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Pastors were not prepared for the digital demands of the pandemic. What does that teach us about the next crisis?

A pastor from a small Methodist congregation in Indiana has to borrow a smartphone from one of her elders. She watches a quick tutorial on Facebook livestreaming, then films a makeshift service from her living room.

And there’s the pastor of a rural Presbyterian church who discovered that the church did not own a tripod — moments before recording his first online service. He fastened his iPhone to a ladder with duct tape.

These are just some of the stories coming out of the Tech in Churches During COVID-19 research project, a two-year study on how churches and their leaders have adopted — and adapted to using — digital technology in ministry.

Funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and working with the Center for Congregations, a team from Texas A&M University is investigating 2,700 congregations that received grants to purchase technology resources during the pandemic to enable them to move their services online.

Before 2020, many churches had never considered the importance of having Wi-Fi connections in their church buildings, let alone internet-enabled cameras or livestream setups. In fact, most American pastors likely never even considered holding worship services online.

Yet the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuing lockdowns and social-distancing regulations quickly showed congregations that having access to up-to-date digital media technology was not simply a novel ministry opportunity but a necessity.

The forced migration of worship services online in March 2020 brought with it many stories of churches being caught off guard by these new technological requirements.

Nearly two-thirds of pastors in this study felt that of all the new things they were asked to take on during the pandemic, it was technology work and decision making they felt the most unprepared for.

Through conversations with 500 church leaders, we heard responses like, “This wasn’t the job I signed up for as a pastor”; “I have no training in ‘putting on the tech hat’”; and, “I am a novice at tech — but the only one willing to try and get the church online.”

Leaders’ widespread lack of technology skills, knowledge and experience was further complicated by the digital divide, which many churches encountered for the first time. The digital divide describes the gap between individuals and groups that do and do not have access to technology, especially the internet.

The experience of the pandemic revealed for churches the challenge of what it means to be among the digital have-nots. Smaller and rural congregations in particular discovered that being in a community with limited internet access was not just a disadvantage but often a major barrier to acclimating to or addressing changes in gathering.

Yet the struggle was often more than churches simply not having key technologies on hand or the funds to purchase them. Many congregations battled self-imposed limitations on technology and roadblocks they created for themselves.

This we describe as digital reluctance, an unwillingness among leaders and/or members to embrace technology due to fear or lack of familiarity.

This was expressed by senior members of congregations as well as by church leaders, and this digital reluctance often prevented them from innovating worship and adapting to public gathering limitations.

For example, one leader, who described his congregation as “very anti-tech” and said that he personally “never had an interest in going online,” felt that these factors created significant obstacles for his church during the pandemic. In his view, the congregation’s initial reluctance to consider or even experiment with technology-driven service solutions created unnecessary tensions during already uncertain and tense times.

In other cases, congregational resistance toward technology often corresponded with a church’s general unwillingness to change its liturgical practice or re-envision the church. As one pastor said, “For some, getting on board with online worship was seen as giving up on the core of their faith.”

Digital reluctance also created friction in some churches between the generations. Younger and more digitally fluent members, excited about the possibility of re-imagining the church through digital platforms, often found themselves in conflict with older members or those less familiar with digital media.

Some leaders said the generational digital divide, and the tensions created around it, contributed to the slower return of some younger members once face-to-face services resumed.

“Some of those folks haven’t returned. … Our seniors were taught that you were here every Sunday, so they’re ready to be back. But that’s not the case with our younger people and those who were willing to try to go online from the start,” one pastor told researchers. “Time will tell what impact online tensions created.”

As a grand experiment and learning opportunity, the digital transition many churches underwent during the pandemic provides us with several valuable lessons.

First of all, our research found that pastors who had a positive and open mindset toward changing worship practices and/or engaging technology had a less stressful experience adapting to the challenges of the pandemic. This shows that attitude can greatly influence one’s outlook in times of forced change.

Second, congregations and their leaders who were willing to experiment with technology and learn from mistakes made in the process found that moving to online services opened up the possibility to reconsider the very nature of church.

Congregations are asking questions, for example, about whether church is primarily defined by its Sunday worship service, its community outreach, its technology use or something else. This is a challenging and tiring task, but pastors who felt empowered to be creative in their problem solving seemed to demonstrate greater resilience when handling pandemic stressors.

