allow us to expand our ministry beyond our local area. The internet reaches way beyond our building. It’s now the place where we can continue to learn how to reach people who may never physically encounter our property. Those people need Jesus and the church, too.
- Engagement is WAY more important than attendance
For too long we’ve used attendance numbers as a warm blanket to sooth our secret insecurities and measure ourselves against each other. If people showed up to a building, we felt like we did something. Butts in seats are easy to count. Life change is much harder. I remember early on we all focused on multipliers for our online attendance numbers. We were scared and ignorant and boosting those numbers made us feel like we weren’t losing anything. Now that a year has gone by we’ve met the real truth behind our misconception – attendance alone is not a good way to measure the effectiveness of ministry. I hope this past year has taught us that “clicks” and “views” don’t mean anything if they don’t lead to life change. We need to find ways to measure that more and attendance less. We could begin by reformatting our Discipleship Forms. At the very least I encourage local churches to keep a separate set of numbers – numbers that measure deeper things than just attendance. And make sure you share those with your District Superintendent, too.
- Church is not a building
We’ve sung this lesson for years: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people…” And yet it’s hard to shake the notion that church is a building. Just ask a member what they do on Sunday mornings and they’ll probably say, “I go to church.” I once read a theologian who corrected that misstatement by saying, “I don’t go to church on Sundays. I go to worship so I can BE the church all week long.” This past year taught us that we can be the church even when we can’t go to the building. We need to recenter ministry beyond our buildings, take it into our homes and communities, and reimagine what it means to BE the church beyond our physical buildings.
- Reaching new people should be our top goal
Playing off our earlier lesson about how the internet is a place, not a tool, we can also definitively say that reaching new people should be our top goal. Jesus calls us to the Great Commission, and this past year offered a wonderful opportunity to test the limits of what “and to the ends of the earth” might look like. How can your church better utilize things like social media and livestream worship to reach new people? Maybe you can add an online hospitality component to your hospitality team to imagine ways to reach people online more? The Great Commission remains our calling, and this past year has taught us that the sky is the limit!
- We need to be constant learners
Learning is hard work. And I feel like we’ve all worked double hard over the last year learning so many new things. It can be exhausting. And yet we should also remember that the life of discipleship is spent in the posture of learning. We learn the ways of Jesus and we try to live by them. It’s not easy. But that learning shapes and reshapes us in new and amazing ways. This past year has been a laboratory for learning. And it’s a good reminder that we as individuals and even we as churches can be more faithful when we commit ourselves to be constant learners.
These are just five lessons I hope we can all take with us into the waning days of this pandemic. This past year has been hard. But two things are true even in the midst of a global pandemic: 1) God is always faithful; and 2) We are called to be the church and, as such, we are called to reach new people in new ways.
The Rev. Ben Gosden is senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.