Resolved for 2022: Rebuilding with the Basics

December 13th, 2021

As we segue into 2022, we are realizing that some of the things we did well during the pandemic have revealed and maybe even exacerbated some challenges we were coping with long before the pandemic. Once exposed, we see more clearly what our work looks like next year.

Early on, and wisely, we declared that “getting back” were the words that must not be said. We don’t plan to get back to church. We ask and dream of what we’re being called to going forward. This provided space to name new, more robust ways of being church. And we were lucky enough to have a campaign for a new building that provided a big, forward-looking dream.

But who was moving forward? Who was dreaming with us? We had a solid online presence pre-COVID. Then with the in-person shutdown, we attracted a whole new audience. Worship numbers skyrocketed. People went so far as to join our church from other cities, states, and countries. Our small groups morphed into a mix of local and distant people. We were strutting a little over this technological evangelism. We’ve resolved to be hybrid moving forward.

Now we understand, a little vaguely, who wasn’t tuning in. I’d bump into some of our most active folks, and they were clueless about what we were doing. Some are now finding their way into the building, but we enter 2022 knowing we’ve lost – a lot. Some who weren’t deeply formed in the faith – reminding us we don’t do this so well – didn’t miss church much. Some discovered what even my staff and I discovered: Sunday mornings for lounging at home or hiking are way cool. And some who felt disenfranchised because of their political ideology or cross feelings about inclusion or immigrant efforts used the long radio silence as a big door to exit without having to explain things.

Of course, people were drifting before COVID, which only hastened the drifting. How do we re-engage? Do our energies go now to our newer people, or to recovering the lost sheep? Both – but do we have the bandwidth? It’s about personal contact – which was what we lost since March 2020. One by one, saying We love you, we miss you, you matter. How to do this minus physical presence, how to get them to pay attention: we’ll try this and that, and enlist those who stayed – we hope.

And there’s this: how many people over the past 20 months have said “I saw you on TV”? Worship as entertainment, passively watching: the problem is as old as Kierkegaard (or older), but pandemic viewing has made this more entrenched, even enjoyable, but unsustainable and not very fruitful. We kept a list of “things we learned during COVID we’ll keep,” and at the top was the use of children and laity in worship. We’ll redouble that in 2022, and keep naming why it matters to show up.

Americans were all about convenience in worship and church life pre-COVID. Unwittingly we fed the beast by giving lots of options and trying to lure people to show up. We are embracing twin ministry needs. Can we seize this moment in time to move the needle from people dipping their toes into church when it suits them toward being all in, for owning not just renting? The other (which may be a prerequisite for the first) popped up for me when a young man whom we didn’t know (who began tuning in during COVID) showed up, said I’m brand new to Christianity. How do I go about being a Christian and doing it well? I hope my face didn’t turn red when I fumbled for an answer. Hasn’t COVID shown us all how malformed, underformed, or unformed our people have been? 

And so, programmatically, our programmatic and liturgical themes for early 2022 are pretty basic. Following the lead of our children’s curriculum, partly because it’s on point, and partly to use this as leverage to re-engage our young families who are our biggest (understandably!) drifters, we’ll walk through the life of Jesus, and why he matters. Utterly basic stuff – but with tags to connect with and actually help (we hope) people with things they’ve shared, again not new things, but intensified by the weird pandemic season. Jesus and relationships. Jesus and home – so in our homes, church as home, offering home for others. Jesus and mental health. Jesus and… Blanks are still being filled in.

Our year-long stewardship theme is one we hope to use as a scaffold on which to hang all these learning endeavors: We Love Our Church. I mentioned our building campaign: we will have the quirky good fortune of bearing and hopefully delighting in the best visual aid ever, as 2022 will witness the demolition of one-third of our whole facility, and then with the cranes and trucks rolling in. How do we rebuild the church? That was how Jesus commissioned St. Francis. Speaking to him from a crucifix in Assisi, Jesus said “Rebuild my church, for as you can see, it is falling into ruin.” Ours has been for longer than we care to admit.

And we’ll be wearing hard-hats. How often will I toss into a sermon Annie Dillard’s sharp wisdom: “It is madness to wear ladies’ velvet hats to church. We should all be wearing crash helmets.” With the stinging truth that we haven’t “the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke,” suspecting rightly that “no one believes a word of it,” she wonders if “the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” Tearing down, rebuilding, and waiting on a shocking annihilation and rebirth from the Spirit. I hope this can be our prayer, if we don’t drift once more into passivity and timidity.

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