Third, pastors who used difficulties with technology to facilitate conversations about the nature of the Christian community helped create space for new perspectives to be shared.

This helped refocus the discourse from what was lacking in online worship to one centered on exploring new opportunities for community building, such as reinventing how small groups meet, how leaders perform pastoral care and how hybrid Sunday school can redefine religious education.

While the digital divide continues to be a challenging reality for many churches, the pandemic revealed important traits church leaders need to prepare for future cultural disruptions and technological shifts. Duct tape and an online tutorial won’t solve all church tech problems, but they do demonstrate creativity and a willingness to try — which can go a long way in moving churches forward.

In the midst of the swirling COVID-19 crisis, I have found a few moments, when I lift my head from the pressing pastoral realities of congregational life and from my own sense of vulnerability and worry, to think about the longer term.

Fewer and fewer of us now believe that after this crisis, life will just go back to the way it was. It is becoming clearer that life on the “other side” will be indelibly and irrevocably changed.

But what will that life look like? When I give myself permission and space to ask this question, I am realizing four things.

First, before I can imagine a new future, I need to grieve — and, as a priest, lead others in grieving — what has been lost. There are some who would urge us to postpone our grief in order to get through the crisis. Yet healthy, restorative grief cannot be delayed.I cannot wait until the crisis is over. My congregation cannot wait until we all gather back together.

We must lament all the things we have lost and are losing now — travel, weddings, celebrations, holidays and holy days, jobs, businesses, dreams, friends and family members, confidence in our elected leaders — all of it.

We are missing being together at births and deaths, holding hands and each other. And while we can delay memorial services, there is no postponing grief. Part of my calling is to help people walk through the grief in all its complexity. To do this, I must first give myself room to grieve. I cannot guide others through something that I am not able or willing to experience myself. Now is the time for each of us to feel the guilt, shame, rage, fear, frustration, denial. All of it.

Second, given that the future will be different in ways that are not yet knowable, I need to develop multiple visions of the future, and congregations (and other organizations) need to do the same. Andy Crouch has written provocatively about this time, asking how our response should be different if the COVID-19 crisis turns out to be a “blizzard,” a “winter” or the beginning of a “little ice age.” Lifting my head from the day-to-day, I increasingly realize that congregational and other organizational responses to this moment must include plans for all three possibilities.

While the crisis is looking less like a blizzard — a quickly passing storm — what if it in fact is? Those clamoring to “reopen” the country are wagering just that. So what if, in a month or three, we are able to resume congregational and community life much like they were before? What will we have learned in this time that will shape our going forward?

Or what if this is instead a winter — a protracted season of ongoing crisis — with oscillations between more- and less-restrictive distancing measures as the rate of new cases and deaths rises and falls? What if this introduces a new kind of unpredictability in our life together until there are better treatments or there is a vaccine, possibly as long as 18 to 24 months from now? How do we plan for distance and then reunion and then distance again — and at what point does distance become estrangement?

And what if this has the even deeper impact of an ice age — a new epoch — remaking our institutions, reforming entire industries, reshaping what we mean by community? What if the much-lamented anticipated closure of 40% of congregations in the United States in the next 30 years happens instead in the next 30 months? What then?

What if a majority of businesses that have been shuttered during this period never reopen despite federal loans? What if this is a time that cleaves history into a before and after in this country and around the world?

Whether storm, season or epoch, this crisis has already forced us to reimagine what we think of as congregational worship, giving and stewardship, staffing structure and mission. We are rethinking community engagement, service and outreach, pastoral care and preaching. The crisis will have us reimagining all of these regularly as we learn and change in response to it. The number of times we will have to learn, unlearn, imagine and reimagine is unknown, but the pattern seems likely to persist.

The most likely future, of course, is that the COVID-19 crisis will be some combination of storm, season and epoch, depending on who we are, where we live, what resources are available to us, and how the virus touches us personally. For this reason, the third thing I am learning is that when this is “over” for one person, or even for segments of society or entire geographies, it will not be over for others.

Even as some people can hardly wait to return to their congregations, others will fear gatherings like church for a long time. A recent Harris Poll asked people when they might feel comfortable again in large gatherings (the closest thing in the poll to going to church). The average answer was two to three months after the curve was flattened.

