In three days it will be June 15th. Are you looking forward to the day California is supposed to open when masks for the vaccinated will no longer be required? Does your church or fellowship have a plan for returning to in-person worship? Are you streaming your live worship to Facebook Live on the internet? Do you have a plan to recognize and welcome those individuals and families who joined your worship when you could only broadcast your worship on Sunday morning?
These are just a few of the questions that Riverside Presbytery pastors have been addressing in the various meetings I have attended. There’s lots of discussion about what to do. Some churches have taken action, dipped their toes into this new world of worship. Others are in the planning stage. While others who never broadcast their worship service don’t have a virtual congregation to be concerned with.
There are so many questions. When and how to return to in-person worship? How to include those virtual worshippers in the life of the church other than on Sunday morning? What does membership mean when people who worship virtually contribute faithfully and participate in the life of the church, attending Bible study and coffee hour? Do we have a Bible study for the virtual folk and a different one for those in person? How can virtual church attendees be involved in your ministry outreach?
Yes, questions abound! Everyone seems to be trying something different. There’s no clear path. And that may be frightening to some, but quite exciting to others. I’m not sure which camp you are in, the frightened or the excited. Let me share some thoughts with you about moving forward in this new world of worship and doing ministry post-pandemic.
Last year I mentioned that we are in a liminal space, that time in between. The old has died and the new has not yet revealed itself. What are church leaders to do as they plan for the future? I suggest that you use this time to experiment, to see what works and what doesn’t work. This is not the time to create a five-year plan. There’s not enough data out there to know what works and what doesn’t work. Churches in this Presbytery are planning and executing worship in a variety of ways. That’s good because, through our pastor cohort groups, the pastors are sharing what works and what doesn’t work. We are learning from each other.
I have said many times that you must fail to succeed. Learn from your mistakes and move forward. Be agile on your feet. You can’t please all the people all the time. But you can please some people as you do move forward. And that’s what is important. Involve a few people who represent the various attitudes in the church and move forward. Don’t study the issue to death. Act!
Susan Beaumont explains in a recent article, “In liminal seasons, people grow frustrated with prolonged periods of listening, pondering, and planning. Most immediate action is needed.” www.congregationalconsulting.org/getting-on-the-same-page-now.
“Most immediate action is needed.” Is that the Presbyterian way? I believe we Presbyterians have a structure in place that allows every church to take immediate action, to move forward with dispatch, to make mistakes, to learn as we go. Don’t we depend on the Session to lead the church? Isn’t your Session making decisions about when to open and how to open, planning in conjunction with the pastor or pastors? Let me encourage the Session in your church to embrace this role fully and move forward with dispatch. Thank you to the many Sessions who already are doing so.
Many of you know about the bell curve that is made up of early adopters, the early majority, the late majority, and laggards. We all fall into these categories when new ideas are presented to us. Some embrace the new idea immediately, the early adopters. For others, it takes more time. That would be the early and late majority. And some have an aversion to risk or change and aren’t willing to change their ways. That would be the laggards. In my own personal life, I’m a laggard in adopting new cooking appliances. I still don’t own an air fryer.
These same groups are in your church. You have early adopters, early and late majority, and, of course, laggards. Just remember, you can’t please all the people all the time if you are to move forward. So, I urge you to look to the early adopters and the early majority folk as you build consensus for a new idea.
And as your Sessions move forward, I would encourage learning about this new digital world we are in, indeed we have been forced to be in. Perhaps you may want to designate a group of people in the church to work on a special project. You probably already know of one example in your church if you were one of the churches to quickly move your worship service to online in March and April of last year. The Presbytery has had several workshops on how your church can have online worship and recently hosted two workshops on how to broadcast your live worship on the web. All of these workshops were hosted by teams from the churches in the Presbytery with knowledge of the topic. Many of these teams had a crash course in cameras, using Facebook and YouTube. They took on the special project and succeeded.
This new world of ministry will involve different ways of doing ministry. Your church may choose to put together a group of educators who can guide the development of an online curriculum for children who cannot attend Sunday School in person. Or perhaps you see a need to make the Sunday service run more smoothly. Are there are folks in your church who have theater or stage experience who can advise you?
When you do move forward with a new idea, don’t forget to build into your plans how to evaluate the success of the project. Did the online Bible study attract those who didn’t attend before? Have you asked your remote worshippers if the service comes through clearly and they can understand what is being said? What do they find distracting about the camera movements? Evaluation is so important.
The project you planned may not work. Embrace failures and learn from them. Just as you did prior to the pandemic, drop programs that don’t move your ministry forward.
Why do we plan worship? Why do we have Bible studies? Why are we excited about the new folks who are attending worship or Bible study virtually?
How you answer those questions is vitally important. I hope you answer by quoting Jesus and the words he shared with his disciples before he ascended before he left the earth. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew 28: 19, 20
You see, I believe that churches are not to be structured to make the members happy and comfortable. Churches came into being to bring people to Christ, to train them as disciples to do God’s work in the world of helping the poor, of working for justice and peace. All that we do in the new world of ministry should never lose sight of this goal.
Finally, if you’d like to read a short one hundred- and eleven-page book on the challenges churches are facing with some suggested actions to take, may I suggest The Post Quarantine Church by Thom S. Rainer. This would be a good book for sessions to read together.