The gospel lived out in the company of friends
Recently, after many years away and numerous COVID-related delays, I made my way back to the place of my childhood. I grew up along the winding Guadalupe River in the Hill Country of Texas, in the city of Kerrville, to be exact — a small town where I inhabited 11 different houses as a child.
Not only is this the place I grew up, it is also the place where I planted a church called the Soul Cafe in the late 1990s. I had anticipated going back for quite some time, and to my surprise, I found that not much had changed.
I was comforted to find a vibrant main street where I could still eat breakfast tacos on tortillas made fresh that morning. It was nice to sip coffee at Pax, have lunch at Francisco’s and enjoy the region’s wine at Grape Juice, all locally owned and operated.
I drove over low water crossings, remembering the thousands of trips down these roads in my 1985 turquoise-blue Camaro. I swam in the river and basked in the early-autumn sun below an enormous swarm of vultures circling overhead.
It can be easy to look back at the past, full of nostalgia, with rose-tinted glasses, but my childhood was more thorny than rosy, and that spilled into my experience of church as well. When I was a young teen, I endured a season in which my mother dropped my brother and me off at a different church each Sunday, hoping we would find one we liked. It was painful.
Despite an expressed emphasis on being welcoming, the churches I experienced felt anything but that. Awkwardly, I would enter, looking for a familiar face but sensing only impermeable boundaries roped off with pleasant smiles and perfect-looking family units.
My family was far from perfect. Dad had left when I was 5. Mom cycled through a series of relationships that kept us moving. My brother started using drugs at 13. Entering church on Sunday mornings, I stood out like a ragamuffin. I could find nowhere to hide, and it was impossible to blend in.
I ended up choosing the church where Regina went. A friend from school, Regina saw me at once and ushered me in to sit with her and her family. She truly and personally invited me in. Regina is someone who knows the art of friendship — someone I am still friends with today, over 30 years later.
In fact, she and her husband were part of Soul Cafe, the church I planted to reach young adults. Soul Cafe closed its doors several years ago, but there is still a group of people who are deeply connected by the experience of shared community it offered. These are the people I was keen to see on my visit.
On a Sunday night in late September, we gathered for a “come one, come all” potluck. In a familiar backyard under the stars, we jumped right back in with one another. We shared stories from the past, conversations about people who had moved away, photos and tall tales from weddings and other special events. We visited with young adults who had been babies back when Soul Cafe started, and we shed tears over the people who are no longer with us.
As I sat listening to stories and taking in the laughter, I just kept thinking: This is a holy space. This is what endures.
Several people have asked over the years what made Soul Cafe so special. My answer is always the same: community. It wasn’t that the worship was awesome (it was!) or that we were pioneering the coffee shop church movement (we were!). It was the way we did life together.
We were friends, loving one another in good times and bad — and there were plenty of both — supporting each other, holding one another accountable, wrestling across differences, including political ones. Yes, both Democrats and Republicans live in Texas!
Soul Cafe ended after 11 years. At the 10-year mark, the elders decided to pause for one year to discern whether or not to keep going. You see, it had started as a church for unchurched young adults but had grown to be a family church. Because family churches abound in Kerrville, the leadership thought perhaps new things needed space to emerge.
Soul Cafe ended with no conflict. The leadership distributed its ample resources into ministries that had sprouted out of the church. Soul Cafe as a noun, a place, ended — but the community, the doing, the depth of friendship certainly didn’t end. We’d been woven together, stitched into a sacrament with invisible threads. This rich community fed my soul back in the ’90s and sparked my imagination on my recent trip back home.
It left me wondering: Do we make church more complicated than it needs to be? Do we underestimate the power of friendship?
After all, the gospel was lived out in the company of friends. Jesus walked with his friends; he ate with his friends; he performed miracles at events with his friends. It was his friends who lamented when he died and who shouted from the rooftops when they realized the grave couldn’t contain him.
Scripture tells us people will know us by our love for one another (John 13:35). It is not the isolating holy huddle but the connecting act of radical friendship that counters the cultural norm of every-person-for-self.
What if friendship re-imagined is the crucial element the church needs to embrace? Not just friendship among people who are alike but friendship defined more broadly. Deep, engaging one-on-one time that breeds responsibility and care, not only for each other, but for a widening circle of concern.