Even after we are allowed back together in person, we need to anticipate continuing worship online for another eight to 12 weeks, probably longer, perhaps forever, specifically to serve people whose valid concerns and real anxieties keep them away — those for whom the crisis isn’t over.

Likewise, we need to anticipate that phrases like “flu season” or “shut-in” or “homebound,” perceived as mostly neutral in the past, could now be emotionally triggering. We will have to accommodate those who have lost the innocent belief that gathering in groups of more than five or 10 or sharing a meal together are inherently good and safe things.

We have entered a time of global trauma-response ministry, and we will need to be attentive to the different ways that people move through trauma — some quickly, some slowly, some not at all.

Fourth, I am realizing that it’s important for us to hold on to the agility and adaptability we have found in recent weeks. This crisis has invited us to a level of necessary innovation and experimentation that many congregations and organizations haven’t known in our lives together for a long time.

Clergy, musicians and church staff members have taken real risks to adapt worship to Zoom or Facebook Live, even adapting services for the holiest days of the church year to online platforms. Pastors and priests have offered virtual visits to church members and visitors.

Lay leaders have hosted virtual coffees and virtual meals to sustain congregational community. Members who had only ever given by check have now given online, by text and through apps. People of faith have sewn masks, gifted food (and food delivery services), delivered virtual palm fronds for Palm Sunday.

The real risk is that we will lose these improvisational muscles. Our next normal will require the creative capacity of every person to figure out how we live, lead and serve in the time that comes after the crisis.

When I lift my head from the day-to-day, I find something waiting for me that feels less like panic and more like hope. The poet Wendell Berry puts it this way:

“No, no, there is no going back. Less and less you are that possibility you were. … Now more than ever you can be generous toward each day that comes. … Every day you have less reason not to give yourself away.”

With all the uncertainty, that feels about right.

In an apartment in Greensboro, North Carolina, fresh fuchsia crepe myrtle flowers brightened the front left corner of a table serving as a makeshift altar. The Rev. Audra Abt, dressed in a clerical collar and a rainbow stole, lifted her hands as she presided over the Spanish-language “Misa,” or Mass.

Most of the nine people crammed into the living room were immigrants from Central America, including host José David Garay, who came from Honduras in 2013. Some sat on sofas next to the photos of his three children, while he and his son sat on the temporarily repurposed dining chairs.

Earlier, Abt had led a discussion about the meaning of the baptismal vows, translating as she went for those who didn’t speak Spanish.

“Buscarás y servirás a Cristo en todas las personas, amando a tu prójimo como a ti mismo?” Abt asked the group. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”

The next morning, Abt stood in the pulpit of Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, preaching a Sunday sermon on the good Samaritan to the 20-member congregation, where she serves as part-time vicar.

“Your neighbor is anyone who has need or suffering that lays a claim on your love and care,” she preached. “But your neighbor is also the person that shows up when you’re suffering, even if they cussed you out last week.”

Two days later, Abt greeted visitors to the church’s weekly health access ministry in the rearranged sanctuary, where community members come to meet with a nurse and share a meal. The chairs now surrounded plastic tables instead of the pulpit, and adults chatted while kids chased each other around the room.

The 40-year-old priest’s ministry has multiple strands — presiding at the Misa for a Latinx house church, mostly because she enjoys it; serving a small, multiracial congregation as a part-time vicar; and organizing a community health access ministry in the church building for the congregation’s neighbors.

The common thread is engagement with the community, an approach that has benefited both the church and those who live near it.

Spanish-speaking immigrants have found community in a new country, and members of the city’s Episcopal churches have helped out during housing crises and immigration scares.

The small congregation at Holy Spirit has gotten a needed boost of life and energy with the arrival of the new priest, her partner and the new connections to its community.

Abt leads parishioners in a hymn at the Spanish Misa.

For Abt, the practice of listening is vital to making these connections.

How could you adopt a posture of listening in your church? In your neighborhood?

“Listening is saving me,” she said. “It can break open the church. When the church doesn’t have to be the one to provide salvation or provide answers or fix people, when we need our neighbors and community as much as we think that they might need us, God can do some amazing things.”

