The new mixed ecology: People, property and priorities after COVID-19

This article is featured in the Acting Missionally issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

The church is where we are always being sent into the world. The coronavirus taught us how attractional we are in our conception of church — the church is a building to which we come. The important metrics are how many gather inside on a Sunday morning. And if we are introspective, we can become competitive about how our metrics appear in relation to a nearby church, or a church of a different tradition. But what happens when attractional church is no longer possible? When a ceiling is placed on how many of us can be together in one place? An extraordinary narrative arose with these new measures, taking hold in the media and social media: We love our neighbor by finding some social or physical distance.

We quickly discovered a new way of being church and this was out of necessity, not attraction. We needed to reach out to our neighbor and connect with them. Some of this happened through phone calls, checking in with friends we had been too busy to stay in touch with. Many churches created phone tree chains. Some of the older members were able to assist in this effort as they had created these trees long before the pandemic. Some of it happened by honoring the vocations of health care professionals, who would serve on the front lines and bear the cost of a culture that circulated the virus through unnecessary contact. And some of this happened by sharing what we had, our gifts, our tangible goods, our food.

A missional church will also learn from some of our neighbors who often live a precarious existence. One of our pastor friends noted that the addicted, the homeless, and the poor experience distance from us, and have much to teach us about how to survive and flourish in a crisis. Mission is always a mutual process of giving and receiving. There are many within our society who have no place to call home and others who live in homes that are unhealthy and possibly dangerous. The church’s mission is amplified as it works to be a virtual light within the dark places people are finding themselves as they seek shelter.

Never before has the mission of the church been so clear and sought after. Record numbers of people are attending virtual worship. Spiritual leaders from monks to priest to pastors are appearing daily on top news networks offering words of hope and practices that ease anxiety. The harvest is plenty in this season. No doubt after this pandemic passes, people will move back to their Sunday Funday and busy lives and faith might be the first thing pushed aside. We are learning in this time the great desire for faith in all people and the great need for the church to be, in a greater way, part of the world — which means the digital world in this season of social distancing…and beyond.

Reaching New People in New Places in New Ways

Churches are reaching completely new people in this time. Churches are worshipping three to four times their regular numbers digitally. Churches are seeing that people are coming to church at 11am on Sunday and 6pm on Sunday when they are off work. Virtual worship makes the gospel available to more people in more places in more ways. Although many prophets have preached this, we are all learning this very quickly in our own space. I wonder what these new realities and statistics mean for evangelism in the future? Might funds once reserved for door knocking and community festivals now be moved to offering online streaming through a church website?

Before the Pandemic, BP, this thought would have been very uncomfortable for members. Especially members who did not have internet or a Facebook account or a zoom account. Now, during the Pandemic and maybe, AP, after the pandemic, members have been forced to have internet because of their work or children or grandchildren’s school. The world wide web has now been opened to many of our members. More members at my church (Audrey) have created Facebook accounts and logged onto our website than ever before! Many are even seeing the benefits of a Zoom call and how it might involve more people AP as some people do not feel comfortable driving at night or live far away and cannot make it down to the church on a weeknight due to traffic.

"Fresh Expressions of People Over Property" by Audrey Warren and Kenneth H. Carter. Order here:

Pastors and parishioners alike are quickly getting an education in the digital world. And while we miss each other and will worship together again, we are all learning of the great benefits of technology for our own faith and those who are just coming to faith. We are now pondering what a completely virtual community looks like within a physical church community. As the pandemic crisis ends, people will be slowly move back into society. For the next few months, churches will have to continue to provide virtual worship for those not yet allowed to rejoin the community. Due to the great benefit of the virtual community, churches are learning that this might be our future. Many churches within one church. A physical community and a virtual community. A true mixed ecology of church.

