Resolved for 2022: Lean forward

December 26th, 2021

Perhaps you’ve seen the meme circulating in social media where 2022 is coming into view, but the person/character in question is still processing the events of 2020. I feel this gap on a profound level. Another year is turning over when so much of my heart and mind are still reeling from the events of the past 22 months.

I’m not ready for 2022, because I’ve not finished grieving. Due to this pandemic, our congregation not only lost momentum but significant elements of our identity. Like many churches, we are worshipping only one-half to two-thirds of what we were experiencing prior to COVID. Some are still connected online. However, many others are just gone. Essential pieces of our church family disappeared. No goodbye. No email to say their faith had been drifting. Nothing.

Terry Wardle says that ministry is “a series of ungrieved losses.” On my worst days, I couldn’t grieve because I was still angry. I mentally questioned people’s faith, their commitment, and even contemplated quitting altogether. However, eventually the anger seeped out. And when the anger bottomed out, the only thing left was to feel the pain of loss. To admit the fact that these people and Christ’s church still mean so much to me. As any pastor knows, when you love something that much, it makes the wins sweeter but the losses even more devastating. 

I’m not quite done grieving. I’m not sure we are ever done. However, as a new year approaches, I glimpse hope beginning to well up inside me. Not just a hope for our church but for the Church writ large. When Hope approaches, followers of Jesus are called to lean in.

To lean in, specifically, I’m intentional about the following:

1. Lean into rather than resist the new religious landscape.

recent poll found that nearly 26 percent of Americans are comfortable living their lives without faith. Another poll found that during the pandemic nearly two thirds of Christians were not actively engaged in church. For pastors and church leaders, these are tough stats to swallow. Faithfulness was precisely the commitment that got you through twenty-two months of empty pews and darkened classrooms. How could people be so quick to toss it aside?

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Like a biblical prophet, it’s tempting to blame the members of a congregation for a seeming lack of devotion. However, the harder work is allowing the absence to shine a mirror on our current programs and strategies for making disciples. Perhaps the clearest indictment of a consumeristic church is the fallout from the past two years. When faith without practice can’t serve us, we cancel it like an unused gym membership. It's time to take a serious look at whether we inadvertently indoctrinated God’s people to expect a service, rather than calling them to be of service to God’s world.

Conversely, the pandemic also shined a mirror on the withdrawal in some of our churches. The pandemic revealed how far behind we are. For example, our church did not have online worship prior to COVID. Out of necessity, the events of the past two years forced us to permanently expand our technological infrastructure so that we can reach generations to come. 

Like it or not, virtual community is here to stay. The pandemic is stark evidence that all people on earth are connected at the molecular level. Between Facebook, Amazon, TikTok, Netflix and hundreds of streaming video platforms, most people and much of our lives are online. Jesus didn’t avoid the spaces and places where people gathered because they were too trendy or profane. No way! The Good News, embodied in his incarnation, expanded to where the community gathered on boats, mountains, and where the outcasts lived! 

I’ve heard many colleagues say how excited they are to get rid of virtual church once things go back to normal. If that’s your desire, you still need to plan for making sure your church is actively engaging the post-pandemic global culture of the present age...not the one from 10, 20, 50, or 100 years ago.

2. Lean into the community I have, not the one I used to have.

Admittedly, this stretching is painful. However, I’m leaning into the community that remains, including the new people God brought to our faith community since the crisis began. I’ve decided to lean into this “new” church where I am pastor, instead of reminiscing about what we used to be. I will never forget those who left. I won’t turn them away if they come back. However, acquiring people isn’t the mission. Our mission is making disciples for the transformation of the world, rather than maintaining membership for the sake of survival. 

This time is ripe for pulling together the remnant community to dream about the future. Dreaming is the behavior many pastors stopped engaging during COVID. Some of us stopped imagining what could be new, and thus we could not cast a vision for the future. To be sure, there was a time to take shelter for survival. Now is the time to assess our potential. 

While some of those who left our churches were deeply valuable to the work of the church, others were holding us back. Every faith community includes members who create a codependent relationship with a particular ministry, which fills an emotional void within themselves. While this dynamic offers comfort and control to the individual, the ministry can be crippled and limited severely by the intensity of their self-interests. Consider the possibility that this crisis offers you the ability to discern God’s dreams in a new way with less drama!  

3. Lean into the promises that God made at my call.

I am recommitted to leaning into Jesus. One of the greatest temptations in the Christian life, the moment we enter the darkness, is forgetting what God promised us in the light. On several occasions, I admit that my anxiety, fear, and utter confusion got the best of me. It left me clutching and controlling my ministry as if God didn’t exist. As if God wouldn’t show. As if God didn’t see or care. In a word, I forgot.

Think about it... each leader can chronicle countless examples of God showing up for you. Maybe it was a timely email from a church member when you were at the end of your rope, an act of generosity that helped fill a budgetary need, a worship service that sent people forth with passion as disciples, or the unexpected success of an event or program. 

Deuteronomy 8 reminds us that one of the most important practices we engage is to remember who we serve and what God has done. To not forget that if God can do it once, God can do it again.

I remember the day I said yes to God’s call, because I wasn’t the only one who made a promise that day. I refuse to throw in the towel before seeing God’s promises come true for me, for you, for us all. 

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