We’ve Dipped Our Toes in the Water, Now What?

We’ve Dipped Our Toes in the Water, Now What?

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This period of no public worship has forced a great many of our churches to dip their toe in the water of online digital worship, and their experiences have ranged from finding the water to be quite comfortable to finding it startlingly brisk. Many have spoken of the time it takes to prepare such services for their specific local congregations.

During recent conversations with some pastors, the question of when we will be able to return to regular worship in our sanctuaries keeps coming up.

I wonder about the future. No one knows how long it will be before we are able to return to public worship. Stay-at-home orders may continue for months, and perhaps well into the fall, or even Advent.

Additionally, I think we all agree that life will never be the same as it was before February 2020. We cannot go back to the way things were, and this includes our pre-coronavirus way of doing, being, and thinking about church. The COVID-19 experience is going to be a watershed in U.S. and world history.

I wonder, then, if the question: “When do you think we’ll be able to return to regular worship in our church?” should be the primary question we are asking ourselves. I would instead urge that it be: “How must the church change for a new normal?”, with our secondary question being: “How can we best use this interim time to prepare our church for that new normal?” “When can we return to our sanctuaries?” should perhaps be a tertiary question.

I don’t claim to know what the new normal will look like; however from my perspective, it needs to include some form of online digital worship along with  other types of ministry – perhaps prayer meetings, Bible study, podcasts, coffee hour, youth and young adult meetings. Digital church is here to stay and will continue after COVID-19 has passed! In fact, there are many churches around the country that began digital church programming very successfully long before COVID-19 arrived.

In his April 15 article, “7 Shifts Churches Need to Make Because of the Coronavirus,” Tony Morgan, author of The Unstuck Church, wrote:
“When churches get stuck, the natural pull is toward decline and death…unless there’s an interruption…Interruptions jolt us. They upset the equilibrium. They force a reaction. Interruptions challenge us to pause and assess what’s happening. Then build a plan to respond. And ultimately interruptions provoke us to act. I think this interruption is going to strengthen the church’s mission. It’s going to force churches to embrace a new normal. That will include shifting ministry strategy to spread the Gospel in a culture that was already changing well before the interruption (or in this case, disruption) that this virus caused.”

Can we use this interim time to prepare for the new normal by striving to include online viewers as participants in an experience of God and not as spectators of an experience about God? Can we think about online digital worship not as simply moving what we do inside the church to a different platform and location, but as a new way of being in worship?

I would argue that we need to consider digital worship as something we develop for its own purpose and aim, with its own integrity, liturgy, music, videos, giving/receiving offerings, homiletical style, and spirituality rather than being a means by which we allow people outside our walls to Zoom in and watch us worship in our sanctuary in our pre-COVID-19 ways.  

I strongly encourage us in this time to prepare online services not only for those in their local congregations, but also for those who might be logging in that claim no religious affiliation (NONEs), are Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNRs), or have been hurt by the Church or Christians – people who need to hear the Good News our churches are proclaiming, but would never cross a church’s threshold without first checking, in an anonymous, no-risk way, to see if it is safe. If we can help them experience God, if our values correspond to theirs, if we can facilitate them putting their faith into action, and if they want to pursue a relationship with us, either locally or remotely, we may find this disruption to be an unexpected opportunity and blessing.

In this new normal we could provide both in person and digital worship services – different services created, designed, and intended for different groups. We can also use this time to rethink what the new normal will require for staffing. Will it include a Technology Committee and/or people with a call to service in a “digital” ministry like others feel a call to service in in-person ministries? For example, people like Tiffany Vail and Drew Page and their respective ministries, people who are critical to our SNEUCC ministry.

I wonder if, not only during this time of preparation for a new normal, but also in that new normal, we could come together and, throughout the SNEUCC, share the resources with which God has graciously blessed each congregation and the Conference. Can we break out of our siloed congregations and partner with one another so that a church doesn’t think/feel that it has to go it alone, and manage the new normal and digital worship depending solely on its own resources? Can we Carpe diem (“Seize the day”) and adopt a deeper sense of our interconnectedness as the body of Christ, a.k.a. the SNEUCC, one where the life sustaining nutrients of time, talent, and treasure flow throughout the body to each part according to its need, so that the entire body is built up and strong? (See 1 Cor.12.20-27; 2 Cor. 8.12-15; also cf. Acts 2.44-45.)

I understand the Massachusetts Conference did something like this in the 1990s. It united in a concerted effort to get all Massachusetts churches online. The effort was very successful, and as a result, when 9/11 occurred, communication with and between churches and communities was quicker and easier than it would have been otherwise. Could now be the time for a similar coming together and sharing for the good of all?

The COVID-19 disruption has forced many congregations to dip their toes into the water of online digital worship and to keep them there long enough that they are now at least somewhat used to being in that water. Since there will be no going back to “Kansas,” we would be best served to Carpe diem, embrace the increasingly emerging and expanding digital world, and figure out how we, the Church, are going to be most effective in proclaiming the Gospel in and to the new world in which it will exist post-COVID-19.

Author

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David Cleaver-Bartholomew

Rev. Dr. David Cleaver-Bartholomew is the Transitional Associate Conference Minister for Stewardship and Financial Development for the SNEUCC.

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