Monthly Archives: September 2021

Being the Church: Socialization

Back in the day, pre-pandemic, my local faith community had a social hour.  After worship, we’d hear announcements, then adjourn to a large community room down the hall with coffee and tea and water and snacks.  People would stand around—the room had no seating—and chat.

When I first started attending, I was incredibly shy.  It took months for me to gather the courage to walk down that hall from the worship room to the community room.  And the first time I did, I took one look at the disorganized mob of people and turned to flee.  I wanted friends; I wanted to connect, but the prospect of walking up to strangers and introducing myself overwhelmed me.

In later years, when I felt more confident as a member of the congregation and less shy generally, I used to look for people who were stuck in the hallway, like I had been…wanting connection, but afraid to walk into the community room.  There were many more than you might expect.  I discovered that most of the hallway dwellers were perfectly happy to talk with one person in a semi-private setting, without the extra pressure of people mulling about, jumping from group to group.  

So, each social hour, I’d go down to the community room, get myself something to drink, and then come back out to check the hallway.  When I found somebody, I’d say, “Hi, I’m Emily.”  I didn’t have to say much else.  Generally, that was enough to get them talking.  If the person didn’t want to connect, they would have left immediately after worship.  If they were lingering in the hallway, they were wanting to connect and unable to do so in the context of a big social hour.

Post-pandemic, when many of us have moved our worship online (or partly online), I’m thinking a lot about hallway dwellers.  I’m wondering two things.  

First, is it possible that there are more hallway dwellers joining our virtual worship than ever joined our physical worship?  For many people, it’s much easier (emotionally) to click on a link than to go to a building.  Online, you can leave in an instant if you’re uncomfortable, and your body remains in the safety of your home.

Second, is it obvious to the hallway dwellers—who, by definition, do want social connection but fear initiating it—how to access the social connections they’re seeking?  Is it obvious to the rest of us, if we’re online, that new people are present and possibly hoping we’ll reach out in some non-threatening way?  (I acknowledge that some people don’t want social connection, just worship and worship only.  There is nothing wrong with that desire; however, that’s not the group of people this article is talking about.)

Separately from the question of the hallway dwellers, what about the long-time members of the community who may be hungry for social connection?  In a world of livestreaming and Zooming and outdoor socially distanced masking, are we as faith communities successfully meeting that need?

Social connection is helpful for the purpose of the connection itself, even if we have no additional agenda.  Even pre-pandemic, loneliness was a significant and increasing problem in many societies.  And social contact is one reason people are drawn to faith communities.  But beyond that, social contact is also a necessary precursor to genuinely knowing one another, to understanding each other better, to learning what our needs and our gifts are.  If we don’t know each other, we have a really hard time being the church together.

How do we provide easy-entry socialization opportunities for both existing members of our congregations and the hallway dwellers?  How do we do that, especially, in hybrid or online communities, or in communities that are still being careful about in-person gatherings and distancing?

Truth told, as problem solving goes, I think this one is relatively low-hanging fruit.  We already have solid research that tells us that small groups lead to feelings of belonging, especially temporary small groups that are loosely structured and semi-spontaneous.  Socializing with a new community as part of a newly forming small group is much easier than trying to do it by entering a large group with all of its social norms already in place.

If you’re not doing it already, you might think about encouraging temporary small groups to form.  Invite anyone who is part of your worshiping community to suggest a new, temporary small group open to all.  It genuinely doesn’t matter what the small groups are for, and variety is great.  Maybe one person wants to start a small group that is knitting on Zoom together.  Another wants to start a small group to gather in a park and read the book of Ruth.  A third suggests streaming science fiction movies together (each person in their own home, using their own Netflix account) while chatting about the movies through a WhatsApp group.  All the faith community needs to do is include information about each group in its regular communications so that anyone who is interested can join.

Another approach (and there’s nothing saying you can’t do both) is to build in social time to every online or hybrid event.  The trick is to make sure that the in-person contingency isn’t having its social time before or after the web-based portion kicks in.  Before or after worship, before or after religious education gatherings, before or after committee meetings, schedule a few minutes of social time, and give it a little bit of structure.  Ask people to form small groups of three or four people, share their names, and respond to a simple question—serious or silly, whatever feels right.  If you’re fully online, you do this with breakout groups.  If you’re fully in-person, turn your chairs.  If you’re hybrid, do both.  Just don’t leave anybody out.  

Making room for people to be social seems like such a little thing.  And encouraging spontaneous connection by structuring it into the schedule might even seem oxymoronic.  But the truth is, in a post-pandemic era, we have to be deliberate to make sure the social connection happens.  And I can testify from my own experience that my life would be very different now if I had never managed to make it down the hallway.

Being the Church: Service

Years ago, I read about the relationship between community value and aging.  

When someone’s part of a community, they often give service of some kind to that community.  For example, perhaps a man—Reuben—takes notes at every business meeting of a certain congregation.  He is an excellent notetaker.  Over the years, people compliment him on his notetaking.  They speak about it relatively often.  He’s known as “the community’s totally awesome notetaker.”  But there comes a time when his hearing begins to fail.  His cognitive processing slows a little.  His hand begins to shake.  

The other members of the community love Reuben as much as ever, despite the fact that they can see his notetaking capacity diminishing.  But Reuben has learned, over time, by hearing it again and again, that the community values him as a notetaker.  He has rarely received compliments for anything else in the context of this community.  Internally, despite the reality of the feelings of the people around him, he associates his own worth to the community with notetaking.

Now, Reuben might do any number of things.  He might be fine.  But he might be deeply sad, wondering who he is in this congregation without the framing of his traditional function.  He might cling to the notetaking position even when he’s no longer capable of doing it, which might lead to conflict within the community.  He might stop attending worship completely.

The original point here was that we need to think about how to speak to one another.  It probably wasn’t ever true that the only reason the community valued Reuben was because of his abilities as a notetaker, but people gave him that impression by the way in which they communicated to him about his value.  To compliment Reuben’s notetaking skills was never wrong, but perhaps his fellow congregants could have also complimented his kindness, his faithfulness, his joyful smile—the sorts of things that are much less likely to diminish with age or disability.

Or, to put it another way, do we value one another for who we are or for what we can do?

It’s not quite as simple as deciding, “We will no longer emphasize what each person is able to do for the faith community.”  The truth is, especially in the United States, it’s a deeply central cultural trait that we build trust by working alongside one another.  (This is less true in some other cultures, and in some cultures, it’s actually counterproductive to approach building relationships that way.)  But in this country, in most groups, we look to working alongside one another as the quickest pathway to trust and deeper relationship.  That’s not something we can simply discard because we wish we weren’t wired that way.

What does occur to me, though, is that we could rethink what working together means and what a valued contribution to the community might look like.  Most of our faith communities have some kind of systems in place with staff roles, committee roles, trustees, and job descriptions.  But if that’s the only way we talk about serving our faith communities, we’re leaving a lot out.  What about the person who quietly rearranges the bulletin boards, or who makes the second pot of coffee, or who sets out chairs, or who remembers all of the children’s names?  Are the kinds of roles that aren’t on the institutional chart not also valued contributions to the community?  This has nothing to do with age, but it says something about what kinds of service we value.

As many of us move into a digital or hybrid post-pandemic world, the concept of service to the faith community will need to broaden even further: what about the contributions of the person several time zones away?  