We are living in a time when people of all ages — especially the young — are experiencing excruciating isolation. One study shows that 1 in 3 young people feel alone most of the time and that 40% say they don’t have anyone to talk to. What if more gospel-infused friendships called us to create pop-up dinner parties and backyard barbecues that lived out abundance for everyone — the recently unemployed neighbor, the young person struggling with addiction, the lonely older person who lives down the street?
As a social innovator who often trailblazes new forms of community out of necessity, I’ve repeatedly felt ready to throw in the towel. Time and again, though, my community has showed up to sustain me. People have buoyed me along the way. Like Aaron and Hur, who held up Moses’ hands when he grew tired, people have appeared at my side to lift me up.
They have called me to return to radical action; they have stirred up new reservoirs of empathy, encouraging me to keep taking risks and keep imagining new tributaries where the Spirit is flowing.
At our backyard gathering in Texas, we took a moment to share a ritual. We drank from a common glass of red wine, passing it from one to another, communion-style, each blessing the next with one word of heartfelt affirmation. Words such as “passion,” “steadfastness,” “integrity,” “joy” and “loyalty” emerged to describe the ways people are showing up for life. These affirmations echo in my memory and call me to imagine.
Encouraged in the possibility of a church reawakened by focusing on a broad, expansive charge to befriend more boldly, I embrace this blessing by poet, mystic and soul-friend advocate John O’Donohue:
May you be blessed with good friends.
May you learn to be a good friend to yourself. …
May you be good to [your friends] and may you be there for them. …
May you never be isolated.
In his 1954 poem “Church Going,” English poet Philip Larkin stops by a church and finds himself wondering:
When churches fall completely out of use
What shall we turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Larkin died in 1985, but his poem lives on. And the question it poses is ever more urgent for congregations across America.
Each year, thousands of churches in the United States close their doors and others begin to move toward that decision. While post-pandemic statistics on church closings are not yet available, 2019 estimates placed church closings between 1% and 2% annually, or between 75 and 150 congregations every week.
Even thriving congregations may struggle to maintain buildings that no longer align well with mission and ministry. Often silently, sometimes aloud, pastors and lay leaders and religious support organizations are asking Larkin’s question: What should become of these buildings — what shall we turn them into?
Yet congregations need not feel alone in this struggle, as hard as the struggle may sometimes be. In fact, the problem of church buildings is generating significant conversation and creativity across the American landscape.
The question of what happens to church buildings means different things, of course, depending on context:
A 700-member church in the heart of a depressed Midwestern city faces the triple challenge of declining membership, a campus reflecting decades of deferred maintenance, and spaces that, while plentiful, do not match the congregation’s needs.
A church in a growing Southern city faces a different dilemma. Its longtime neighborhood has become the “it” spot and is now thriving with restaurants, shops and new residents. But the church building is falling apart to the point of being unsafe. Most members no longer live in the neighborhood and have no resources to bring the building back to a useable condition. A quick sale to eager developers would bring in millions for the denomination but give up a key strategic location where ministry is needed.
A congregation out West with a big campus has a thriving ministry and a constant need for more space. At the same time, members are fervently focused on and engaged in mission and outreach in the surrounding city. This has led to dynamic discussions about how to balance “infrastructure needs” with a strong desire to serve the city and deploy as many resources as possible toward that vision.
A small church in rural Maine watches its congregation shrink each year. There is no booming real estate market out its front door. But several community groups use the fellowship hall for meetings, and most members have someone buried in the churchyard.
A 200-member congregation in a Northern city is challenged by a building that, as one member describes, “works for us if you squint really hard.” The building has more space — and maintenance demands — than the congregation needs. And while financially stable now, the church is faced with a giving base that is aging.
A large church moved farther out into the suburbs from its large city several years ago and built a large, cheaply constructed building. Over the next decade, it will cost at least $5 million just to maintain the parking lot, replace the windows and deal with a leaky roof.
For this multitude of challenging contexts, a multitude of groups and organizations stand ready with suggestions and support.
Who can help?
A growing number of independent organizations offer tailored resources and consulting.
For more than 30 years, Partners for Sacred Places, the longest-standing national nonsectarian organization working in this arena, has been helping congregations better understand the architectural, historic and community value of their buildings in order to preserve and use the property for good.
