New Wine doesn't work in Old Wine Skins
A vaccine will bring healing to many and a return to much of the old normal. However, it will not undo the changes in our churches saw in 2020. Some key questions for church leaders to wrestle with in 2021.
I realize that most of us congregational leaders are overwhelmed by the logistics and grief of re-orienting Christmas 2020. However, recently we heard news of vaccines being distributed in the United Kingdom ...and soon coming into the United States. This news has me thinking and dreaming of a day when life goes back to normal!!
What will this normal look like? My sense is that the post-COVID normal for most congregations will look very different than life "B.C". Too much has changed in our congregations simply to go back to the way it was. On the one hand, COVID times have been a long season of pruning. Some things -- ministries, relationships and most poignantly, people -- have died in this time. Painfully, we must confess it cannot go back. On the other hand, COVID times has been filled with new growth. Countless churches have launched new ministries during this time or renewed exciting ministry partnerships; congregations have given leaders permission to grill the most sacred of cows! It has been reminiscent of the book of Acts, when trials and tribulation gave room for the Spirit to drive the church forward. There is new wine flowing that will burst the old wine skin!
It is likely worth each church leadership team pausing, reflecting on
What is your church grieving that has been temporarily or even permanently lost during this time?
What is old wine skin, stuff where you just can't go back to it?
What has helped people be the church, as individual disciples, or collectively as a congregation during this time?What is new ministry -- new wine -- that is worthy of celebrating?
To be clear, what is old is not bad and what is new is not necessarily from God. But these above questions might begin to get at the all important and deep question -- how is God calling us forward as a congregation?
Furthermore, many of the changes that happened during COVID times were not entirely new developments, but amplifications of existing trends. One local church I know of moved extremely well into live-streaming. As it turns out, they had designed their new sanctuary for live streaming. COVID may have made their 'viewership' number skyrocket, but they had laid the groundwork for broadcasting worship years ago. The trends in our culture: the rise of virtual community; the tendency toward political polarization; and the hunger for intimacy all existed before COVID and will only continue.
In short, so much has changed within our churches and within our culture, that we can't do church like 2019 and expect to thrive in 2021. Here are what I see as some movements in our culture that exploded in 2020 that will continue to impact our churches in 2021 and beyond. For each one, I boil it down to some key leadership questions.
Netflix effect: Netflix created a whole new market place: on-demand TV. You could watch watch whatever you wanted, most importantly, whenever you wanted. You could binge watch 18 episodes of West Wing. You could stop a show in the middle if you felt it was too boring or too raunchy.
In many ways, we've become church on-demand, with multiple ways of worshiping available at multiple times, if not all the time. No longer is the church open for a few hours a week on Sunday morning and a few odd hours during the week, but the Word is going forth all the time as people follow and consume content online. People can engage at any time, which is good. But...its a much different task to build a community around an a la carte menu. Even if one can do this, sustaining it requires very different resources, volunteers and staff than before.
So it brings up a host of questions as in-person worship will resume in full force. Will people have the desire to sit for a 60 minute worship service anymore, with lots of parts they don't necessarily enjoy? Will churches stop their online worship? Will churches really stop online communion they swore was temporary? What do you do with the people who really loved zoom worship in their jammies? How do we not burn our staff and volunteers who will be asked to do everything they did in 2019 and 2020 all at the same time?
What should AND can we sustain of our COVID-times virtual engagement?
The quicker a church answers this question, likely the less helpful their answer will be. Whom is the church truly trying to serve? Why? and How? The more clearly a church can define their sense of mission and vision likely the easier time they will have articulating to themselves and others why they are choosing to resume or not resume certain ministries.
Trump effect: Trump accelerated the polarization of American society. When COVID happened, he took a tact of championing individual liberty over public health measures. This created a situation in which everything about COVID, including wearing a mask, was seen as a political statement. As churches made worship and ministry decisions, often based on particulars of their building; the age and health of their staff and congregation; the professions of their council; these were interpreted by many as political. People began to vote with the feet, with strongly conservative folks often re-aligning themselves with no-mask churches (and to some extent, vice-versa). Many leaders also felt the necessity to take stands this summer over issues of racial injustice in our country, further inflaming divisions.
Truthfully, churches have faced increasing strain trying to hold people of differing political opinions in one church. Like every other facet of society, we seek to congregate with folks that look, act and vote like ourselves. Church has become no different.
Does your church feel mobilized by a political pruning to work more clearly for societal causes? (Lean into the prophetic tradition of decrying injustice) Or are you committed to being a church that holds diverse political views together? (Lean into the Pauline tradition of reconciliation in a multi-cultural context) How can you live into this decision?
American Idol effect: While there is a strong Christian music industry with ties to mega-churches, an open secret is that most mega churches haven't had deep congregational singing for sometime. Wonderful musicians lead generally passive or gently singing crowds. The same is generally true for Roman Catholic churches and also in many mainline protestant churches. Choirs used to lead the congregation; then choirs started doing the singing for the congregation; then choirs were replaced by cantors. Its okay if you want to protest this sweeping generalization, but I think its fairly straight forward to argue that our culture doesn't do collective singing as well as we did two generations ago. This has been translating into church culture for some time.
Regardless, COVID times increased this trend as congregational singing has often been discouraged, done with masks or not happened at all. Many musicians in churches are no longer leading congregations or large ensembles, but recording tracks of two or three musicians, designed for listening rather than collective singing.
More deeply, I am getting at the way in which COVID often forced a professionalization of church. Doing a good video takes paid staff or very committed lay people. It often is harder to get people involved and during COVID times in worship; most churches either restricted volunteers or the volunteer base (often retirees) took a big step back out of virus concerns. I assume that for most churches this not the long-term hope, although perhaps some are happy to become professional worship broadcasters.
How do we make worship truly a work of the people, especially when it comes to singing?
The Bowling Alone effect: Back in 2000, a book called Bowling Alone was written. It spoke about the fragmentation of American society and how our individualism had undermined our ability to form community. I've often wondered if the breakdown of church attendance has as much to do with this trend as anything the church has or has not done. It is not simply about the rises of "nones" (no religion) but "no ones" folks who are isolated and alone.
COVID created a tremendous amount of loneliness. We all learned we can't live so isolated from each other. The church has sought to step into this gap and provide authentic virtual, hybrid and in-person connection. Many churches have discovered they were not, after all, a building, but truly a people, animated by the Spirit who trust in Jesus Christ. The people that have come along often will feel more bound to their church than ever before.
At the same time as pockets of intimacy were being deepened within the church, many have trailed away. A zoom room likely doesn't work for people totally new to each other. Some churches may have added virtual listeners, but how might they move from passive consumers to active parts of the life-giving community? How much energy are you going to put seeking the sheep you lost in 2020? How can you make pathways for new people to integrate into a very "dense" community in terms of relationships?
How is your church intentionally building community for both active participants but also those not currently engaged?
Some of the above questions might avail themselves to simple or quick answers. My intention in offering them is not to provide an easy checklist for folks. I sense that both in and outside of the church life will have profoundly changed by summer 2021, when life in church could go back to normal. Churches will need to have a strong sense of mission. If not, I believe they will exhaust themselves in conflict and unrealistic expectations of staff, volunteer leaders and general membership. My hope is that the above questions might help a church get at, again, that key question -- how is God moving in our midst and how are we called forward? How can we as a people of the cross and resurrection speak and live into a world that endured its greatest crisis in a generation, if not longer?