First, do we expect a contribution of service from the geographically distant attender?  If we don’t, how does that feel to that person?  Is recognition of one’s contributions necessary for a full feeling of belonging?  Also, what’s the effect on the oneness of the faith community if our expectations differ based on whether someone is local to or distant from our building?

Second, how do we know what we can expect from the geographically distant attender?  Do we know this person well?  Have we any sense of their spiritual gifts?  If we don’t, can we have some explicit conversations in which we talk about service to the faith community?  As we do so, can we remember that sharing one’s being gifts is often service just as much as sharing one’s doing gifts?

And third, do we need to consider—again—the way we distribute tasks in our faith communities?  Most of those institutional charts were built for a time of geographic relationships and geographic stability (when we worshiped with people nearby each week and we very rarely changed our city of residence).  That’s not the world we live in today.

Being the Church: Neighborhood Ministries

Chances are pretty good that soup kitchens will not be moving online.

As I talked about in my pastoral care article, there are certain activities that simply have to occur in person: feeding people, hugging people, childcare, trying on clothing, helping someone move, sheltering the homeless, secondhand sales, neighborhood fairs…in other words, lots of traditional neighborhood ministries.  For many faith communities, neighborhood ministries are an essential part of being faithful.  What happens to these ministries as more and more faith communities shift to the eighth continent?

I’ve written before that, in the post-pandemic era, those of us in communities that are hybrid (partly online, partly not) are de facto eighth continent faith communities.  If we’re not, then what we’re really doing is inviting online participants into worship as guests, not as full members of the faith community, because online participants are prevented from participating in the social, service, and/or decision-making functions of the group.  

It feels to me as though it could quickly become strange for an online or hybrid faith community to run a food pantry in, for example, Springfield, Missouri, if an increasing percentage of those who are part of the faith community have never been to Springfield, Missouri.  Everyone might start out with excellent intentions, but eventually, I can see how there might be fewer and fewer volunteers available at the food pantry (since many in the community aren’t geographically close enough to volunteer), and suddenly, the congregation is deciding whether or not to fund a ministry that many of them have never seen that is staffed by overtired volunteers.  What happens over time to the neighbors who rely on this food pantry?

To me, this scenario, in which a neighborhood ministry continues because of momentum and then slowly falls apart, letting down the people who depend on it, is the worst available option.  But there are a number of other ways to go, depending on the circumstances of your faith community.

Suppose that you are certain your neighborhood ministry needs to continue and certain that your faith community is called to run it.  In this case, you already know who you are as a faith community, and this particular neighborhood ministry is probably at the heart of your activities together.  Most of your congregation is probably involved in the activities of the ministry in some way, supporting it with volunteer hours, financial contributions, prayer, and/or encouragement.  

Maybe yours will be a faith community that doesn’t maintain an online component after the pandemic.  Having online worship may have been a good emergency measure, but you’re really a group that’s called to be closely entwined with your geographic neighborhood, in which case, it is okay to turn off the WiFi.  Not every faith community needs to be online.  If you are absolutely certain that you need to continue your online presence, be clear about the expected relationship between online members and your neighborhood ministry, and be prepared for this to drift naturally if the proportion of local to non-local attenders changes.  You’ll have to be deliberate about checking in on this every couple of years.

Or suppose that you are certain your neighborhood ministry needs to continue but not certain that your faith community is called to run it.  In this case, you may have already seen signs of this before the pandemic.  You might have noticed that fewer members of your congregation were directly involved with the ministry, possibly less than half.  Or maybe maintaining the ministry is starting to feel like a hardship for other reasons.  But you know that the neighborhood ministry is still needed because people are still making use of it on a regular basis.  

If this is the case, it might be time to think about how to gracefully release that ministry.  Does it have a core of volunteers and financial supporters?  Is it possible that some of these core supporters are not even part of your faith community?  Is there another faith community or a community nonprofit that might be prepared to take this ministry under its wing?  Or is the ministry large enough and strong enough that it might be ready to become its own nonprofit?  To hold onto control of a necessary ministry when your faith community is no longer genuinely called to run it harms both the ministry and the faith community.  The ministry needs enthusiastic support; the faith community needs its energy to go where God is directing it.  One place the energy might be going is developing a vital and growing online or hybrid congregation.

Or it’s possible that you are no longer certain this particular neighborhood ministry needs to continue but certain that your faith community is called to run neighborhood ministries.  A lot has shifted since the pandemic began.  What the neighborhood needed before might not be what the neighborhood needs now.  And yet, if your faith community continues to have the calling, the energy, and the finances to run neighborhood ministries, you have the chance to begin anew!  

In fact, if you find yourself in this situation, it might even be a chance to make the shift from a charity model to an empowerment model, if you haven’t done that already.  Instead of thinking about what your neighbors don’t have, can you think about what your neighbors do have and find ways to support their gifts?  My favorite resource detailing this process is Michael Mather’s book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, about just such a shift at Broadway Methodist Church in Indianapolis.

As in the case of the faith community with an ongoing neighborhood ministry, yours might be a faith community that doesn’t need an online component.  But if you’re sure that you do, take care to define the relationship between online, non-local members and the local neighborhood ministries, and be prepared for that to naturally shift over time.

Or maybe you are no longer certain this particular neighborhood ministry needs to continue and not certain that your faith community is called to run neighborhood ministries.  This might be good news, even if it feels hard, because it makes it that much easier (at least, easier on the neighborhood) for you to close the neighborhood ministry that you’re no longer really called to run.  This may still be difficult for the faith community.  You may grieve a time when you had more energy for neighborhood ministries.  You may be wondering what your faith community is called to do now.  If that’s the case, I suggest you read on to the next section.

There are many faith communities that don’t have an active neighborhood ministry at all.  There are many reasons why that might be true.  Maybe your faith community has never felt called to neighborhood ministry, or never felt able.  Or maybe you had neighborhood ministries when the pandemic started but have closed them, either because that seemed like the right thing to do or because you couldn’t see any way to keep them going.

In this case, it’s time for discernment: what does it mean to love your neighbor?  Start by taking a look at who you are now, as a faith community.  Are you still a faith community worshiping in person, entirely composed of local members?  Or are you a faith community worshiping entirely or partly online, with geographically disparate members?  Are you called to an ongoing neighborhood ministry as a faith community as a whole? Or have circumstances changed—maybe because you’re too small to run a ministry, or maybe because you’re so geographically disparate that you’re no longer associated with a single neighborhood?

My suspicion is that many of our faith communities are not called to run independent neighborhood ministries right now.  If yours is, by all means, live into that call.  But if yours is not, that doesn’t mean you can’t be serving your neighbors.  It doesn’t mean that volunteering can’t be central to who you are as a faith community.  Suppose that you encouraged members to find their own ways of serving their neighborhoods, wherever they might be?  Suppose that sharing stories about service became part of your regular social gatherings or worship services—not for the purpose of bragging or recognition but for the purpose of providing examples to one another, sharing your joys, and reminding yourselves to center this work?

Not long ago, I heard a sermon from Bishop Gene Robinson in which he pointed out that many of us (those of us who are middle class or upper class, especially) seem to equate giving money with giving service.  We do not, ourselves, feed the hungry or clothe the naked or visit the sick.  We pay somebody to do that.  He hastened to add, “Not that I want to discourage you from giving money!”  But he pointed out that there is something different, something visceral, something that shifts our worldview when we ourselves serve our neighbors directly.

Even in a post-pandemic, very two-dimensional flat-screen sort of world, we can still center this.