Newer organizations like RootedGood are crafting cohort experiences and human-centered design tools to guide congregations toward new plans for their properties.
Oikos Institute for Social Impact is helping faith communities of color harness the power of their assets and especially their real estate, often their most valuable tangible asset, for community benefit and economic growth.
The Proximity Project is encouraging congregations to understand the built environment of their properties and neighborhoods as essential to mission, drawing on the insights of urban design, development and placemaking.
Some organizations are geographically focused. Bricks and Mortals (which wins the award for best name in a highly competitive field!) focuses on New York City congregations, connecting faith communities with development experts to find sustainable solutions to property woes.
Good Acres, a project of Mission City Renewal, builds collaboration among real estate professionals, investors, community organizers, and church and denominational leaders in San Antonio to help churches realize the full potential of their underutilized property for community good.
Wesley Community Development partners with faith-based organizations and churches in North Carolina.
Other organizations approach congregations through a specific social concern that repurposed church assets might help address: affordable housing, food security in Black communities, co-working spaces for change makers, ecological land stewardship or venues for artists, to name just a few.
Meanwhile, denominations continue to provide programs like Project Regeneration (Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.]), the Episcopal Parish Network (formerly CEEP) and the UCC Church Building & Loan Fund. They also share resources with one another cross-denominationally, and increasingly engage the growing landscape of independent consultants.
Where can you start?
Larkin’s question, once prescient, now presses. What shall we turn them into? And yet, as all these organizations and consultants will tell you, the first step is not to rush toward a solution — even a solution they might advocate and ultimately help support.
The first step is a set of actions that every church can and should take right now:
- Start a conversation in your congregation about how your building is a tool for ministry and mission.
- Build a wider web of relationships in your community, as those will be essential to any future action.
- Expand your ecclesial imagination about possibilities for the future use of your building.
One of the easiest ways to expand ecclesial imagination is to reflect on what other congregations are doing.
Faith & Leadership offers many articles about church buildings that can start the reflection. Drawing together these and other stories, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving has created the Faithful Generosity Story Shelf, stocked with short vignettes of congregations and other religious organizations who have repurposed their buildings, lands and funds in creative ways. A brief discussion guide offers ways to start the conversation.
You’re not alone in your concern about the future of church buildings, whatever your context. There is a shared sense of the challenge and a growing network of groups with poetic names, ready to respond. Together they offer resources that can lead to a much greater good than Larkin’s worried vision of churches “let … rent-free to rain and sheep.”
On Mother’s Day 2020, I was working as a contact tracer for the Florida Department of Health. Our team labored 10 hours a day, seven days a week, reaching out to people who had been exposed to COVID-19. We explained quarantine procedures and educated people about how to protect others.
That Sunday, it was my job to interrupt Mother’s Day brunches across Fort Myers and tell folks that they had been exposed to the virus — in the days before vaccines and effective treatment. People were panicking.
It was a Groundhog Day experience as we contacted hundreds of people with bad news. It was difficult. It was depressing, especially when we’d learn about folks who had died.
I also saw the effects of superspreader events — some of them from churches that had refused to close. Florida at that time was one of the nation’s COVID hot spots and the epicenter of furious debates about masking, quarantine and religious freedom.
I already was interested in public health and theology — 2020 was the summer between finishing my master’s in public health and starting divinity school. For a young public health professional and theologian, this experience highlighted the urgency for collaboration. After all, religious communities and public health agencies seek the same outcome: healthier and more vibrant communities.
In divinity school, I tried to understand why there is such a divide between religious communities and public health practitioners. Now, as I embark on a Ph.D. in population health sciences, I continue to envision ways we can integrate theology and health education in our pews.
This ideal collaboration is far from simple. Experts in public health often lack the theological understanding and context to be culturally aware of the structures and behaviors in religious communities. And religious leaders are often overstretched in their regular clerical responsibilities; to expect them also to be skilled in health education and communication is unfair.
I have spent a large part of recent years focused on this never-ending chicken-or-egg scenario of how to build a bridge between health organizations and religious communities.
Though I think that accountability on both ends of this “bridge” is important, I want to suggest a few first steps for religious leaders.
Know your congregation.
This might sound obvious. However, knowing a bit of the backstories of the people sitting in your pews on Sundays does not mean that you understand their needs and concerns.