Piecing together a career

Abt moved from Ohio to Greensboro in 2010, when her partner, Jen Feather, took a teaching position at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Raised in the Roman Catholic Church, Abt admired the priests, who did the sacramental work of the Mass but were also deeply involved in the congregation’s life. She began asking about the priesthood in the third grade, but quickly learned that women can’t be Catholic priests.

“If I were a boy, they would have helped me discern a call to the priesthood, but for a girl, it was like, ‘Don’t ask those questions,’” she said.

Then at 25, she was invited to an Episcopal church for the first time and began to consider the priesthood again, eventually earning an M.Div. at Bexley Hall Episcopal Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.

She finished her degree after arriving in Greensboro, then began piecing together a career as a priest.

A parishioner receives a blessing during the Misa.

“I’ve never had just one job since I’ve been ordained, nor have I had a full-time position,” she said.

During her time in the city, she has worked at multiple churches and as an area missioner. Currently, she serves half time at Holy Spirit and half time as a mission developer for the diocese, working with three churches in North Greensboro to help them think about their future.

Are there language or other skills you could pursue that would help connect you to your neighbors?

One of the skills she brings to the job is proficiency in languages. Abt learned Portuguese living in Brazil and has spent the past 15 years learning Spanish “backward,” through Portuguese and “lots and lots of patient friends,” she said.

Among those patient friends is José David Garay.

A friendship flourishes

Garay, the host of the Spanish-speaking Misa, arrived in the U.S. with his family in May 2013, eventually settling in Greensboro. He hadn’t wanted to leave El Progreso, the city in northwestern Honduras where he lived; he was a social sciences teacher and enjoyed the life he led. But he left the country when he saw the increase of corruption and drug trafficking.

Garay and his family attended an Episcopal church in Honduras, so when they arrived in Greensboro, he set out to find another one.

He found St. Andrew’s — the most accessible Episcopal church by bus from his new apartment — where Abt was working at the time.

Photo of Garay
José David Garay (red shirt) and his family immigrated from Honduras in 2013. They are an integral part of the Spanish Misa.

Arriving in the middle of the week, he knocked on the door and met a confused secretary who could not speak Spanish. The secretary invited him in to talk to Abt, and the two quickly became friends — a young priest with a passion for migrant communities and an immigrant looking for a faith community.

Garay and Abt registered his children for school and shopped for the family’s first winter coats. He taught her Spanish songs, and they eventually started a Spanish service at the church.

The friendship between Audra Abt and José David Garay was vital to their work of connecting communities. Are there friendships that might bear this kind of fruit in your work?

But after a few months, the services started meeting in homes instead of the church. Garay told Abt that families would gather in people’s homes week by week and then meet at the church occasionally. The house gatherings provided more opportunity for direct conversation and deeper relationships, he said.

“Audra’s enthusiasm helped,” he said. “I appreciate being able to support Audra’s mission. There’s personal fulfillment there.”

Even though he now attends a Spanish-speaking Baptist service, Garay continues to host the Spanish Misa at his apartment. On a recent Saturday, Fatima Flores, an immigrant from El Salvador, rocked 11-month-old Jair — who sported red baby Air Jordans and a red snapback hat — as Abt opened up a discussion of the meaning of the baptismal vows in anticipation of the baby’s Sept. 1 baptism.

Abt asked what it meant to love your neighbor, your “prójimo,” as the vow said.

Flores struggled aloud with the term. In her home country of El Salvador, she said, “prójimo” didn’t always have a positive connotation. It could refer to the victim of a murder, for example — as when a man was stabbed in front of her in a bakery.

Abt nodded, providing space for the parishioners to process the vows through their own experiences.

The Misa is a place where recent immigrants have found a faith community, something especially important in the current anti-immigrant climate.

Photo of Flores
Fatima Flores laughs with Abt as she holds Flores’ son Jair, who will be baptized Sept. 1, 2019.

As of 2017, an estimated 325,000 undocumented immigrants live in North Carolina, some 40% of the state’s immigrant population and 3% of its population total. Another Episcopal church in Greensboro has made national headlines for housing Juana Tobar Ortega in sanctuary for the past two years to avoid deportation.

The Rev. David Fraccaro, executive director of Greensboro’s FaithAction International House, said he appreciated Abt’s call to welcome the stranger. She is a former board member of the immigrant advocacy organization and has referred people and served as chaplain there.

