The abstract expressionist painter, Willem de Kooning, said, “I have to change to stay the same.” That could be said about our bodies, which undergo an ongoing cellular renewal process, or it could be said of our church bodies, which should be undergoing an ongoing spiritual renewal process.
The COVID-19 pandemic cast light on the state of our churches. Some will not survive the exposure, as the vitality and viability of church community were already fragile. Sadly, some churches will be closing for good in the months following their reopening. We pray some good will come of that by their creative use of assets for the sake of God’s work in the world.
Most churches will survive, but none will be unchanged. We all know the challenges: people have gotten out of the habit of going to in-person services; Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings have been filled with other things; money has been reallocated to other causes; and the moral imperative of service has eroded. For churches that have maintained a sense of community virtually during the pandemic, we are seeing people return now, albeit not at the levels we hoped for.
Some of the attendance gap may be the typical summer slump, although our church numbers show a decline over the summer two years ago. Some may be attributed to vacations long postponed by the pandemic. Some may be chalked up to immune-compromised persons, unvaccinated members, overall caution and lingering social anxiety.
“Never waste a crisis,” Rahm Emanuel said as President Obama’s chief of staff. During this summer at our church, we are experimenting with a transitional schedule that will bring about changes for us going forward in the fall. Some changes we are examining are these:
- We have cut services to 45 minutes, including Sunday School. We will probably settle on services from 40 minutes to 50 minutes (maybe a shorter early service and longer late service) and Sunday School at one hour. Time is the currency of this generation, and enticing young adults with children to attend both worship and Sunday School is a priority. If they can come and go in less than two hours instead of two and a half, we might see a surge.
- My preaching has gone from 21 minutes to about 16, matching what we learned from our virtual pandemic worship. It probably won’t go back. No one will miss those extra five minutes, except maybe me.
- Our giving patterns have morphed during the pandemic, and we are changing with them. We have placed offering boxes at the sanctuary exits for those who wish to give in an “old-school” way, but this eliminates the time and need for ushers to pass the plates in worship. It’s not that people will not bring an offering to worship; they will give differently. There is now a QR code in the order of service that takes givers directly to an online giving portal, just like we have learned to do for menus at restaurants. (Guest cards and prayer request cards can be filled out that way, too.) Others will give at other times online or through automatic bank debits. I regret that children may not see parents giving an offering in worship, but offering plate contributions were paltry even before the pandemic.
- We will no longer give an invitation at the end of the service for people to walk to the front to make public decisions of faith or to join the church. This was a legacy of revivalism more than a necessary step in discipleship. Most people have not been making significant spiritual decisions at the end of worship due to my homiletical persuasion or the Holy Spirit’s unction. Those decisions tend to happen in my study, and various enquirers’ events and new member classes carry the welcome and assimilation functions. I will still call the names of those who have joined in the last week so that we can celebrate those decisions, but faithfulness doesn’t require walking the aisle. Baptism is the public commitment of a personal profession of faith.
We don’t expect these changes alone will bring people hurrying back to church. Our culture has succumbed to secularization in more ways than we want to admit. That means that the general air of our everyday lives no longer supports religious engagement as an assumed social good. All the more reason for us to be intentional about everything we do, not confusing tradition with traditionalism.
The late Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan parsed the matter this way. “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” When we make our methods sacrosanct rather than the message, we are in danger of traditionalism. When we innovate on tradition, we honor the past with a new liveliness of faith in our time.
Editor’s note: From June through August, articles will be published from faith leaders reflecting on the pandemic ministry adjustments they enacted, looking ahead to the future or both. If you’d like to submit a column for consideration, email it to email@example.com.
Senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and the founder and president of Faith Commons.