Consider the levels of insurance in your church. Are most people on a certain type of health insurance? Are people uninsured or in professions where their insurance level fluctuates? What about the availability of dental and vision services? Can they afford these services?
The intricacies of health insurance coverage could provide a brief peek into the health of those in your community and the gaps that may be chronically unaddressed for a significant portion of your congregation.
Though these question may not be part of the normal “getting-to-know-you” info card, being upfront about your church’s intention to work for health equity and to address potential health needs of your congregants may ease the discussion of these sensitive though vital details.
Of course, even with the most honest intentions and perfectly curated questions, there are other dynamics at play as well.
Recognize the opportunities and limitations of your role as clergy.
It is no secret that clergy are often overworked, with their expected scope of care greatly exceeding their reach. In addition, few pastors have medical or public health expertise.
However, one of the great superpowers of religious leaders is their tendency to be seen as leaders and trustworthy members of the community. Recognizing opportunities to provide guidance to members of your community on health decisions while also recognizing your own limitations may be the perfect combination of your clergy superpower.
One example of this is the way that Black and Hispanic churches served a crucial role during the worst days of the pandemic by sharing health information and offering testing and vaccination sites.
Reach out to your local health experts.
This could be the health department, a health education specialist, medical providers, or other health care workers who have experience and training to offer guidance to your congregation.
Collaborating with these folks might create opportunities for your congregation to understand more about their health concerns from reputable medical sources while you also help them contextualize their health concerns within your faith tradition. Feel free to reach out to people like myself who are deeply rooted in the intersection of health and religion.
Include these topics of concern in your sermons.
If the pandemic has taught us anything about how religion and public health interact, it’s the ways that people are influenced by information from people they trust. As a religious leader, you will likely be asked for your opinions on various health behaviors and decisions.
While honoring your educational gap on the subject matter and knowing your scope, you can still find helpful, engaging ways to include health issues in preaching. One possible place to start is by inviting your congregation to explore and be curious with you as you seek out information to make the best decisions for your own health.
The task of congregational care is a daunting one, especially when pastors venture beyond the spiritual needs of those they’re in community with. However, the ability to improve health behaviors as well as faith practices is a beautiful dynamic.
It is my hope that no one else ever receives a call on Mother’s Day to tell them that they and their families are in danger from a deadly virus. Through the intentional considerations of congregational needs and local resources, clergy can and should collaborate with health partners to help make sure the Groundhog Day summer of 2020 never happens again.
It dawned on the Rev. Sarah Taylor Peck in fall 2019 that she’d shared a pastoral moment with every household in her Disciples of Christ congregation. As the senior minister at North Canton Community Christian Church for nearly six years, she had officiated at their weddings, taught their children and helped bury their loved ones.
Nearly 200 worshippers showed up weekly for the Sunday morning service, and she had forged deep, meaningful relationships with each one of them. Taylor Peck felt genuinely honored to be part of the community they’d built together.
Then the pandemic struck, closing the Ohio church’s doors and forcing their fellowship into the ether. The congregation reopened for good during Lent 2021, but not everyone has returned for in-person worship. Coming to church each Sunday takes discipline, Taylor Peck said, and like a muscle that goes unused, it atrophies over time.
“I’m still in a season of lament about the way the pandemic contracted congregations and congregational ministry,” she said shortly before Christmas. “It really broke the tether we had to our members.”
All is not lost for North Canton Community CC. While Sunday in-person attendance is down about 30% since before the pandemic, nearly two dozen new people joined the church in September, the largest single class of new members since Taylor Peck arrived in January 2014, the pastor said. She is profoundly grateful for their enthusiasm and this opportunity to rebuild the church’s community “bit by bit, moment by moment, sacrament by sacrament.”
But she also misses the families who have yet to return and isn’t entirely sure what, if anything, she can do to convince them to come back. One day, Taylor Peck dropped by the home of a longtime church member who hadn’t returned to in-person worship. Bearing flowers from the altar, she told the 82-year-old that she missed him, that his church needed him and that she hoped he’d come back. His response: he simply wasn’t getting dressed in the mornings anymore.
There are plenty of others just like him, Taylor Peck said. They didn’t leave in a huff; they simply altered their routines during the pandemic, and in-person church attendance isn’t the priority it once was.