“She recognizes that the Holy Spirit is moving in new and deep relationships between existing citizens and newcomers — that there is spiritual gold to be found there,” Fraccaro said.

In Abt’s community, undocumented people face economic insecurity, having to change jobs frequently because employers treat them poorly or won’t keep them long, in view of their lack of papers. Other challenges arise when someone is deported. Abt remembers a mother who was arrested and deported, leaving two children without a parent. Immigration officials neglected to relocate them, but Abt and the community mobilized quickly to find them a new home.

For Garay, support from Abt and Greensboro’s Episcopalians has been critical.

Of meeting Abt in 2013, he said: “God put her there.”

‘Playful and neighborly’

At the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, about 20 people gather any given Sunday in a church that once was a house. The wood-floor kitchen holds snacks and tea as the parishioners trickle into the sanctuary, a converted garage that has been expanded and carpeted. Founded 36 years ago, the church has stayed small.

“I’m assuming that when a priest starts a church, there’s probably a number that they’re reaching for. But for whatever reason, we’ve never gotten to that number,” said longtime parishioner Gail Stroud.

Worship service
Parishioners at Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit gather for a Sunday service.

Unlike some vicars before her, Abt has not focused on size, but instead on engaging the community around the church.

“I see my role as a clergyperson … as not just cultivating the internal community of this congregation but to be really present in the neighborhood and in businesses and to encourage the members of the congregation to just be present and know people,” Abt said. “To experiment with different ways of being playful and neighborly to see where those relationships might lead us.”

One of those experiments is the health center, which meets every Tuesday evening at the church.

Abt first started working with Holy Spirit as the area missioner before she became vicar in 2017. The congregation was wrestling with whether to keep doing the same programs or to try something new, even risky. To help them discern what to do, Abt went out with the parishioners and knocked on doors, asking people to share prayers, dreams and concerns.

How could you ask people in your community what they need?

They heard a lot of health concerns: people needed surgeries they couldn’t afford; people had relatives who were depressed and isolated and they didn’t know how to talk to them about it; others had pain that had not been diagnosed; still others were struggling with alcohol. Many of the people they met did not have insurance, and some did not have immigration documents, another barrier to receiving quality medical care.

Partnering with Cone Health’s congregational nurse program, the church began offering an on-site community nurse to help diagnose illnesses, connect people to financial assistance and have conversations about mental health, work and stress. The health access ministry opened in spring 2019.

Then they began wondering what people might do while waiting for health care — so they decided to start a free dinner.

Some church members were initially unsure whether they could really pull off a free health center and free meal as a 20-member church, Abt said.

“They asked, ‘Can we really do this on our own?’ And the answer is no, we can’t do it on our own. … I was confident God was already sending us the friends we needed.”

In addition to a Tuesday health access ministry, Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit offers a food and diaper pantry. Abt and a parishioner check out the items in the closet.

Other churches in the area bring food, caterers give leftovers, and a community program called Share the Harvest provides fresh vegetables.

Abt cobbled together free resources and hoped people would come and enjoy them. They did.

Forty-five people have been showing up weekly for the health center and dinner — double the Sunday service, and the maximum capacity of the sanctuary.

When asked about the explosion of numbers over the course of a few months, Abt said: “That is both the Holy Spirit at work and the result of several years of relationship building.”

“On Tuesday, this place is full — full with people you didn’t even know were our neighbors,” said Margaret Akingbade, a parishioner who helped plant the church 36 years ago. She is an immigrant herself, from Nigeria.

Photo of Margaret Akingbade
Margaret Akingbade walks through the community garden at Holy Spirit, where she has been a member for more than three decades. 

The health center draws many African immigrants and African Americans from the surrounding neighborhoods. Abt and church members are conscious about offering a space for community, not just a space to provide services, and the result is that those who come experience a sense of dignity that they rarely do in other spaces, where they’re treated as cases or clients.

What decisions could you make to humanize those in need?

For example, the church decided to use ceramic plates and metal silverware and have those who come serve themselves. They saw impact that they did not expect.

After a few weeks, as people started to feel comfortable, they began inviting their friends. Neighbors began bringing their own food to share and started a diaper pantry.