Being the Church: Stuck With Each Other

Someone told me once that, in the Quaker tradition, joining a congregation is a covenant, like a marriage, except it was a marriage to everybody in the group.  I was momentarily horrified.  I’ve written a lot about covenant relationship and intend to write more at some point, but for now, I want to focus on just one aspect of covenant, which is this: being stuck with each other.

Not every faith community has a theology of covenant relationship within the congregation, but we can all identify with the idea of being stuck with each other.  We’ve all had the experience of That Person in the congregation.  (More of us than realize it have probably been That Person for someone else.)  That Person might just be annoying (chews with their mouth open, sings the hymns loudly and off key) or might be obstructive (refuses to go along with repainting the building unless their semi-incompetent nephew gets the contract) or might be genuinely threatening (sexually harassing or abusing other members of the congregation). 

We, as individuals in the same congregation, have multiple options in terms of dealing with That Person.  We can ignore them; we can encourage them to change; we can report them to an authority; we can rearrange the power dynamics so as to give them less influence; we can gossip about them; we can ask them to leave the congregation; we can, ourselves, leave the congregation.  Which is right will depend on a great many factors. For example, ignoring the off-key singer might be merciful and loving, while ignoring the sexual harasser will cause more people to be harmed.  

The “right” response to That Person depends a lot on their actions, their motivations, our own degree of involvement in the situation, the institutional power dynamics in which we both find ourselves, the potential consequences of inaction or wrong action, and more.  There are absolutely times when the “right” action is for the community to ask the person to leave, and there are times when the “right” action is for us to leave.  Sometimes, the best and most Godly way to respond to a situation is to end contact with someone, either permanently or temporarily, especially in cases of ongoing abuse.  I want to be really clear about affirming that because of what I’m going to say next.

Which is this: I am concerned that it has become too easy to end our relationships with people we don’t like.

Digitalization in the pandemic and post-pandemic era has accelerated a pre-existing trend within the church, which is our tendency to simply change faith communities—or drift away altogether—when we’re disillusioned with the people we have been worshiping alongside.  Sometimes, it’s just one or two people who bother us so much that we no longer want to co-exist with them.  Sometimes, it’s some kind of systemic sluggishness or unwelcome community momentum that makes us leave.  Sometimes, we’re tired of the infighting or the lack of action or the unhealthy power dynamics.  Eventually, we want to disconnect, and the ability to attend another congregation online makes it that much easier.  The new community almost always seems shinier.  We haven’t had time to grow annoyed with them.  It’s often easier to love a stranger than a long-time acquaintance.

All by itself, this isn’t such a big deal.  But our ability to hop from one faith community to another is a manifestation of a broader societal shift.  

In the United States, for example, most of us live in political bubbles, either very red or very blue.  There arepurple communities in this country, but they are few and far between.  So we’re likely to work with, relax with, and live beside people whose political views are roughly similar to our own.

Social media further encourages bubbling, since the algorithms quickly learn what we like to see and what we don’t, and then they stop showing us posts from people we disagree with.  We might have hundreds or thousands of diverse “friends,” but we rarely see anything posted by the friends who don’t share our views.  If I don’t like my friend Alejandro’s politics, I probably won’t see his political posts, and eventually, the social media platform also won’t show me pictures of his grandchildren.  Unless I’m texting him or writing him letters, we lose touch.

Our culture, too, encourages this trend.  I see so much of people drawing a line in the sand and not only refusing to change but refusing to speak with anyone who disagrees.  I see this from all kinds of people, many of whom are beloved to me.  The general attitude is this: “If you said or did such-and-such, then you aren’t worth listening to.”  Sometimes it even goes beyond responding to someone’s actions and becomes preemptive.  I see friends on social media posting, “If you don’t agree with such-and-such, then unfriend me right now.  I want nothing to do with you.”

This feels like exactly what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 12: “Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body…the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’”

Where, in today’s society, are we expected to learn how to be in relationship with people we find annoying?  With people we dislike?  With people whose views or actions we believe are outright harmful?  I think we’ve seen ample evidence that people don’t change when other people tell them how horrible they are.  Change, when it happens, is a matter of divine grace, often prompted by an accumulation of many surprising small acts of love.  If you shout at me or refuse to speak to me, I am unlikely to draw the conclusion that I should be more like you.  If you listen to me or show me kindness, I am also unlikely to change immediately—but if this happens enough times, over a long enough period of time, then I might begin to wonder whether your position has some merit.

What’s the role of the church in all this?

Again, I go back to the old-timey books, in which church conflict is often played for comedy.  There’s a reason for this.  It’s because conflict within the church was such a common experience that everyone could identify with it.  The members of the church might despise one another, but they nevertheless remained as members of the same faith community, because they didn’t have much choice.  They had to learn to co-exist.

Adults today have very few opportunities to be in forced relationship through profound disagreements.  And I really think that’s a bad thing, for the church and for the world as a whole.  I read what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12 as a statement that nobody can leave the church and nobody can get kicked out of the church.  Everybody is needed.  This is both amazing news and the worst news ever.  We might even be momentarily horrified.  Everybody?  Even That Person?

Paul was trying to teach us that difficult relationships are part of the pathway to the kingdom of God.  So I say again—what’s the role of the church in this?

One thing we can do is talk about it.  We can talk about the importance of being in difficult relationships.  We can talk about acting in counter-cultural ways and maintaining relationships that are really hard, and not just within the church.  But maintaining difficult relationships might not actually be enough.  We might have to seek relationships with people we don’t especially like, don’t understand, or don’t agree with, because the way our society is organized today, it is far too easy for most of us to live day to day in affinity bubbles of various sorts, never meeting or engaging with the “other” that we hear about on the news.

A lot of our churches implicitly or explicitly encourage severing relationships with the “other.”  Some do it in the name of purity; some do it in the name of safety.  Most of the time, this boils down to the same thing: we will not engage with those who might harm us.

As I said in the very beginning, there are some situations—usually situations involving abuse or physical violence—in which the genuinely Godly response is to end contact with someone.  Ending contact doesn’t even imply that we don’t care for somebody.  Sometimes, ending contact is about stopping an enabling relationship or keeping someone from physical harm.  I see God in that decision.

What we might all do, however, is revisit our definition of harm.  Under what circumstances can we deliberately seek a 1 Corinthians 12 relationship with someone we find ourselves hesitating to engage with?  Can we join a bowling league with people whose politics mostly differ from ours?  Can our local faith community reach out to a faith community in another part of the country and build a relationship through mutual visitation?  Can we host a Zoom dinner and invite people with drastically different experiences of a social issue to each share their stories?  

If the answer is no, we can’t, then how can we ever hope for peace?

Being the Church: Organizations

Even before the pandemic, our long-term practice of organizing ourselves geographically had been getting pretty iffy.  Most faith organizations have local groups, small regional groups, and large regional groups, and this has been our structure for keeping track of ourselves, disseminating information, hiring staff, and making decisions.  

Does this approach still make sense?

I can think of one faith organization for which it definitely does, and that’s the Mormon church, more officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  The reason geographic organization makes so much sense for that group is because they have a policy in place that members cannot attend a congregation other than the one to which they’re assigned geographically—or rather, they can, but there are serious limits on the ways in which they’re permitted to participate in the congregation if they do.  Because members understand that worshiping where they are assigned to worship is expected of them, they almost all do.  And because the church is organized so hierarchically, there are constant reorganizations of geographic boundaries, including closing of congregations and opening of new ones, in order to make sure that every local congregation is a sensible size.  This works efficiently and serves everyone well because the institutional organization is a good match for the behavior of the members.