We believe that we are in the midst of a profound shift. In the language of the Fresh Expressions movement, digital culture is a profound “third place.” We are adapting from ministry mostly inside our buildings to significant presence in this new world of social media, not as an add-on but as something primary and fundamental. This is a more hybrid, mixed ecology of sharing in the gospel, which is already present in the lives of those searching for a spiritual home.

We are deeply grateful to all, clergy, musicians, leaders — who have found a way to bear witness through word and music, in discipleship and mission. We encourage our friends not to sweat the technical glitches — we are all taking the next faithful steps. We are encouraged to trust that God will use our efforts, speak in spite of our words, and give all of us what we need in this season of leadership ministry in ways we had not imagined.

Discovering a New Mixed Ecology of Church

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping us in profound ways, particularly when it comes to questions of physical property. Churches are not the only institutions questioning their property and results in a post-pandemic world: Business leaders are living further into the tension of whether provided workspace is needed, whether productivity and innovation can be sustained with all the distractions present in the home. Banks are wondering how much actual space is needed at a local branch. Schools are wondering how much they need to do on campus with unique and differently-abled students, and how much learning can happen off-campus. Individuals are asking if they really need that gym membership or is the home workout routine enough. The whole world is asking what we can cut and live without. The church should not escape this time of introspection and learning.

At one end of the spectrum are those who expect churches to boomerang back to the way we used to do things. At the other end of the continuum are leaders who think that everything must change — a reaction fueled by decades of declining membership and contracting funds. Perhaps your church’s wisest strategy moving forward is not a new gym or building or lighting system for auditorium worship. Perhaps your strategic thinking team will choose to shed or repurpose or rent some of your space and fund a more effective digital and virtual platform. I pray the church does not miss this time of introspection and learning. I hope the church does not simply boomerang back to the way we used to do things. We are all learning and experiencing that possibly the Church’s greatest strategy moving forward might be the elimination of some of our space and the addition of a digital and virtual platform.

We might come out of this crisis multiplying each church by one, a physical church and a virtual church. We are all still learning how to live in this mixed ecology. We have known we have needed it, and now the data is showing it actually is bearing fruit. So, we must pay attention to where fruit is growing and begin to adapt our methods to a new way of cultivating and harvesting. We must also consider our behaviors and how those might need to change over time; we are all adjusting our mindsets concerning people and property.

In years past, this adjustment has been difficult as some members who have had the privilege of benefiting from the institutional church and its buildings have put up much resistance to spending money and time on a virtual community. We hope and pray that there will be a lowered resistance to the creation and maintenance of a mixed-ecology setup that allows us to reach more people.

The tension remains as to how one truly develops a virtual community. Our institution and faith has been built on a “come and see” model. Even more, we do worship a God who we believe became incarnate to be with us in the flesh. We believe in the flesh, we are flesh people. We enjoy potlucks, and the gift of gab is often a practicing of our faith as we discern with each other our lives and work and families. Can this happen in a virtual community? How would a virtual community and a physical community ever meet? Is there a joint mission? Will there be conflicting priorities?

In many ways, the addition of a virtual community keeps all people remembering the main purpose of church: the worship of God and the creating of disciples. I doubt many online virtual members will really have great opinions on what color the parlor should be painted or even want to be on that committee. The administrative nature would most likely stay with those who were previously invested in such.

Yet, there still is a need for contact and physical community outside of gathering for the administrative needs of the church. In England, we visited a youth Fresh Expression in Sheffield, which had over one hundred small groups of youth who had never been to church. One group met at someone’s house to bake and talk about life and faith. Another group met on a basketball court weekly, connecting over the issues they had at school and home. All of the leaders of the group stayed connected virtually. All the different groups came together once or twice a year at a camp where they learned more about faith and got to spend time getting to know one another.

Perhaps there will be a great resurgence of the Homecoming Service, a service for all who grew up in the church to come home but also those who are virtual worshippers near and far to come and be together in the flesh. This is but one possible model for the new mixed ecology as we imagine a future that questions our space and our priorities. 

comments powered by Disqus