“They didn’t get mad at our policies and stomp away. They’re just not coming,” Taylor Peck said. “I almost prefer a fight. There’s emotion and commitment in a fight. But this is just apathy. It’s less vigor for church.
“We can’t tempt them or bait them or inspire them to come. We have to wait patiently. So we begin again.”
How have the expectations that pastors and congregations have for each other changed over the last three years?
Nearly three years after COVID-19 upended life as we know it, faith leaders like Taylor Peck are pondering how best to mourn and honor what was lost while reengaging communities that have irrevocably changed. How do you recalibrate for absences associated with deaths that couldn’t be properly grieved? How do you account for those who vanished for political reasons? And how do you build meaningful connections with virtual worshippers who might never enter the building?
“The ministry of church isn’t just about Scripture and gospel. It’s reminding people how to do life together, how to show up together,” said Taylor Peck. “I would hate for that to be lost.”
North Canton practices communion weekly. What influence do your congregation’s worship practices have on expectations for in-person attendance?
Not just COVID concerns
At Holy Trinity United Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., the pews aren’t as crowded as they once were, said the Rev. George C. Gilbert Jr., who serves as the assistant to the pastor, his father. He attributes some of those absences to lingering fear over the coronavirus, a very real concern for older parishioners, including his 75-year-old father, the church’s founder, who spent two months battling the virus.
While statistics indicate that the chances of catching the virus and dying from it have decreased considerably since the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, “fear versus faith is still a very tense conversation” within the church, and most of the congregation’s older members remain masked and socially distanced when they attend worship, Gilbert said. Those are the stalwarts who find a way to come together despite their concerns.
It’s the younger folks who remain missing on Sundays, Gilbert said, and he’s not convinced that COVID concerns are driving that absence. He sees crowds of young people, masked and unmasked, at grocery stores, the mall and birthday parties. Between the pandemic and ongoing political strife, he said, he worries that people are leaning more toward culture and less toward the Holy Spirit.
“None of those places is lacking attendance. They all seem to be at capacity,” he said. “But when it comes to church, we have to ask ourselves, is it about commitment or is it about the virus? The world is in competition with God.”
Indeed, a recent study by the American Enterprise Institute and NORC at the University of Chicago found a drop-off in church attendance among younger churchgoers, as well as those already less connected with a faith community and those who identify as liberal.
Holy Trinity has persuaded some young people to return by giving them tasks that appeal to their skill sets, Gilbert said. Younger members helped the church choose an online giving platform, something the congregation hadn’t offered pre-pandemic. They’re running the church’s social media channels and handling the tech needed for livestreaming services. And a group of them created a praise team that sings every Sunday, partly because they’re not as anxious as some of the seniors about catching a respiratory illness, Gilbert said.
The church has also expanded its outreach, recently approaching a local homeless shelter about starting a church for its residents.
“We know folks are afraid to come out. They’re just not ready to come back to church,” he said. “So we’re trying to go to them and make Jesus as accessible to folks as possible.”
Gilbert said the empty pews weigh on him and he wonders what God is asking of him, whether there’s something else he should be doing to engage his community.
“If folks don’t come back, it’s hard for us not to see ourselves as a failure. That’s the stress of being relevant,” Gilbert said. “But God doesn’t call us to be relevant. He just asks us to be faithful.”
What worries you about the shift in patterns of attendance? How can you distinguish your own grief from your analysis of the situation?
The Rev. Dr. Rolando Aguirre started as an associate pastor at Dallas’ Park Cities Baptist Church the first weekend in March 2020. His work, focused on teaching and Spanish language ministries, began just as the world was beginning to shut down. The ensuing months were marked by resetting, relaunching and, ultimately, reopening.
Aguirre said the majority of the people he expected to serve have not yet returned to church, and he suspects many have relocated. But new people are coming, and Park Cities is responding to possibilities that the pandemic surfaced. Lay leaders have engaged more actively in reaching out to members.
“The fellowship of deacons were more active in saying, ‘Let’s help call the people. Let’s encourage them to come back. Let’s visit them.’ So last year was a lot of the leadership base [responding] to engage with the congregants,” Aguirre said.
They are also addressing needs that emerged – offering monthly Spanish-language services at additional sites, and responding to a desire for more youth programming and a need for mental health support.