Many people arrive on buses, taking sometimes an hour to get to the church, but everyone makes sure that each person has a ride home.

“I feel like I’m being invited into a community, and I feel like I’m meeting Christ,” Abt said.

And seeing this vibrant community form as an offshoot of Holy Spirit has reinvigorated the Sunday congregation as well.

“It’s the most neighbors that I’ve seen in this church in almost 36 years,” Akingbade said.

The church has long lingered with a small membership. The pressure to grow has often caused anxiety, but this gathering of neighbors on Tuesdays has caused a glimmer of hope, not of increased membership or a more secure financial future, but that “church can be fun and enjoyable, and not scary and always praying that God won’t close us down,” Abt said.

Membership numbers have not grown, but the congregation’s sense of purpose has been renewed. They are learning to be better neighbors.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • The Rev. Audra Abt stresses listening as one key to her ministry. How could you adopt a posture of listening in your church? In your neighborhood?
  • Abt sought to learn more Spanish as she cared for Spanish speakers in her community. Are there language or other skills you could pursue that would help connect you to your neighbors?
  • The friendship between Abt and José David Garay was vital to their work of connecting communities. Are there friendships that might bear this kind of fruit in your work?
  • Abt and congregants asked their neighbors what they needed and heard many health concerns, leading them to start a free health access ministry. How could you ask members of your community what they need?
  • Abt and congregants made conscious decisions to offer ceramic dinnerware and buffet-style service at the church’s free meals to help neighbors feel more comfortable. What decisions could you make to humanize those in need?

The drive to Indian Valley in rural Floyd County, Virginia, a beautiful mountainous region off the Blue Ridge Parkway, is a time of preparation for some travelers making the trip on a recent late Tuesday afternoon.

In mid-April, the rolling hills are bright green. Miles of split-rail fences pass in a whoosh. Grazing cows dot the hillsides. Blooming dogwoods and flame azaleas streak the roadways.

At the top of Macks Mountain Road, a large sign appears: Wild Goose Christian Community. A brick church painted white rises in the distance. At the top of the front stairs, two white rockers sit on either side of a plain colonial-style door.

Peggy Slate arrives for the Tuesday night service at Wild Goose Christian Community, former home of Indian River Valley Presbyterian Church. 

Here, a group of mostly middle-aged people — 16 this week — gather on Tuesday evenings for a potluck followed by a conversation about the Christian faith, conducted in the round on mismatched rocking chairs.

When does church start for you? When does it end?

“I know for me, personally, when I get in the car, church starts,” said Greg Wolford, who drives an hour and 15 minutes from Roanoke, Virginia, to attend. “I start to get myself in a mindset of Wild Goose, and I stay that way until I get home.”

That Wild Goose mindset is welcoming, open and supportive of mountain culture. It’s especially appealing to Wolford, a 53-year-old computer professional who was born in the mountains but quit church more than 30 years ago.

What is your church’s mindset?

Like some others, Wolford first heard about Wild Goose from a story broadcast on a local public radio station, and he quickly became a die-hard fan.

Since it opened five years ago, the congregation (which has no formal membership) has emerged as an example of an alternative faith community focused on drawing people who don’t find traditional churches — whether old-style liturgical or big-box megachurch — appealing.

Worship begins with communion, as Wild Goose participants pass bread and wine around the circle. 

Communion from a Mason jar

Wild Goose is part of the Protestant mainline — Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — but it doesn’t act like it. Here the service begins with communion from a Mason jar followed by Appalachian singing led by two musicians on banjo and guitar.

There are no pews in this church. Right now, there’s no pastor, either. The founding pastor moved to Baltimore last fall to be closer to family, but the congregation is hoping to find a new one to fill the vacancy.

At a time when many churches are closing and dying, Wild Goose has drawn attention far beyond the Appalachian Mountains for its inspired approach to ministry. It is one of a dozen congregations profiled in “Divergent Church: The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities,” by Tim Shapiro and Kara Faris of the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis.

“We were looking to find congregations that were innovative or creative or might be attractive to people who would otherwise not want to go to a traditional church or a contemporary church,” said Faris, the center’s resource grants director.

For Wolford, the congregation is a perfect fit: “There were a lot of elements to traditional church that really turned me off,” he said.

