As I recently attended church online, a church leader used a phrase that made me cringe. He thanked the “audience online” for tuning in. I believe the intention was to include and welcome everyone not in the room, but the word audience made it sound as if those not in the room were less invested in the experience. It’s an arguable point. The in-person experience is different than the online experience. I love gathering with people, but I haven’t yet returned. It’s for a variety of reasons, which have shifted over time. In fact, it’s been a bit confusing at times, but I’m beginning to understand and embrace my hesitation. I won’t share the specifics, because I don’t want different reasons to cause a distraction.
What I know is this: I am becoming increasingly passionate about how the church engages and cultivates people.
I’ve been in church for a long time. I’ve worked with ministries around the country. I’ve served on staff and as a volunteer in the local church. And I have seen some good practices and some poor practices. Gaining the perspective prompted by the shifts due to the pandemic have revealed a lot about individuals, businesses, organizations, and…church. Strengths have been revealed. So have weaknesses.
Before you begin to declare, “But everyone should be in church, and once everyone realizes that, and we’re allowed to do what we want to do, it will all straighten out,” Realistically, we’re not returning to what we’ve done in the past, not just because of a pandemic, but because change happens over time. Look at the changes over the past decade and a decade before that…and before that and so on. (If you don’t see many changes, that might be another problem to face.)
I’ve seen a bit of a snap of a rubber band through this rather unique year. Many churches scrambled to think creatively to reach people within the confines of what was safe and possible. Churches helped each other, shared ideas, and came up with some great solutions. God provided through resources and creativity. Flexibility reigned, even among many who are generally resistant to change. Then we got a reprieve. We could return to some of our previous ways. And that was good, except that it paused the creativity. Because we were no longer in crisis mode—and let’s be honest, many staff and volunteers were exhausted—we tried to gather up as many remnants as we could to move forward. Once we started seeing people in person again…wait, what happened to everyone else?
It became easy to excuse some people didn’t feel safe gathering yet or some had gotten out of the routine and would return once other aspects of their lives returned to normal. But what if we continued to intentionally engage online? If online became a side thought of “sure, we’ll keep offering it,” but most opportunities were offered in person, if Sunday morning online worship services were the only chance to engage instead of weekday or anytime on-demand opportunities, we will continue to lose more and more people. And I’m not talking about attendance. It’s not a numbers game. It’s a faith-building gain or loss.
We can argue people should engage in a specific way, reset priorities, be responsible, but isn’t that a bit naïve (and judgmental)? Yes, we need to help others grow. Every one of us needs to be challenged. But as the church, let’s not be so limiting as to think we can only experience and equip within the confines of a building or timeframe. We need to serve and reach and grow (ourselves and others) better than that.
Jesus didn’t have the same technology we have, but he certainly didn’t do the majority of his ministry at a specific time in a building.
I think we can learn a lot from him.