A congregational survey along with group and individuals interviews helped “to really recapture, recalibrate our vision,” he said.
Sampling online services
At Pelion United Methodist Church in South Carolina, Sunday attendance is down a bit from before the pandemic. The Rev. Ed Stallworth attributes some of the loss in his congregation to Christianity being politicized.
“That’s become a bigger disease than the pandemic,” said Stallworth, who became the pastor at Pelion UMC and nearby Sharon Crossroads United Methodist Church in July 2021. Prior to that, he’d served at a progressive church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and his arrival in conservative Pelion, about 20 miles outside the state capital of Columbia, made more than a few worshippers nervous, he said.
One of the first questions he was asked was whether he’d “force” worshippers to wear masks. He responded that he couldn’t force anyone to do anything but that he and his family would mask up to keep everyone safe. And he’s openly encouraged members to get vaccinated.
Some ultimately left over political differences, Stallworth said. But he’s encouraged those who remain to embrace the church’s growing diversity and learn to worship alongside people who don’t necessarily share the same opinions.
“I said, ‘We may disagree, but just know that I’m going to love you through everything,’” Stallworth said. “And they took hold of that. I think that’s how we got through this pandemic and how we’re going to move forward together.”
Both churches developed a virtual worship option, said Stallworth. While serving his church in Spartanburg, Stallworth broadcast a 30-minute service on Facebook, using his cellphone and laptop, with accompaniment from the church’s organist. Some days, he misses the solitude of that effort, so he understands why some of Pelion’s members still prefer to worship from home.
Most of the worshippers now attending in person are new, having sampled the church’s services online before ever coming into the building, he said. And the majority of them were previously unchurched, he said. Many of the newer members are young people with children who were introduced to Pelion UMC through its outreach programs, like Trunk or Treat or its school backpack program.
“They just want to be part of a community that’s bigger than them. I think they just want a sense of, ‘We’re going to be OK,’” he said. “Contrary to what a lot of people are saying, I believe better days are ahead for the church. It might look different, … but particularly for progressive congregations, from these ashes something beautiful is going to emerge.”
How is the work of supporting the ministries of the church changing? What are the skills and experience needed to offer ministry today?
The Rev. Justin Coleman, the senior pastor at University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, also maintains a sense of optimism about the church’s future. Pre-pandemic, the church invested in a new sound system and video cameras, primarily to reach the homebound and the nearby academic community, many of whom left town during the summers but wanted to remain connected. That investment proved crucial during COVID-19 when the church moved entirely to virtual worship.
Members of the congregation who disagreed with that decision ultimately trickled away in favor of churches that either resisted shutting their doors or reopened sooner for in-person services, Coleman said. But the church has since welcomed a host of new members, many of them young families, who initially connected with the congregation online and now attend in person.
Plenty of University UMC’s members still prefer what Coleman calls “couch worship,” and he said they’ve “stopped being apologetic about it.” But he doesn’t view virtual participation as a negative.
Prior to the pandemic, some members would come to church once or twice a month but wouldn’t necessarily go online to watch a service. After the pandemic normalized remote worship, many of those folks became regular online worshippers who also tuned into Coleman’s podcasts.
“For them, they’ve increased the amount of time they’re connecting with worship or a worship-related activity,” Coleman said. “The question we’ve begun to ask now is, ‘Should we not just treat this like a proper digital campus?’ These people are worshipping at home. How do we interact with them to help them feel connected and share opportunities to serve?”
The church has considered designating a staff member as a “digital usher” during the livestreamed service and establishing a small group that meets online. Coleman acknowledged that clergy are “chock-full of nostalgia and sentimentality,” which can make it challenging to embrace the kind of radical change churches are facing post-pandemic. But churches need to stay nimble, he said, noting that the Pentecost moment is about cultural adaptability.
“That’s God saying this gospel is going to move into the culture in many ways, and what’s implicit is this is going to look different as it moves into all those places,” he said. “I would love to have multiple services filled with people who want to be there in person. On the other hand, people are connecting with us in new ways. How can we capitalize on this and reach more people in more places with the gospel because of this opportunity with technology?”
What is the ratio of in-person to virtual attendance in your congregation? What questions about the vitality of the virtual congregation are being raised for you?