But most faith organizations don’t function this way, and organizing ourselves geographically when the behavior of members is no longer based in geography isn’t working.  People attend the congregation to which they are drawn.  If one faith community no longer feels like a good match, they’ll move to another one, sometimes even crossing denominational boundaries to do so.  People attend one faith community over another for affinity reasons: I like the music there, I like the preaching there, I like the people there, I like the social opportunities for my children there.

Studies do show that, absent an Internet-based alternative, seekers are most likely to try out a new faith community within a twenty-minute travel radius of their home.  So geography matters at least that much.  But long-term members of a congregation behave differently.  Even if they move a town or two away, they will often continue to attend their “home” faith community because they have an affinity to it.  And when many of our communities started worshiping online, many of us discovered members returning from years ago—people who moved across the state or across the country but have always missed their “home” faith community.

What’s the purpose of our larger-than-local denominational organizations?  I think this differs based on theology.  

For some of us, it’s a top-down hierarchical structure.  We receive our instructions from people in leadership of the larger groups, the theory being that people holding those positions have been ordained by God to do so.

For some of us, it’s covenant relationship.  We connect to something larger than our local organizations so that we can have mutual reliance and help one another out.

For some of us, the larger organizations exist to support local groups, by providing expertise or guidance when the local groups are having difficulties.

For some of us, it’s a matter of needing someplace to “kick things upstairs.”  If there’s a conflict or an issue that can’t be resolved locally, we send it to the next-highest rung of the institution.

For some of us, it’s a matter of collective resources, knowing that larger institutions can do things that local institutions can’t because they have more money, more staff, and more connections.

For some of us, it provides validity for the local faith community, a way to say, “Yes, we are part of such-and-such denomination, which does all this great work.”

And for most of us, it is some combination of the above—and possibly other aspects, as well.

Here’s the problem: while having smaller groups within larger groups might still be the best way to organize ourselves, delineating these groups geographically wasn’t serving a lot of us pre-pandemic, and it certainly isn’t now.

For one thing, younger adults are incredibly mobile.  The average person in the United States today will move 11.7 times in the course of a lifetime.  Half of those moves occur between 18 and 40, which means that the average young adult will move every three or four years.  Under these conditions, structuring membership and belonging within our faith communities in such a way that it requires commitment to a local congregation no longer makes sense.  In faith traditions that traditionally require local commitment, younger adults have been asking for—and in some cases, getting—changes, so that they can be members of a larger, more geographically disparate organization.

But now, we’ve hit the point where non-geographic membership is an issue not just for individuals but for whole congregations.  Communities that moved their worship online, or partially online, now find themselves with frequent national or international participation.  To which geographic regional organization does the distant online member belong?  If, for example, the faith community’s building is located in Arizona, does the family attending their worship online from Portugal belong to the denominational organization in Arizona or to the denominational organization in Portugal?  Where do their financial contributions go?  Where does their service go?  Who provides support for them when they need help?  

What if the faith community with a building in Arizona hits a point at which more than half its regular attendance is online and comes from outside Arizona?  In that case, is it still the denominational organization in Arizona that’s responsible for the whole of the group?  Suppose that, instead of being spread out, the online contingency was actually a network of several hundred people all located in Portugal?  Does the denomination continue to serve them from Arizona, or does the denomination try to form a new congregation in Portugal?  Will the Portuguese worshipers even want their own local communities, or do they feel as though they are intimately connected with the group in Arizona?

These are not just hypotheticals.  I’ve met a Lutheran bishop facing a situation very much like this.

Let’s look at it another way.  I work with a Quaker institution that’s geographically organized to serve Quakers in New York, part of New Jersey, and part of Connecticut.  When we organized online Quaker parent support groups, we opened participation to Quakers everywhere.  We did this partly out of kindness but partly out of self-interest.  We simply don’t have enough parents that they would have enough schedule cross-over to form large, functional groups of parents with children who are similarly aged.  Even though the funding for the program came entirely from the New York-based institution, we had more than twice as many parents participating from outside our geographic area, and that was the only way to serve our “own” people effectively.

Most online denominational programming is drawing people from outside the designated geographic area.  We have moved to the eighth continent.

And I haven’t mentioned yet the new faith communities that have formed during the pandemic that are entirely online, with literally no geographic boundaries.  Where do they fit into denominational systems?  Or will we leave them adrift, without a larger organization to provide resources, support, and mutual accountability?  Some such groups may want to be independent, and that’s probably fine, but others feel very much a part of some particular denomination.  Are they?  Have we found a way to make that true?  Will these online groups have a voice in denominational decision-making?

I can think of three ways in which denominational organizations might be able to respond to these changes.

First, geographic organizations could decide—now, before test cases appear, if they haven’t already—how they will respond to membership requests (or de facto membership) coming in from the eighth continent.  If a local congregation used to have sixty regular participants, and that same local congregation now has seven hundred regular participants online, how will the denominational organization respond to that?  How does God ask us to be in relationship with distant members?  Who do we serve?  Who has the authority to participate in decision-making?  What is our financial relationship with members outside our geographic boundaries?  How do we support clergy people who are trying to be in relationship with members outside of their geographic boundaries?  How can we be assured that distant members are cared for in terms of physical needs, spiritual formation, and more?  Are there cultural implications or power inequities of which we need to be aware?  What will the organization do if a new “local congregation,” entirely online, inquires about affiliation with the organization?  If accepting an online group feels right, what about a distant group that is not online but that feels called to be part of your organization?  How will you approach that relationship?

Second, denominations could form online “regional” organizations for the express purpose of giving online members and online congregations groups with which to affiliate.  We might actually need denominational organizations for the purpose of serving the eighth continent.  If this is what’s needed, and if it’s not clear how to do it, why not look to our historical processes?  It might have been a while since we last opened a new geographic region, but we all have that procedure somewhere in our history.

Third, and most radically, denominations could consider phasing out geographic organization all together.  If we did not organize our regional groups geographically, how else could we do it?  What would it look like to have an affiliation of local congregations that are deliberate multiage faith communities?  Or an affiliation of local congregations with a primary concern for racial justice, or for earthcare?  Congregations that run schools?  Congregations with ministries to the homeless?  A worldwide “region” for congregations that worship in French?  

Would affinity-based organizations be able to do things like hire staff more effectively?  If the entire region agreed on a single focus, then we might not have to hire people for every position.  We might even have more clarity about who we are and what we’re called to be doing, which is definitely a center of conflict for a lot of religious organizations.

Some of these ideas might be ridiculous.  Some might have their own downsides.  But it’s time to start experimenting.  I’m not sure any new things we try could be more ridiculous than organizations operating strictly geographically when humans simply aren’t living our lives that way.

Being the Church: Worship

What is the purpose of worship?

Different faith traditions, and different faith communities within those faith traditions, would answer this question differently.  I would venture to say that even individuals within the same faith community might answer differently.  I can think of a whole bunch of possible purposes:

To praise God

To fulfill a commandment

To connect with other believers, alive and dead, through rituals

To pray/intercede together

To express gratitude

To rejoice

To have a mystical connection with God

To receive instruction from God

To teach theology

To make disciples

To receive communion

To renew covenants

To have a communal/social experience

To be comforted

To enjoy interesting speakers or music

To hear Scripture

To evangelize

What else should be included on my list?

This feels like a question worth asking now because so many of our faith communities are trying to figure out how to do worship in a post-pandemic era.  And if we want to figure out how, first we need to be certain of why.

