As regular readers know, I spend my days as a pastor. The last couple of years have been a unique time to be in ministry and, doubly so, as I found myself “planting” (starting) a new church in the midst of it.
I was part of a team convinced that God was nudging us to plant a little church in a quiet neighborhood next to the local university when the pandemic hit. In fact, my previous pastoral position had just ended and a six week “count down” graphic was up on the new little church’s site as the first COVID-related closings hit. I held off until the week before that counter would have reached its celebratory end before actually turning it off thinking, like many of us did, that the pandemic would only briefly disrupt normal life.
But, we all know differently now, and I pushed the launch from April 2020 to July. Then to September. Then, talking to the folks involved and looking at our pleasant, but not ideally socially distanced, space, I decided to just quit listing a launch date until some later date. We tried setting a date again at the one year mark only to place it in July 2021, just as Delta ripped through the region and some places closed down again. Likewise, a few months later we again announced only to run smack dab into Omicron.
I started to wonder if we’d ever launch. Then came an issue with our building lease and, later still, problems with our roof. But, this past Sunday — almost exactly two years from our original launch date — we launched and it was beautiful. It was wonderful seeing people assemble to worship God. It was wonderful to hear the voices singing together. It was wonderful to realize “this is actually happening.”
I don’t want to forget what God taught us along the way, though, just because we are now sort of “reset” to where we hoped to be a few years earlier.
First, ministry needs to look different now. Not only is our society less “churched” — which makes the barrier to joining a church much higher — but our society also loves to do everything online. The pandemic forced us to think in terms of what we could do online (I started preaching weekly Monday night messages and doing video conferenced Bible studies). While these things may have begun as what seemed to be necessary evils, they are actually blessings: even before my church could ever hold its first in-person service, we were ministering to hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of people online because those sermons, devotionals that a group of us put together and special events that included an even larger array of folks were readily available to minister to people.
God used the upside down circumstances to make us think creatively outside the doors of a building.
Sometimes, people participated on our online efforts out of fear of COVID, but we also had many people who simply loved the format. For example, going to a midweek church service can be difficult if you get off of work late, but is much more feasible if you can watch it as soon as you arrive home (or take part from wherever you are). Meanwhile, we connected with friends new and old who weren’t even in the area, but enjoyed the messages or conversing with other Bible study participants from around the country (and, as it has happened, even the world).
Despite the naysayers, real relationships were created, strengthened and continue to grow in the ministry happening. I’d never discount the importance of in-person church, but the pandemic reminded us of the idolatry of the building. Suddenly it was all about the people and how we could connect through whatever means was possible — and that’s how it should always be, even when, thankfully we have in-person means as a key way we do that.
The second lesson comes from the first, then: ministry always should have looked different. I remember someone said to me early in the pandemic, “just think, your church has just as much opportunity as a megachurch right now.” We really ought not to be trying to figure out how we can compete with each other, but the comment did touch on something important — it was no longer about how big our facilities were. Every church was struggling to do the same thing: reach people in cyberspace.
Buildings can be useful “tools,” as one pastor I know liked to say, but we tend to put too much weight on them. Given that society is changing, the real question is, “are we going to go where people are or are we going to have great facility when people do show up?” Jesus clearly preferred the former and we ought to too.
When it comes down to it, like individuals, the Church has two “great commandments” it is called to follow: love God and love our neighbors. These two lessons from the pandemic are ones that remind me of how we ought to do that. We love God by doing everything to glorify Him. That involves taking whatever resources He gives us, whether online or in-person — and using them to do the work He gives us to do. That also involves — given that it is that “work” — going to share hope and encouragement and prayer with people wherever they may be, just like Jesus did during His earthly ministry.
For the little church plant’s part, we’re still exploring how we live in this new world. But, part of it involved a strong commitment to live streaming as we launched this new, in-person phase — I spent more time getting our live streaming setup ready than any other part of physical preparation for our launch — and continuing with our existing online ministry alongside the “brick-and-mortar” portion. We will, absolutely, positively, gather together physically, but we want to keep reaching out into this digital world God has given us the tools to embrace.
My repeated attempts to navigate launching during a pandemic show I’m a terrible prognosticator, but I do believe that “hybrid ministry,” drawing the best from being together in-person and online, is the future of the church. We’ll surely stumble and, one week in to full on meeting, it is far too soon to declare ourselves a success, but I do believe this “hybrid” route is the future for us, and for the church as a whole.
May we be willing — even without deadly pandemics — to keep rethinking how we do things so that we always keep doing what is important: loving God and loving our neighbors.