New front doors and back pews
The Rev. Dr. D. Dixon Kinser, the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, calls the congregation’s livestreamed worship service — created in response to the pandemic — “the new front door of our church,” noting that most of its new members first participated online.
Before the pandemic, Kinser worried that online worship would be too “performative,” but he’s since come to appreciate the accessibility livestreaming offers. He said worshippers have enjoyed being able to attend services even when they’re out of town, and one member was recently able to participate in a service while hospitalized.
Though in-person attendance is down, giving has increased, he said, and some donors have maintained their membership despite moving to other states. The primary concern he has for remote worshippers is his ability to provide pastoral care for them, something he said suffered during the pandemic.
“You realize how much pastoral care happens at the church door or in passing,” Kinser said. “When you’re not seeing anybody, then not seeing anybody doesn’t tell you anything.”
St. Paul’s has online worshippers from as far away as Florida and Michigan; if they needed a hospital visit or a funeral service conducted, he’d be hard-pressed to serve them. He said denominational networks may become essential for that moving forward, such as when an Episcopal priest in New York asked him recently to deliver communion to a parishioner who had gotten sick while traveling and ended up in a Winston-Salem hospital.
How is your congregation providing care for those attending virtually?
The Rev. Dr. Katie Hays, the lead evangelist at Galileo Church in Fort Worth, Texas, said she has some of those same concerns. Does the church’s budget need a line item so a pastor can fly out of town to conduct a funeral for a member who worshipped online? Should the church prepare ready-made care packages to send to faraway members who are sick or grieving? And what about baptisms?
Hays said she doesn’t yet have answers to those questions but firmly believes that remote worship is the church’s new frontier. She also admits that she was the last holdout at Galileo when it came to offering online worship. She’d seen so many churches do it badly and felt that people already had more than enough screen time, ultimately agreeing to the concept in 2019 largely because she wanted the far-flung LGBTQ community to have ready access to an affirming congregation.
What Galileo quickly discovered was that the platform also appealed to neurodiverse worshippers who might not feel comfortable in crowds, as well as to those with mobility impairments. During the pandemic, the church hired a second pastor devoted to helping virtual worshippers develop a robust online community. Hays refers to the church’s Inside Out online worship experience as the “back pew” of Galileo, the place where those hesitant to come inside can get a taste of the church’s ethos before ever crossing its threshold.
Who can participate in your congregation at a deeper level because of virtual opportunities?
“I feel like I’m 500 years old, like I’m the priest who opposed the printing press. But this new technology came along, destabilizing power from the center,” Hays said.
And even those who are comfortable with in-person worship have appreciated having the option of participating online, she said. A mother with several children recently told Hays she used to have two choices on Sundays: get everyone fed, dressed and over to the church on time for the evening service, or don’t. She now has multiple options: they can come in person or watch together on the couch with a homemade altar for communion, or she can tune in on her own while preparing her family’s Sunday dinner.
As much as she resisted the change, Hays said, her church’s goal has always been to scoop up spiritual refugees who don’t necessarily do traditional church. The changes at Galileo, accelerated in part by the pandemic, have forced her to confront her technological limitations, along with her notions of what worship is supposed to look like. Now, after welcoming in-person worshippers, she looks directly at the camera and thanks her online congregation for inviting her into their homes, something she calls “a tremendous act of trust.”
“It works with your sense of who’s the host and who’s the guest,” she said. “I think so much about how we have to trust people to make their own decisions about how, when and where they’ll participate. It calls on us in the professional clergy to release control of that, and I pray each day to have the grace to trust people.”
She noted that they have a saying at Galileo: You are a grown-ass adult imbued with the spirit of the living Christ.
“Either we believe that or we don’t,” Hays said. “This is really calling our bluff.”
Questions to consider
- How have the expectations that pastors and congregations have for each other changed over the last three years?
- North Canton practices communion weekly. What influence do your congregation’s worship practices have on expectations for in-person attendance?
- What worries you about the shift in patterns of attendance? How can you distinguish your own grief from your analysis of the situation?
- How is the work of supporting the ministries of the church changing? What are the skills and experience needed to offer ministry today?
- What is the ratio of in-person to virtual attendance in your congregation? What questions about the vitality of the virtual congregation are being raised for you?
- How is your congregation providing care for those attending virtually?
- Who can participate in your congregation at a deeper level because of virtual opportunities?