When Covid first began, we all did the best we could to adapt our traditional worship to whatever new formats might be available to us.  We moved to Zoom; we streamed on Facebook; we sat six feet away from each other, outside; we mailed packets and liturgies to those who couldn’t access technology; we broadcasted by radio or conducted services in parking lots for people in their own cars.  Maintaining some kind of normal was, understandably and probably rightly, a big part of our concerns.  Whatever our people were accustomed to, we did that, changing only what was absolutely necessary.  We were all panicked enough, thank you.

But the situation is different now.  We have had some time to breathe.  It’s becoming clear, as Covid numbers swing wildly down and back up, that we’re not “going back to normal.”  And even if we could, in many cases, our congregations have shifted.  We can’t go completely offline and in-person, as we were before, without excluding our three new members in Idaho and the elderly couple in a nursing home that’s not allowed to leave the grounds and the young man who calls in on his cell phone to listen as he’s driving home from work Sunday mornings.

How do we figure out what to do?

What is the purpose of worship, and who is it for?  This will make a lot of difference.

In order to show what I mean, I want to consider the cases of four fictional faith communities. For each, I’ll answer the “why” and “who” questions, and then I’ll offer some thoughts about “how.”

Community A is a small, rural faith community with an elderly population.  Many of their members have underlying health conditions, and they are very nervous about returning to in-person church.  Their part-time clergy person—let’s call her Diane—is also elderly and semi-retired.  Because many members of the congregation are not comfortable with technology, the group has not met for worship since the pandemic began.  Diane visits members of the congregation as often as possible, but they are spread over a wide geographic area, and the driving plus check-in phone calls have been stressful and have often exceeded the twelve hours per week for which Diane is paid.

In her visits recently, Diane has begun to ask each person this question: what is the purpose of worship?  The sense she gathers from the group is that worship is for prayer, for comfort, and for a social experience.  Some members of the congregation also miss singing familiar hymns.

What does post-pandemic worship look like for this faith community?  Given the members’ distance from one another and the fact that they aren’t comfortable with technology or with gathering together physically, the future of worship for this community might be a Sunday morning conference call—no video component, just a call-in number and access code that can be used by any telephone.  During the conference call, the group might take turns making prayer requests and offering prayers.  They might each have a chance to share something important about their day-to-day lives: a new grandchild, the loss of a sibling, an interesting new book they’ve discovered.  One or more volunteers might take turns singing or reading a favorite hymn, and perhaps Diane could share a scripture passage related to that hymn and a few words about it.

It’s worth noting that this group probably isn’t going to grow.  That’s okay.  For this faith community, the purpose of worship is prayer, comfort, and familiar connection, and that can all happen on a simple conference call.

Community B is an urban faith community with a membership that has slowly dwindled in number over the past fifty years.  Today, it has about 150 members on the roles but only had a regular worship attendance of about 65 pre-pandemic.  Their full-time clergy person—Andrew—only began serving the community in the fall of 2019, and this was his first position as a second-career clergy person; previously, he’d been a high school chemistry teacher for twenty-five years.  All other roles in the faith community (religious education for children, music, office management, property maintenance) are traditionally filled by volunteers.

When the pandemic first began, Andrew (with support from the board members of his faith community) started streaming sermons and as much of the “normal” liturgy as possible from the worship space on Facebook Live, with written liturgy accessible on the faith community’s website so that people can follow along.  He has a real gift of speaking, and the group watching on Facebook Live quickly grew from about forty people to more than three hundred each week.  It’s not clear whether those watching are the same three hundred people every time, but they seem to represent a diverse group geographically, with some people joining in from other countries.  The volunteer music director has tried to include some music during some worship services, but this has been inconsistent because of copyright concerns and because providing music would require her to be in the room with Andrew, and for the first couple of months of the pandemic, it was not clear whether this was safe.

Andrew has tried to be in contact with those who were regular worship attenders pre-pandemic, but he did not know them well before the pandemic began.  No one is sure how many of the members of the faith community, including those who had previously been stalwart volunteers, are actually “at worship” during the livestream each week.  

The religious education for children volunteer—Hannah—has been hosting regular Zoom gatherings and some outdoor gatherings for the children and families, but this has been entirely separate from the weekly worship livestreams and usually happens on weekday evenings.  There are only about four families that are well connected to the faith community, anyway, all of whom have children who are elementary school age, and they tend to function as a social unit

In a meeting with the board of the faith community, Andrew poses the question: what is the purpose of worship?  The board members respond that the purpose is to praise God, to make disciples, to teach theology, and to practice liturgy.  But both Andrew and the board realize that livestreaming their worship through Facebook has shifted the make-up of their faith community dramatically, and they don’t even know in what way.  As they work toward reopening their building, do they want to simply continue the Facebook livestream as it has been, except now with people also physically in the room together?

It seems like the Facebook livestream of liturgy and a sermon is working pretty well for a lot of people, and if the congregation feels as though the general order of worship is helping the group effectively praise God, make disciples, and learn theology, then there’s no reason to change it much.  But it’s likely that the way worship is happening now is not working for the children and families in the community, and it’s also not giving the volunteer music director much opportunity to share her gifts.

This group might consider a couple of modifications to the way worship has been working.  

First, if the copyright problem of livestreaming music can’t be solved, they might consider having music at the beginning and end of worship each week, restricting the livestream to the portion in between.  This allows those who are physically present—and there will be some, as the building reopens—to participate in worship through song once again.  If Hannah is willing, it also might be helpful to ask her to do some sort of message or activity for children as part of the livestream each week.  This doesn’t need to replace the gathering of families on weekday evenings, but clearly, Hannah has a gift for nurturing spiritual community among families, and including her in the livestream will make it possible for her to share that gift with other families, as well.

This community could probably take some steps to address who they are outside of worship, as well, especially since they now have a population of people who they’ve never met who are connecting to their livestream.  But this blended model of worship, with particular attention to including children, will support praising God, building disciples, and teaching theology across all of their generations, for those who are gathered in person and for those who are afar.

Community C is a medium-sized suburban faith community for which the taking of communion is central to worship.  In the first few weeks of the pandemic, this faith community didn’t meet at all.  Later, they started meeting by Zoom, with their part-time clergy person (Elisabeth) leading the worship from her dining room table, since the faith community’s building did not have WiFi.  Worship included prayers, liturgy, singing (with everyone’s microphone on mute, except for one piano player), and a brief homily.  Elisabeth has made a regular pandemic practice of taking communion to individual people’s homes, but naturally, it is not possible for her to visit every home every week.  Most people have been receiving communion less than once per month.

In the summer of 2021, after most adults in the community were vaccinated, the community returned to worship in person, masked, with socially distanced seating and no coffee hour afterward.  The small group that made this decision did so knowing how central the receiving of communion was for this faith community.  However, this small group with decision-making power contained only adults in good health with no small children, as this is the group that has traditionally volunteered for leadership positions in this faith community.   They assumed that all adults in the community would simply return to worship and that the families with small children would similarly come back as soon as they could.  They were surprised to discover that quite a number of adults who previously attended worship regularly did not come back—or came back once or twice, then stopped coming.

This community needs to ask again: what is the purpose of worship?  Yes, the receiving of communion is essential.  But is that the only purpose?  Is it possible that worship is also for the purpose of spiritual formation, social connection, or something else that isn’t being met in an adults-only community under strict Covid protocols?

