Here are a few projected aftershocks following the pandemic. Movie theatres will survive, but 30% of them will go out of business. Gyms will reopen but will also drop in activity by 30%. Workplace leases will drop by 30%, as well. Entertainment, fitness, career - all the places we thought were necessary gathering places have been rendered optional. And what of the church?
There is a logic behind the trend. The pandemic was not merely an interruption, it was a disruption. The pandemic lasted so long and presented such significant blockades to our normal activities that we were forced to invent ways around them. When movie theatres closed, people signed on to better streaming services, bought sectional sofas, and purchased new televisions with better sound and picture quality. If I can’t go to the theatre, I’ll make one at home.
When gyms closed down, people began working out in spare rooms, in garages, and in the backyard using bodyweight and minimal equipment, OR they made large investments in digitally enhanced at-home fitness tech, like Peloton bikes and NordicTrack treadmills.
Office space just isn’t necessary anymore because people have renovated at-home workspaces, AND folks are 13% more productive when working from home. Lower costs and higher productivity are what every business model craves.
It will take more than simply hanging out a REOPENED FOR BUSINESS sign to draw us out of them. Good luck luring us off our sofas, off our stationary bikes, and out of our comfy home offices.
Thankfully, as the church reopens, many have been eager to return. But not everyone has. Our season of staying home has been so prolonged that for some it has turned into a season of staying away. What should pastors and church leaders do about parishioners who have found it easier to NOT wake up earlier on Sunday mornings, NOT get ready, and NOT travel across town for worship? Not all, but some have decided that the new sectional sofa and streaming television work just as well for Sunday morning worship as they do for Sunday afternoon football. And the bonus of stay-at-home church is, we can digitally attend any church in the world we choose. The local parish simply may not hold quite the same draw anymore.
What can be done to regather reluctant sheep? Should I call on them? Definitely. The sooner the better. Should I invite them back? Yes, you should. Enthusiastically. Should I nag and cajole them? Whatever you do, do it as unto the Lord. But along with these other efforts, you should certainly stop assuming that people will come back, and you should start giving them reason to come back. Here is a two-step process in that direction:
Step 1: Every pastor, priest, and preacher is already armed with the compelling reason, though very few leverage it - Jesus fills up our worship and meets us there! That is the argument of the Letter to the Hebrews. The grace of Jesus is alive in the preaching. The reconciliation and joy of Jesus are alive in the sacraments. The peace and assurance of Jesus is in our fellowship (Hebrews 10:23-25). The church can offer the one thing not found anywhere else in the world – when meeting together in-person and in Jesus’s name, Jesus is present with us. But if we aren’t saying this energetically and explicitly in every church communication, in every invitation to the community, in every welcome spoken to every gathering, in every transition and introduction before every piece of worship, we are punting the ball on the first down. We are making ourselves a predictable statistic, to go along with all the others. The first step is to stop assuming our beloved flocks are mindful of this or that they even know it! We should state it again and again and again:
You’ll know the message has gotten through when someone grips your hand at the door one Sunday after the service, leans in, and says, “We’ve got it! Jesus is with us! You can stop saying it now!” By all means, when next Sunday arrives, DO NOT STOP SAYING IT!
Step 2: Next to repetition, the best pedagogical play in the book is self-discovery. Let your people discover on their own that Jesus is present with us at each gathering in his name. There are plenty of great Bible studies and resources that can lead your small groups and adult Sunday school classes to this conclusion, and Bible Study Media has one more resource to offer. In Draw Near: Hebrews on Christian Worship, group members spend six weeks reading through and discussing large chunks of the letter. The Letter to the Hebrews exhorts readers to the same good news you’ve been proclaiming every chance you get - in these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:2); in other words,
Powerful, purposeful, and transformative spiritual formation takes place when worship instruction, preaching from the pulpit, and small group discovery echo and affirm one another. That is something worth getting off the couch, getting dressed, and coming back to church for. (For digital samples of Draw Near, or for help in thinking through how to implement Draw Near as a church-wide campaign this fall, please contact the writer of this blog at [email protected].)
If any tribe on the planet can disrupt the disruption of COVID, it is the church. We are people of reversal - sinners made righteous, the dead raised to life, people of shadows now children of light. The church could be one of few bodies that doesn’t shrink its gatherings as a result of the pandemic, but rather grows them. What we can’t do is simply assume that people will return because the doors are open and service times are posted. What we must do is give them something they cannot find anywhere else. As grace would have it, we have just the thing. Now, say it, and say it, and say it again, and put it in their way so they trip over it and give thanks to God.
Bible Study Media produces Bible study materials for adults and children that are lectionary-aligned, Bible-rooted, and Spirit-formed. To receive free digital samples of Draw Near: Hebrews on Christian Worship, or for help thinking through how to implement Draw Near as a church-wide campaign, contact the writer of this blog at [email protected].
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