By Carson Reed
In a time when so much is changing, the natural thing to do is to reach backward into something from the past. And the sweeping changes that the pandemic brings only heighten that impulse. In many churches, however, the reality of not going back to 2019 is becoming all the more clear as we make our way into 2021. One aspect of congregational life, congregational worship, is particularly vulnerable to new realities that are presenting themselves.
For example, Barna reported in October 2020, that 50% of millennials have simply stopped watching online worship services. So even as congregations are finding their way into presenting content in digital formats, the most tech savvy persons (young adults) are checking out altogether. Obviously, this is a complex conversation, and I would be the first to affirm that the church’s digital witness is important and vital. However, to think that simply livestreaming a Sunday morning service somehow gets the job done is to miss the deep relational reality of what corporate worship requires.
Thus, in my conversations with ministers and church leaders through my work in the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry, I am raising questions like these: What can be delivered digitally? What cannot be delivered digitally?
The answers I hear are not uniform. However, I do get the sense that some aspects of worship – like singing or communion – simply lack the potent vitality to draw people into an attentive worshipful space when we rely solely on a digital performance. Relational needs are simply so great! On the other hand, sermons, teaching material, and dramatic performative pieces designed to provoke, teach, or persuade usually fare a little better.
What might this mean?
Every church is located in a specific context with local laws, practices, weather, and much more in play. Yet I have become increasingly aware of churches that are experimenting with multiple services with fewer people in socially distanced spaces, developing and empowering small groups to meet outdoors or in open spaces, inviting small groups of people to meet in their local neighborhoods (whether for worship or, perhaps just as important, to engage in service to the local community), or reimagining family groups to include multigenerational clusters of brothers and sisters who become “pods” to create safe communities to gather. How might leaders in our congregations innovatively pursue new forms of community that foster relational connection?
That doesn’t mean digital teaching and preaching should go away. Rather, I think it means that churches need to develop the aptitude for “both/and.” To maintain a robust digital presence along with robust experimentation with smaller, safer gatherings, will be critical for flourishing churches. In so doing, congregations can leverage this season as a time of renewal and opportunity. God is a God of hope and purpose. Let’s not forget!
If you would like a bibliography of new or recent books and resources on church renewal, please visit this page on Mosaic. You might find a title or two that would be helpful in your context!
Dr. Carson E. Reed is vice president for church relations at Abilene Christian University and executive director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. He also serves as the director for the Doctor of Ministry program and holds the Frazer Endowed Chair for Church Enrichment as an associate professor of practical theology in the Graduate School of Theology. Through the Siburt Institute, Carson does consulting work on governance, transitions, and new ecclesial forms with congregations and church leaders. His teaching and research focus on practical theology with a particular emphasis on leadership, preaching, and issues surrounding faith and culture. Carson and his wife Vickie have been married over 35 years and have four adult children.
There was supposed to be some sense of community and belonging from the early days of the Jesus followers and the synagogues. However, this became a pipe dream for many (undesirable) people even when churches could meet in person. Some of those unwanted people found community online. Little did they know that would become the only community. For someone to feel like they belong is hard because it is a perception and almost never is anyone in a church asked if they feel any sense of community for themselves. Carey Nieuwhof has on his blog today a post about the Western church and its struggle with evangelism. These 2 topics go together.