They might consider reinstating Zoom worship simultaneously with their in-person worship, installing WiFi in their building and placing a camera directly on Elisabeth.  Those who are joining by Zoom cannot participate in communion, but presumably, if they felt they could and wanted to participate in communion by being physically present, they would be.  Elisabeth could then continue taking communion directly to the homes of families with children or housebound individuals.  

Or, in this case, it’s possible that the more technological solution isn’t the right one.  Maybe what’s needed is a “sunny day worship” policy—if the weather is good, worship will happen in-person, still masked, but outdoors in the courtyard.  This makes it much safer for children and immunocompromised individuals to participate, and an outdoor gathering might even include an optional post-worship coffee hour.  If the weather is not good, worship will happen on Zoom.  The decision is made the night before worship, and a message goes out by text and email to everyone who has asked to be on the mailing list.

For this community, the primary—but not only—purpose of worship is receiving communion.  They need to be in person as much as possible, in a manner that includes as many of their people as possible.

Community D is also a suburban faith community, composed primarily of families with children ranging from preschool to middle school age.  They have no paid clergy and, pre-pandemic, took turns worshipping in one another’s homes.  They also took turns bringing spoken messages, activities, music, and food.  The families involved had long-term, close relationships with one another.  Worship gatherings were noisy, crowded, and full of joy.

When the pandemic started, the group did not meet for worship for the first two months.  Each family felt overwhelmed and scared by the sudden disruption to their routines.  The group considered meeting for a virtual worship, but the idea just felt wrong.  For this group, the purpose of worship was to rejoice, to have a connection with God, and to have a connection with one another.  None of that seemed possible over an Internet connection, especially because most of them were trying to do both work and school online.

When the weather got warmer, this community decided to try worshipping outside, wearing masks.  They quickly realized that different families had different levels of comfort with gathering in person.  Two families stopped attending completely.  The families that continued gathering to worship were now doing so in yards and public parks.  They were noticed.  Other families occasionally asked for information on how to join.

A few stalwart families continued to gather outside even during the winter, and the number of families that considered themselves part of the community continued to grow.  By summer 2021, most (but not all) of the adults in the group were vaccinated, although most of the children still could not be.  They continue to gather weekly, always outdoors, even when the weather is poor, although the group is very small when it rains.  To make sure everyone feels as safe as possible, they wear masks and do not share food.

Now, as the group approaches fall and winter again, they reconsider the question: what is the purpose of worship?  To rejoice, to have a connection with God, and to have a connection with one another.  What will that look like in the post-pandemic era?  Several of the new families who have been attracted to the group don’t own homes and would not have the ability to host a gathering.  And because the group has grown, it’s not clear that the whole community would fit into a single-family house for worship.

This faith community could look for a building, but they still aren’t comfortable meeting inside, and besides: it’s become clear to them that worship now has one more purpose…to evangelize.  They have grown because families have seen them worshipping outside and have wanted to join.  

Might they continue to worship outside?  Even as the weather grows colder, if they can find a pavilion in a public park, for example, or another outdoor space to rent where people often pass by, this group could continue their worship in visible ways and, very likely, continue attracting new families.  This way, this faith community will continue to rejoice, to connect with God, to connect with each other, and to evangelize.

Four different faith communities, four different responses.  For each, the purpose of worship is different.  And for each, the members of the faith community are different.  So they’ll require different physical spaces and different types of technologies.  

There are also further implications to their choices.  If Community A owns a building, is it time to consider selling?  If Community B is now reaching an international population with its livestream worship, how will it involve that population in other meaningful ways with the faith community?  If Community C reaches a point when all of its community members are able to gather physically for worship, will they adjust to changing conditions by ending the Zoom link?  If Community D keeps growing, might that eventually change who they are as a community?

But those are questions for another day.

What is the purpose of worship in your faith community?  Is the manner in which you are worshiping now actually meeting that purpose?  If not, what needs to change?

Being the Church: Pastoral Care

What does pastoral care actually mean?

Presuming that pastoral care is about the people who are already part of our congregation (since we have the terms mission and community service and evangelism that refer to serving those who are not part of us), what categories are included in this?  It might be basic needs, like food and shelter, and emotional needs, especially in times of grief or illness or other crises, and recognition/celebration in times of achievement or new life.  Pastoral care might also include counseling people through conflicts (either within the church or within families), and it might include helping people make difficult decisions.

In my experience, there’s always been uncertainty around the boundaries of pastoral care.  How much are we capable of doing?  How much are we responsible for doing?  What are we responsible for not doing because we’re treading into dangerous territory and might mess it up?  Whose job is it to care for members of the congregation, and whose is it not?  What do we do about times when we don’t know that someone needs help?  (Should we know?  To what extent are we responsible for knowing things that people don’t tell us?  But what about the fact that the hardest time to ask for help is when you most need it?)

Here there be complexities.

This is all made even weirder by the fact that congregations are not the sole source of support for most congregants and are not positioned to know (easily) what sources of support may or may not exist in somebody’s life.  This goes back to the old-fashioned small-town literature church model, in which the church was at the center of the community, with nearly all social enterprises and relational networks flowing through it.  In that model, it’s pretty clear what someone’s needs are and whether they’re being met.

But today, the average person has multiple potential sources of support: extended family, friends from work, friends from a spouse’s place of employment, people they know from a child’s soccer team, Facebook friends that go back to high school days, college buddies, and who knows what else.  Even institutionalized sources of support run through government agencies and nonprofit community organizations—very rarely the church.  This multitude of potential sources of support is a blessing (in that the church really doesn’t have to do everything) and a curse (in that complex social networks are difficult to track, so how do we know what somebody really needs?)

The complex social network model of modern life also creates a supply problem.  Back in the day, the church could count on many hours of volunteer work from its members because the church was a primary source of social connections.  Today, many people may need to be present for friends and coworkers as much as for people in their congregations.  They might be doing a lot of pastoral care for other people—just not through the church.

I notice another pattern, too.  When our social connections are broad and we all have many, the “easy” pastoral care is likely to be covered.  One-time drop-off of chicken soup?  Easy.  Ongoing pastoral care for a person with chronic illness?  Harder.  Providing Wednesday night gatherings for couples to talk about conflicts in their relationships?  Easy.  Noticing patterns of abuse in a relationship and intervening to protect the victim?  Harder.

Notice that I haven’t said anything yet about virtual churches.  All of these societal complications existed even before many of our communities went hybrid or entirely online.  Now, our congregations have regular attenders that are several states (or even countries) away.  How do we provide pastoral care to someone who is so geographically distant?

I want to suggest four possibilities.

First—we might think about some kind of pastoral care checklist.  This is not a new idea.  When a person is having a difficult time, it can be really hard for them to come up with an answer to the question, “Is there anything I can do?”  Sometimes it’s tough to imagine what might help.  Other times, it’s tough to find the boundaries of what the person offering is really offering.  The honest answer to “is there anything I can do?” might be, “I need someone to take my seven-year-old daughter for the week so I can focus on my hospitalized four-year-old son.”  But it takes a lot of courage to say that when the person you’re talking to might be thinking more like, “I could bring you a casserole.”

What if, instead, we approached offering pastoral care like a checklist, with a list of offers already prepared that we know we’re able to provide?  The conversation might look something like this:

“Would it help if I brought your family dinner tonight?”

“No, we have plenty of food.”

“Would it help if I picked up your daughter tomorrow morning and gave her breakfast and lunch and took her to the park in between?”

“No, she has summer camp tomorrow.”

“Can I offer to drive anyone anywhere tomorrow?”

