Resolved for 2022: New Ways of Engagement

December 19th, 2021

There’s no mincing words: the past two years were harder than any I’ve ever experienced in ministry. If you had told me a few years ago that on March 15, 2020, we would be closing the doors of the church and that I would be preaching to an empty sanctuary for months on end, I would not have believed you. 

The pandemic challenges nearly everything about the way we do church. For those of us who like to plan, and for a church staff that is used to planning twelve months out, the past two years were an un-fun rollercoaster. The lowest point for me was in August of 2021. We thought we were emerging into a new era, when the vaccinated could take off our masks and we could “pass the peace” in worship like we used to. But then the COVID delta variant emerged. Many of us felt like the breath had been knocked out of us. We wondered if we had it in us to keep going.

But we adjusted. Again. And we knew enough about how the virus works to know what to do: wear masks, wash your hands, meet outside when possible, and hope that folks will get vaccinated. Within these parameters of safety, we’ve figured out some new ways to move forward. And that’s exactly what we feel called to do: move forward.

As we have navigated the Fall 2021 weeks of this pandemic, I felt a sense of “emerging.” Though COVID numbers are on the rise again, we’re not as discouraged as before. A renewed sense of vitality and momentum is palpable in our congregation. Now that everyone over the age of five has access to a vaccine, we are seeing more people return to worship and ministry in person. We have people visiting for the first time, having discovered a hunger for God and community that they didn’t have before. And we continue to celebrate the number of people who join us online and to expand opportunities for online connection and ministry.

Of course, there are still many whose faces we haven’t seen, even online. We are reaching out and trying to stay in touch. Some experts are saying that churches should expect to lose about 30 percent of their members, those who will simply choose not to come back. That may be correct. We don’t know yet. But among those who are staying engaged, coming back, or even connecting for the first time with our congregation, we're experiencing hope and energy that seems to be coming straight from the Holy Spirit and not from our tired spirits.

We are emerging—but we are not the same church that we were before. So, as we look ahead to 2022, we are focusing on connection and engagement. How can we help folks feel connected to God and to one another, whether in person or online? What can we offer that will help deepen those connections? The practices of online and hybrid ministry will stay with us. Whether it’s worship, Bible study, or finance-committee meetings, we will continue to gather in hybrid ways. How can we enhance those experiences so that we connect with one another in holy and authentic ways?

Meanwhile, how can we encourage those who are able to come back in person? Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I feel there is no substitute for incarnational worship, being present as one body in one place. There are holy things that happen in the sanctuary and in the halls of the church that cannot be experienced online. Every Sunday I talk with someone who says, “It’s my first Sunday back in person. I didn’t know how much I missed it until I came back.” I see their tears of joy as they sing “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” and I notice their smiles as the children come down front for Children’s Time. How can we share their experiences with others and invite them to return?

As we consider reengagement, we recognize that we have lost a lot of our regular volunteers, and we’re not sure which ones will return to the roles they had. During the hardest days of the pandemic, we lost childcare workers, ushers, communion stewards, and other volunteers, many of whom had been serving in the same roles for years. As a result, it was the church staff and a handful of “uber-volunteers” who picked up the slack. 

We’re seeing now that some of our faithful volunteers decided to “retire.” In many ways, it's important for people to be able to step away from a ministry when they feel led to do so, and we need to offer them gratitude and grace. But that means the staff and a handful of laypeople are over-functioning and over-burdened.

So in 2022 we will be inviting folks to engage in new ways. Many people are reshuffling their priorities because of this pandemic. They aim to simplify their schedules and responsibilities. And serving as an usher every Sunday may not be what they choose. How can we invite people into the joy that comes from serving? As one church member said after working on a Habitat build, “I’d forgotten how good it feels to pick up a hammer and help somebody.” In some cases, we’ve just forgotten and need to be reminded.

We want to invite people into worship, into ministry, into service, into justice work, into prayer, and into fellowship because those are the practices of faith that give us joy and deepen our relationships with God, one another, and the world. How do we do that? Guilt is not a good motivator. It won’t do simply to say, “Where have you been?” or “We need you!”

So a question we are pondering as we enter 2022 is: How can we share our enthusiasm about what God is doing at West End? How can we tell the story about all the amazing things that are unfolding here so that people will want to connect and reengage? How might this be our message: “God is doing amazing things around here, and we don’t want you to miss out!”

Maybe it’s not a bad thing to create a little FOMO when it comes to church. After all, didn’t Jesus encourage his disciples to “keep awake” so that they didn’t miss out on God’s kin-dom? Sounds like the gospel to me.

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