Resolved for 2022: Back to the future

December 19th, 2021

I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions, as a personal practice. The data seems to back me up. Something less than 10 percent of New Year resolutions are met all year long. Even the most sincere drop their resolve by the Super Bowl or Valentine’s Day. But if it does nothing else, the Christian faith boldly proclaims that in Christ lives can be changed, that patterns can be broken, and that the Holy Spirit is capable of doing these amazing transformations in all kinds of people, including me. So I suppose January 1 is as good a day as any other to plan for this change to take shape.

I spent the first week of March 2020 at a church planting conference in Orlando dreaming about the future of the Church. We acknowledged that the landscape of Christianity was changing, in the US as well as globally. Local congregations were seeing the impact of our culture’s deprioritizing of church attendance. Pews were filled with aging members, but struggling to capture the interest of younger generations who did not see the need for institutionalized faith. We spent time brainstorming tangible ways to share Christ among growing unchurched populations that seemed so radically disconnected from the local congregations in their communities. I left that gathering overwhelmed at the prospect of leading these necessary changes, but excited about taking what I’d learned and doing this kind of “out of the box” ministry that the future demanded…one day. Back in the office the next week I fell back into my daily rhythm. Not exactly status quo, but not exactly cutting edge ministry. I tucked away some of my favorite conference takeaways for someday. Seven days later COVID shut down in-person worship. Someday had come.

My first 4 years as a pastor were exciting. I was in a healthy and supportive church. I soaked up every scrap of information I could about how to lead. I collected the tools I needed to make sure the institution kept going. I made mistakes, I experimented, I carried on traditions. I felt deep confirmation of the calling I had answered years before. But in 2020, in year five of my being a pastor, everything changed. And not just for me, but for everyone: for our church, our state, and the rest of the world. After COVID became a present reality, people were isolated, alone, scared, and grieving. My own family lost our matriarch: my 96 year old grandmother died from COVID in May 2020. The world seemed to tilt a little too off kilter, and suddenly all these institutional tools in my pastoral tool belt seemed obsolete. We weren’t counting bodies in pews, because there was nobody in the pews. How were we supposed to connect? How were we supposed to worship? How were we supposed to gather around the Table? How were we supposed to keep being a community when there were physical barriers preventing us from doing so safely?

The world shifted again when I was moved to a new church in July 2020, to a different part of the state from where we had called home for 7 years. I was overwhelmed at starting a new role in the midst of a global pandemic. There was no map for making a transition in this environment. Everything had to be completely reinvented. The old tools may not have been helpful, but God still provided what I needed. Overnight, those innovative ideas I’d stored away - all the creative plans I’d been saving for the future - became the essentials of daily life. Sharing Jesus was still the mission, but we had to pivot our methods to meet the needs of this new territory in which we found ourselves. So we did. Colleagues, staff members, and volunteers all threw our best efforts of pandemic ministry at the wall, and we invested in the things that stuck. We invested in the parts of ministry that made people feel close even when they were physically distant and we learned new skills overnight to make sure that the Church was still open and accessible even when the buildings were closed and access modified.

Perhaps the biggest universal loss of the COVID crisis was our sense of communion and community. We couldn’t gather around the Lord’s Table, and for a while we couldn’t gather at all. I remember vividly the first time I took communion with an in-person community after a four-month hiatus. I was leading an outdoor service in July to a parking lot full of cars and passengers. When it came to the part of the service where we would begin the Communion prayer, I felt my heart warm. After the prayer was over we delicately peeled back the wrapper on the presealed Host. We waited for the styrofoam consistency of the wafer to melt on our tongues before washing it down with medicinal grape juice. It tasted terrible: it also tasted like a gift. 18 months later, when we finally were able to use real bread and real grape juice for communion, it was a similarly heavenly experience. Through all that, I know Christ’s presence never left us - his presence transcends space and time and wifi and livestream. But there was something to it when Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am with them” (Matt 18:20). 

If resolutions are a way to reorient our priorities and remind ourselves that the future is coming whether we’re ready or not, then I think I can get on board with that. As we prepare for a new year, in which each day feels like a wacky reboot, my current leadership team has made some resolutions for how we will do the work Christ is calling us to do:

First, we will never go back to the way things were, and instead focus more on going back to the future. We don’t plan on throwing away our existing tools, but we will hold them loosely in preparing for the road ahead. We will do our best to channel Doc Brown’s principle, “where we are going, we don’t need roads.” Again and again we will look to where the Spirit is leading us, not back on the trails we’ve left behind in our wake. Creative and innovative ministry should never be left to “someday.” Because someday is always today, right now, this minute.

Second, we will remember to be thankful in the transition. Augmented, modified, “presealed” community connection may be a poor substitute for being fully and physically present with our faith family, but the way God provides these opportunities of Real Presence in the interim gives us vast opportunities for gratitude. 

Third, we will continue to look for communion and community. We will never take for granted that one of the greatest gifts of salvation in Christ is that we won’t spend eternity alone, and that begins now. God has given us people to learn from and live with, who remind us who we are and to whom we belong.

May it be so for all of these this coming year, and every year after.

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