“Actually, yes.  It would really help if you took my daughter to camp and brought her back.”

Second—let’s reconsider whose job it is to offer pastoral care, especially the kind that involves dropping off food or driving someone’s daughter to summer camp.  These sorts of things might not need to be in anybody’s job description.  We can all offer to help in whatever ways are appropriate for our relationship with the person, our abilities, and our resources.  In my experience, many of us hesitate to offer help because we feel we must be given permission.  But why?  Are we afraid we might violate boundaries?  I suspect we can lower that risk by having regular conversations within our congregations about what reasonable offers of help actually look like—and about gracefully accepting a refusal of an offer.  We can navigate these things in a crisis situation if we have first talked about them—often—and set appropriate expectations in non-crisis times.

(And by the way, there doesn’t need to be a crisis for us to check in with each other and offer help.)

Third—as a church, let’s lean into hard pastoral care.  Abuse situations.  Chronic illnesses.  Addictions.  The kinds of things that make us shy away.  Because the kinds of things that make us shy away are probably also the kinds of things that make others shy away.  In other words, the more difficult or complex or stigmatized the pastoral care need is, the less likely it is that the need’s already being met somewhere else.

This doesn’t mean we need to do things for which we are not trained.  We shouldn’t do things we’re not trained for.  We can hurt people by messing with things that aren’t in our expertise.  But we also hurt people when we ignore things.

So, we can approach this in two different ways.  We can get training, and we can learn where the experts are.

Training in addiction support, mental wellness, abuse response, and more can be made available through our denominations and through ecumenical and interfaith networks.  It doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) full-out social worker training.  But when we learn how to recognize these sorts of situations and we learn what we can do to help (and what the signs are that someone needs more help), then we are much better equipped to talk about difficult things, destigmatize them, and show loving care to those in need.  

Beyond that, we need to know our towns and communities.  Someone in the local community probably provides addiction help.  Someone provides resources for people experiencing mental illness.  Someone helps people who are escaping domestic abuse.  And so forth.  Do we know who they are?  If we don’t, do we know how to go about finding them?  When someone in our congregation needs assistance that the church can’t provide, we don’t have to pretend like it isn’t happening.  We are part of a broader community, and we can act as if we are.

Fourth—we’re also part of a different broader community.  If a church in Idaho has a beloved member in Kansas who joins their worship virtually, who is part of their community from afar, and suddenly that person has a pastoral care need that can only be met by someone who’s local—for example, a meal train in a rural area where restaurants don’t deliver—then I think we have to think about calling the local church (with permission from the person, of course).  If there’s a church from our denomination, so much the better.  If there’s not, let’s call whoever there is.  If the church is going to be globalized—if our geographic boundaries are blurring—then can we step into that deliberately?  Can we learn not just to make the phone call to a faraway church but to take the phone call when somebody needs us?

A friend and I were talking just the other day about this broader conversation, what the post-pandemic church might look like, and we were talking about a lot of abstract ideas and big changes and ways in which the faithful might be a force in modern society.  But it kept coming back to pastoral care, because…well, most people don’t successfully change the world unless, first, there’s someone to bring them chicken soup when they get sick.

Click here to return to the first article of this series.

Being the Church

So many old books devote chapters to churchgoing.  You ever notice that?  Tom Sawyer talks in detail about Sunday school and memorizing Bible verses.  To Kill a Mockingbird has a whole section about Scout and Jem visiting Calpurnia’s church and how the town’s black church differed from the white one.  Lucy Maude Montgomery’s stories (all of them, not just the Anne series) establish the town’s Presbyterian church as central to Avonlea’s social structure, charitable efforts, and systems of influence, with the Methodist church one town over firmly representative of all that is “other” and morally suspect.  And in Heidi, the grandfather’s refusal to attend church is emblematic of his self-ostracization; if he’s not at church on Sundays, he’s not part of the local community, period.

I wasn’t alive in the time of these stories, and I’m not a sociological researcher, but it seems to me that one of two things is true: either churches were historically the center of towns, the system that held together societies, or the fictional representation of churches serving this function is so strong in our common literary history that it’s become embedded in our cultural memory.  Which of these is true doesn’t seem relevant.  We act as if churches were central to community, and in many ways, we act as though they still are, even though this hasn’t been true for many decades.

When I look back to 2018 or so, well before our current pandemic, I remember faith communities that functioned as if they were something out of Tom Sawyer—or more accurately, thought about themselves as if they functioned that way, since in reality, we weren’t doing everything we’d organized ourselves to do.  We had worship every Sunday (even though few of us came every week), religious education for children (even if almost no children were present), and detailed membership records and practices (even though this, combined with frequent mobility in modern society, often meant that people held membership in congregations where they hadn’t lived in years).  We aimed to provide care for those among us who were sick or grieving (though the people doing that care were often overburdened and tired, not to mention working on a deficit of information, often not knowing who on the membership rolls might be sick or grieving).

I could say a lot more, but you get the point.  Churches have been functioning for a very long time as though they were still the pillars of local community, even though that’s not true in most cases, and we’ve been organizing ourselves as though the church provided a primary social network for individuals, even though that’s not true in most cases—think soccer teams, PTAs, clubs, places of work, volunteer organizations, social media platforms…

This societal change has happened slowly, and it’s human nature to have difficulty perceiving gradual pattern shifts.  But this is why we were using 1918 structures to organize 2018 faith communities…because each year, they only worked slightly less well than the year before, and most of us didn’t notice any difference, or else we weren’t sufficiently worried about it to put in the energy needed for change.

Then, in the course of a year (being U.S.-centric for a moment), we experienced a global pandemic, a racial justice reckoning, and some concrete evidence of the fragility of our democracy.  We (as individuals), we (as faith communities), and our society (as a whole) have changed radically.  I believe that God’s call for faith communities is that we will act in ways that are authentic to who we are and responsive to the needs of this world.  So—if the world has changed and we have changed, the ways in which we are called to act, to be the church, must also have changed.

How has the world changed?  It’s become less geographically organized (with many working or schooling remotely), more electronically connected (with a heavier reliance on video calls and social media platforms than ever before), and more socially polarized (partly because it is more electronically connected).

How have we as faith communities changed?  We’ve gained new participants in our fellowship (many of whom have joined through remote worship), lost track of some of our fellowship (mostly those for whom virtual participation didn’t work), and shifted many of our rituals and traditional practices (often because what we had been doing literally wasn’t possible in 2020).

How have we as individuals changed?  Almost all of us have experienced some degree of trauma.  Our priorities have shifted.  Some social connections are more important than they used to be, some less.  We’ve lost or changed jobs, discovered new hobbies, and watched or read the last eighteen months of news—which has caused some of us to shut down and others to reach out in ways we never have before.  We are simply not the same people we were in February of 2020.  (Think about it.  Are you?)

So here’s the overall question I’m holding: how do we be the church now and going forward?  How are God’s purposes being served?

I genuinely don’t believe that maintaining the old ways—or returning to some slight modification of the old ways—can do what God needs us to do anymore.  I’m not even sure it’s possible to return to the old ways.  So this is the first of a series of writings addressing some of the potential that I can see.  Because it is about potential.

I’ve been looking lately at Isaiah 43:18-19.  I’ve always been a big fan of verse nineteen: “See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

Is that not the best news ever?  New thing!  Springing up!  A way in the wilderness!  Streams in the wasteland!  Throughout my adult life, I’ve leaned on this verse.  New life!  Promise!  Everything’s going to be okay!  (And yes, when I think about it, I think about it with exclamation points.)

