This past weekend I read an article in one of the nation’s major newspapers about what churches have discovered over the past 12 months related to the pandemic. The amazing thing I discovered in the article is that the issues and challenges churches have reported facing during the pandemic are precisely the kinds of issues and challenges we face at our church.
These challenges and issues will sound familiar:
1) How are we to keep our members’ attention and keep them actively involved through Live Streaming and zoom meetings?
2) How many of our members are actually still a part of the congregation since so much time has passed with limited no in-person worship over the early months of the pandemic and only limited in-person worship recently?
3) How many of our members have left the church either to attend congregations which in spite of the pandemic continued meeting with all its risks (church attendance early on in the pandemic was considered a “super-spreader event), or have been tuning into other churches who went to Live Streaming earlier than our church?
4) How are churches coping with lost revenue, since contributions across almost all congregations have seriously declined?
5) What will happen to Live Streaming once churches are able to meet on a regular basis as in pre-pandemic days?
As I read the article, I thought it could have been written precisely about us! Besides which, our church has had to deal with the loss of its former pastor, which only exacerbated people’s absence on top of Covid.
The bottom line of the article was this central question: What is reasonable for us to hope for the future of our church?
Some of the answers to this question comes in the form of answers to the challenges listed above. For example, at least those of us in leadership (5 above) recognize that Live Streaming worship services in the future won’t a choice but a necessity. No one can know how
many people have grown so comfortable with Live Streaming they will prefer to continue their relationship to the church through this vehicle. Those who continue to feel cautious about the pandemic may never return physically to church but, thankfully, will continue their relationship to the church via on-line worship.
Financially (4-above) Shawnee Community has been helped enormously by two PPP loans of approximately $25,000 each, the first of which made all the difference in keeping the church afloat in late summer-early fall of 2020. Our landlord’s postponement of December through February’s rent to the end of the 5-year lease assisted greatly. Several large member/friend contributions last November and December (some 2021 pledges pre-paid at the end of last year) propelled us into a more favorable financial position for the first 3 months of 2021.
Items 2) & 3) above may not be answered for some time. The church has no way of knowing, except in just a couple of instances, how many people may have chosen to tune into other Live Streaming worship services or felt comfortable worshiping in another church that disregarded CDC instructions about not participating in in-person services. Some may have just chosen to permanently transfer their membership or participation to another church. The good news is that the size of the response to the Search Committee’s church survey was very large. We’ve also enjoyed many of our young households participating in the live or recorded “Call to Worship.”
Finally, regarding Item 1, keeping folks active, the church has always made as its top priority these past 12 months the safety of our people. We refused to be cavalier and blithely say, “Oh go ahead and attend church and meet physically because we’ll all be okay.” That kind of blasé response would have been irresponsible and unconscionable. The one nightmare I have had during the pandemic is that the church would open too soon, only to be complicit in a member’s illness or death due to COVID. I am grateful for the sacrifice, patience, and conscientiousness of SCCC’s members to wait until it was clear we were safe in doing limited in-person worship, as is true now with all our staff vaccinated.
Just a few days ago I was visiting with another pastor who, having consulted other pastors, said, the way his church is approaching the future is by imagining their church as a new church start. “We can’t take for granted that our people will automatically return once the pandemic is over,” he said. “We have to win them all over again and make an extra effort to reach new people, because reaching them will be so much harder than before the pandemic.”
I think he is right. This is good advice for our church!
God knows SCCC has had lots of practice functioning like a new church! It began in 1977-78. The church re-started from 1984-1991 when René and I served as Shawnee Park’s co-pastors. The church reinvented itself again around 2013-14 under former pastor Johnny Lewis when it adopted the new name of Shawnee Community Christian Church to become one of the youngest churches in our denomination. It has remained one of the youngest Disciple congregations thanks in large part to Director of Children’s & Family Ministries Patt Ludwick, Youth Director Jack Sampel, and Music Director Ronette Hoard, and the technical skills of Ashley Follette and Matt and Bobette Sawka.
I dare say many of this church’s most productive, exciting years have occurred during each of these 3 (re)starts! And this is no way a slight to the church’s longest serving pastor Michael Yarborough, who specialized in marriage enrichment for mostly younger couples.
Is the idea of thinking like a new congregation too much to wrap our minds around? I don’t think so. After all, what is this Easter season about but contemplating what new thing God may be up to next? Churches have always been at their best when their people have thought of themselves as pioneers, not settlers; as part of a movement to fulfill God’s will than as an old, established institution living more on its past than for its future.
We just have to believe in what God can do through us and with us. René and I have seen it here before. Most everyone in this church has experienced these new starts.
As the prophet Jeremiah, living in an equally hard time for Israel says on behalf of God, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
So, once again it’s time to hitch our wagon and move upward and onward. As the title song of the musical “Paint Your Wagon” says,
Where am I headed, I don’t know.
Where am I going, I ain’t certain,
All that I know is I am on my way.
We are on our way! Join us in the journey! Tally Ho!