At Wild Goose, he’s been able to nurture his spiritual yearnings and remain true to who he is. He’s on a spiritual journey, and he looks to this fellowship of mountain people to guide him through.

The Wild Goose community sings a hymn, accompanied by Malcolm Smith on banjo and Mac Traynham on guitar. 

The wild goose takes flight

It began with Appalachian music.

The Rev. Edwin Lacy grew up in the Appalachian Mountains hearing his father, a banjo player, make old-time mountain and bluegrass music. After graduating from college, he too took up the banjo and played professionally for about 15 years before going to seminary and becoming an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In 2012, Lacy was leading a PCUSA church in Bristol, Virginia, about a two-hour drive to the west, when he heard that the Indian Valley Presbyterian Church in Floyd County had closed. Like many congregations in the Abingdon Presbytery, which stretches across 13 counties in southwestern Virginia, Indian Valley Presbyterian had dwindled in size over the years.

Lacy knew about the church, having lived in the county — a renowned center of Appalachian music — 20 years earlier. (The town of Floyd, 19 miles away, swells from 400 people to 4,000 on Friday evenings, when music lovers converge to listen, play and dance to Appalachian music.)

And Lacy had an idea. Instead of closing the church and selling the building, how about trying something different in that remote mountain spot?

Lacy wanted to take advantage of the area’s musical heritage to draw in a newer generation of mountain people: artisans, crafters, musicians and Florida snowbirds who had been buying up homes in the region.

Soon, he approached the presbytery with a plan to form an alternative congregation. It happened to coincide with a denominational initiative called “1001 New Worshiping Communities,” a PCUSA project to start as many congregations in 10 years to meet the needs of a changing culture.

The presbytery agreed, and by 2013, Lacy and a retired contractor began ripping out the carpet and the pews in the old Indian Valley church and installing decorative wooden beams on the ceiling and a gas fireplace.

“We wanted to make sure it didn’t feel like a traditional church when you walked in,” Lacy said. “We knew we were reaching out to people who had decided for various reasons not to be part of a traditional church.”

Lacy didn’t want to hold services on Sunday mornings or Wednesday evenings, so as not to compete with other churches. He also wanted to avoid Friday evenings, when people might be heading out of town. That left Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He chose Tuesdays.

Music would be central to this alternative community. So he reached out to Mac Traynham, one of the best Appalachian musicians in the area and a master builder of old-time banjos. Traynham, it turned out, used to attend Indian Valley Presbyterian years ago when his children were young.

Lacy also came up with a novel name for the community: Wild Goose. He figured since the majority of people who settled Southern Appalachia were Scots-Irish, they might appreciate the Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit. And there was another reason the name worked: creating such a community can seem, at times, like a proverbial wild goose chase.

So far, however, the goose chase has been a success. Though part of the PCUSA, Wild Goose is not officially a “church” but rather a mission, or “worshipping community.”

At the top of Macks Mountain Road, the Wild Goose Christian Community sign is a welcome sight for those journeying to the Tuesday night service. 

Whatever its official status, Wild Goose Christian Community has been exciting to watch, said the Rev. Tony Palubicki, the pastor of Big Stone Gap Presbyterian Church in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

“In an area where things can get pretty static, it’s interesting to see the Holy Spirit working in new, wonderful ways,” said Palubicki, who serves on the Abingdon Presbytery’s church development committee.

History of Christian renewal

Renewing Christian community in rural Appalachia has a long history.

Back in the 1930s and ’40s, Floyd County and the surrounding region, like much of Southern Appalachia, was isolated and poor, with high rates of alcoholism and violence. The Rev. Bob Childress, a Presbyterian minister who grew up in the county’s Buffalo Mountain community, took it upon himself to reform the region’s culture and educate its young. Traveling tens of thousands of miles a year as a circuit preacher, ministering to families and leading as many as 14 services a week, he helped establish a dozen schools and churches, including the Indian Valley church.

Today, many of those same churches are facing different headwinds: a nationwide decline in church attendance and the flight of many residents to more urban areas with better jobs and greater opportunities.

“I don’t go to church on Sundays,” said Susan Slate, 32, one of Wild Goose’s youngest and most active participants. “I find a lot of them to be pretty inauthentic. It’s hard to sit through a sermon. I’d rather be talked with than talked to.”

