March 15, 2020 is a date that will have special meaning for a lot of church leaders. It was the last Sunday of in-person meetings at the rural church where I am serving as transitional interim pastor.
That morning there were 40 or so bleary-eyed kids and a few college students in attendance who had just returned from a meaningful D-Now weekend. There were some other key movements of God among congregants. We were dead in the middle of conducting a congregational assessment of values and systems. I felt like in some respects we were cooking with grease.
On the Associational level we had a few events in place that had the capacity to provide transformational assistance to a bunch of hungry leaders. It felt like God was doing some very meaningful things among us. Then we all started scrambling to figure out what kind of strange new world we were living in. You might say we are still in that moment. I’d say that.
A convergence of events that may slow momentum
From the first week of suspended services we started having a weekly Zoom meeting for pastors that included some of the state missionaries in our region. Each week is different. We’ve worn out all the clichés, but it is true that there is no playbook for what we are walking through. Peer to peer communication has been big, especially in terms of helping gauge each others’ state of emotional and spiritual strength and lifting each other up.
In the most recent conversations I’ve had with pastors, a few guys are starting to tiptoe into reopening. And they are learning that it’s not going to be the blockbuster event that perhaps they had previously envisioned. It feels like the pandemic fast forwarded whatever trajectory people were on. Here are a few of the challenges in our small sampling:
- Nominal attenders may become non-attenders.
- Pressure to exceed what’s perhaps wise in the current stage of re-entry.
- On the other pole, reticence to return to church and its close quarters.
- Protecting the elderly and medically fragile.
- Summer. Plain and simple, people are stir crazy and it’s Memorial Day weekend, which typically opens the gates for more fluidity among members anyway.
- Outsized expectations about the capacity of crisis events to arrest cultural secularization. I don’t think it works that way anymore, if it ever did.
The ongoing need for experimental culture
This interesting question came up at our last pastors’ Zoom meeting thanks to our regional state missionary, Ray Sullivan. If the slow re-entry extends into months or a-year-and-a-half, what adaptive changes will your church make to ensure that the task of discipleship is still occurring? How will you change so that the process of life transformation can continue for people?
If a church’s posture is “We will not interact with technology or investigate how to evolve in our approach to ministry at this time,” welcome to obscurity. As Tom Feltenstein said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance a lot less.” Of course, this was true before the pandemic. And I am very grateful for the ways that this event has pressured some churches to examine their systems.
What a church has, what a church is, what a church does
It’s a good time to make this differentiation. A church has facilities, programs, and resources, but that is not what a church is. A church is a group of human beings who have the Spirit of God implanted in them through the new birth. Whew! That’s good news. A pandemic can’t interfere with that.
A church is a missionary movement mandated by God to make disciples of everyone on earth. Again, good news, a Pandemic can’t derail that.
As we examine our spiritual markers, gathering for worship is a vital one, but a concern that many leaders have right now is that maybe the American church has put far too much weight on this one alone. It’s a great time to work on reflecting how to shift the weight to other vital ways that our faith might be measured, and not only when things go sideways.
Bobby Braswell serves as associational missions strategist of Middle Baptist Association, based in Sylvania. This post originally appeared on his blog.