But what I like less is verse eighteen.  I have tended to skip over this one, but now I’m discovering that today, I can’t.  Take a look at the two verses together: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

Suddenly, I find myself reading these two verses as conditional.  First, we have to forget the former things and not dwell on the past…and now the new thing springs up.

That stinks.  I don’t like that.  I liked the former things.  I have enjoyed the past.  I’ve been very comfortable with how things used to be.  (I recognize that not everybody has been comfortable.  That does not take away from the reality that I have been, and it’s not wrong of me to be emotionally attached to the old ways.)

I don’t think God is asking us to forget the former things all at once.  I think God understands that change implies grief.  I also think there’s truth in the idea that we have to release the old ways before God’s new ways can totally spring up.  The good thing (depending on how you look at it) is that usually, we have to decide to change, and that’s a really hard thing to do.  But in this case, many of the old ways have fallen apart of their own accord, simply because they’re impracticable in today’s circumstances.

I want to end by sharing some of the questions I’ve been holding.  These are the questions I’ll be writing about in the coming days.  How would you answer some of these questions?  What would you add to my list?

1) Meaningful participation in any community involves both receiving and giving.  As our faith communities have shifted, becoming less geographically centered, more digital, and perhaps less intimate, how do we help all people who are part of our fellowships to give of their gifts to their faith communities?  What happens to the person who’s always made the coffee and washed the dishes if those channels of service are no longer available to them?  How does the person who joins our worship from three time zones away discover avenues of service to our faith community?

2) How do we offer pastoral care across vast physical distances?  Counseling and comfort is possible by phone or video conference, but who delivers the chicken soup to a sick person or provides a childcare respite to a desperate parent?

3) What does it mean to serve our local community if our congregation is de facto no longer local?  What does it mean for a geographically de-centered faith community to run a soup kitchen, a clothing ministry, or a neighborhood clean-up?  Do we need some faith communities to decide they are not going online?  What are the implications of that decision?

4) How do we build multiage community now?  Some of our oldest members are technologically adept, but some are not.  Some of our children and youth thrive on videoconference connection, but some do not.  Have we found ourselves accidentally reinforcing age-segregated communities in the last eighteen months?  What can be done to build relationships across the generations?

5) What does social connection look like for hybrid communities, in which some worship in person while others worship remotely through the Internet?  Does the Internet connection shut down before coffee hour?  How do we ensure that everyone has opportunities to access social connections?

6) If our ritual practices have changed in the past eighteen months—and almost all of them have—then have we addressed this together theologically, culturally, and sociologically?  Do we understand the implications of these changes in ritual?  Have we talked about what cannot change and why?  In times of extraordinary change, what connects us to those who came before us, whose stories can teach us about faith and resilience?

7) What happened to bring new attenders to many of our faith communities?  So many groups have stories about people who have just appeared in their virtual worship and stayed.  Hooray!  And yet—can we ask the questions about how these new attenders found us?  Where did they come from?  What were they hungering for?  Why have they stayed?  Now that we know for sure that there are people looking for us, are there things we could do to make it easier for them to find us?

8) How has our call shifted in terms of how, and about what, we witness to the world?  If we are called to testify about justice, human dignity, or protecting the earth, have the specific pressing issues changed?  Have the ways in which people think about these things changed?  Have the people holding power changed? Have the most relevant and effective communications channels changed?  God’s call is probably the same—do justice, love mercy, walk humbly before your God—but what does that look like in 2021?

9) Even before the pandemic, our long-term practice of organizing ourselves geographically had been getting pretty iffy.  Every faith organization I know of has local groups, small regional groups, and large regional groups, and this has been our structure for keeping track of ourselves, disseminating information, hiring staff, and making decisions.  But the Internet is the eighth continent, and I hold fast to the idea that most hybrid faith communities are actually located online.  That’s not even to mention the faith communities that have sprung up in the last eighteen months that are entirely virtual.  (There were some pre-pandemic, but there are many more now.)  Unless we want these faith communities to exist entirely outside our institutional systems—without formal relationship, accountability, or institutional/denominational support—we’re going to have to figure out “where” they go.  What would non-geographic systems of organization look like?

10) Can “local” faith communities be less precious about membership?  In other words, though I believe it’s possible for some faith communities to learn how to be geographically disbursed and still be strong and vital congregations, not all of us will be called to do so.  Can we learn to say to someone who has joined our faith community but who is remote, “We love you so much that we want to help you connect to a faith community that can serve your needs better than we can?”

11) What financial models work for 2021 faith communities?  How many of our congregations don’t need a building anymore?  Which congregations are actually leaning into being physically present in their communities and need buildings more than ever?  How are we supporting our employees?  To which organizations is our faith community giving money?  Are we clear that our faith community’s budget is serving God’s purpose for the faith community today?  Do we know what our priorities are?  How do we discern those priorities?

12) What does it mean for a faith community to be a good neighbor to its surrounding community?  What does that mean if we have a building that we use often?  What does that mean if we have a building that we use infrequently or never?  What does that mean if we no longer have a building?

13) How has worship changed and not changed in the last eighteen months?  To what degree have we simply made alterations to how we worshipped “before” in order to adapt to new media?  If we’re not going back to 100% in-person worship—and many of us are not—then is it time to discuss what worship would look like if it were specifically designed for the online or broadcast or radio media that we’re now using?

14) What happens to ministers and clergy as faith communities transition to a new paradigm?  Some groups may conclude, “We no longer need full-time employees to keep us going.”  That might be true, but it means shifting to a system of unpaid labor.  Unpaid ministry is inaccessible to people who must be paid in order to survive or support families, even if those people are genuinely called by God to ministry.  And trained and/or experienced ministers have skills that our faith communities desperately need.  If we’re shifting away from local congregations that employ full-time staff—and my observations seem to indicate that we are—then how will ministers be supported in this new model?

15) Is it possible that some of our faith communities have reached the end of their life cycles?  In the days when towns were organized around the church in the center, a church generally died only if the town around it died.  That hasn’t been true for a very long time.  Some of our faith communities have reached the natural end of their life cycles.  They have fulfilled their purpose.  What help do faith communities need in order to lay themselves down, faithfully and with dignity?

16) When we look back at Tom Sawyer or Anne of Green Gables, we see how the town church served as a place for people who didn’t like each other to learn to co-exist.  Where does that happen now?  If switching from one faith community to another is as easy as clicking on a different link, what compels us to stick it out in covenant relationship?  What is the role of the church today in teaching the concept enumerated in 1 Corinthians 12: “Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body…the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’”

17) And finally, what does it actually mean to embody the church?  I’ve heard this so much in the last eighteen months—that it’s okay when we have to close our buildings, because the building is not the church, the people are.  That’s both true and a comforting thought.  But—what does it actually mean?  What do we mean when we say the people are the church?  In what sense?  Which people?  Everybody?  Everybody in our denomination?  Everybody in the denominations we agree with theologically?  Is this an individual or a communal church?  If we’re moving to a model of de-institutionalized, non-geographic, un-hierarchical embodiment of the church, what the heck does that actually look like, in a practical way, from the time I wake up until the time I go to sleep?

I find these questions super exciting.  I also find them pretty pressing.  We are still in the midst of societal chaos.  I think we’re going to be for quite a while.  Some of us do not have the capacity to be asking these questions, but some of us do, and I think we have to.  “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

Because we need a way in the wilderness.  And streams in the wasteland.