Does your church talk “with” or “to”? How does that shape worship?

Today, only half the churches in the Abingdon Presbytery are served full time by ordained ministers. In some cases, one minister will serve several churches. In others, a lay pastor will be appointed to direct the local congregation.

Under Lacy’s leadership, Wild Goose grew to a healthy size, especially in the summer months, when it would draw up to 50 people. Last fall, though, Lacy moved to Baltimore to be closer to his children and grandchildren. Tuesday evenings now draw around 15 to 20 people in the winter months, 30 to 40 in the summer. Most if not all of the regulars drive an average of 30 minutes to attend.

Worshippers gather in a circle, hold hands and pray as the service comes to a close.

But Wild Goose has a dedicated following. And those people are not about to give up.

What is the appeal of Wild Goose Christian Community? What does it provide that your church doesn’t?

“It’s my intention to do whatever I can to support that group and make it successful,” Wolford said. “If I have to climb up on the roof to clean the gutters or show up with a group to tear up the flooring, I’m gonna do what needs to be done.”

The community is now looking for a new leader and is working with the presbytery to find a pastor who could serve Wild Goose and two other, more traditional PCUSA churches in the area.

That leader will have to have an appreciation for Appalachian music. The community has monthly concerts and square dances in the church and would like to see those continue.

“It’s about enjoying the music and Appalachian traditions that bring people together, like songs and tunes for dancing,” said Traynham, the music leader. “Some churches look down on that stuff. [Lacy] wanted to try to encourage people to have a great time and get to know each other, become friends and support each other — foster community spirit, I guess you could say.”

Though some participants attend other churches on Sundays, others consider Wild Goose their one and only church. The emphasis on local culture is especially appealing to many of those who don’t attend church anywhere else.

Appalachia has a distinct local culture. How well does your church reflect its cultural context?

“At Wild Goose, [people] understood the music, they understood the food, they understood the interior space — quilts and rocking chairs,” said Faris, the author of the book on alternative church. “It felt like home to folks who didn’t feel at home in other churches.”

Unplugging from the world

On a recent Tuesday night, folks began streaming into the church basement after 6 p.m., bearing Crock-Pots and covered dishes: mac and cheese, pulled pork, mushroom lasagna, potato soup.

Before the Tuesday service, Wild Goose participants make their way through a potluck of comfort food. 

One person volunteered a short blessing and then lines formed around a long table. After heaping comfort food onto paper plates, participants sat down at round tables to eat and talk.

One woman relayed stories about her recent bicycle trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Another talked about a new church with the name Wild Goose that had just formed in Bonsack, a town north of Roanoke.

The Indian Valley area is so isolated that cellphone signals are especially weak, and at the Tuesday gatherings, nobody pulls out a phone. For Slate, who drives an hour from Blacksburg where she works as a residency coordinator at a hospital, that’s a relief.

“It’s nice to unplug and not get texts or phone calls or anything,” she said.

By 7:45, participants headed upstairs to take their seats in rocking chairs. Guydell Slate, Susan’s father, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, served communion, pouring wine into a Mason jar and passing around a long Italian roll for people to break off pieces and dip into the wine, while Traynham played a solo on the fiddle.

After singing “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “A Beautiful Life,” the group, led by Charlie Martin, discussed four verses from Luke 9 in which Jesus sends out his disciples to proclaim his message: “He told them: ‘Take nothing for the journey — no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town’” (Luke 9:3-4 NIV).

The discussion touched on changing expectations of hospitality, attitudes toward missionaries who knock on people’s doors and learning to accept rejection.

After 30 minutes, the discussion wound down and the banjo and guitar players picked up their instruments for another round of songs. Finally, people stood up, held hands in a circle and bid each other peace and goodbye.

Outside, the sun had long ago set. As engines revved and tires crunched across the gravel drive, the worshippers began their descent down the mountain with the stars to guide them home.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • When does church start for you? When does it end?
  • What is your church’s mindset?
  • What is the appeal of Wild Goose Christian Community? What does it provide that your church doesn’t?
  • What does it mean to be talked with rather than to? How does that shape worship at your church?
  • Appalachia is an area that still has a distinct local culture. What is the cultural context for your church? How does that shape its ministry?