by Dr. Daniel Cash for The Christian Citizen
As ministry leaders look to guide congregations through and past the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are beginning to think about what the Church will look like moving forward. It may be premature to declare that we are on the other side of this crisis, but it is not too early to give consideration to what ministry (re)engagement could be like as increasing numbers of congregants come back on board, whether in-person or in some form of hybridity.
Just as we learned to value “engagement” as a meaningful measure of ministry impact mid-pandemic, we will be looking to measure “re-engagement” in a post-pandemic world. In the online world of virtual church, pastors and ministry leaders could measure the impact of their services in a couple of ways. There are the analytics of connection provided through various online platforms that tell you how many “views” or individual IP address connections each livestream broadcast, social media post, or Zoom meeting has generated. While these may have been initially exciting, and are not without value as a measurement, they also feel a bit shallow in terms of measuring the true impact of ministry.
For example, how long did each point of connection endure? You may have seen your overall audience grow through technology, but how many of those “connections” last through the entire online experience? Did the entity on the other end watch for a minute? Five minutes? Or the length of the worship service? To what extent were they truly “present” with you in the online encounter? How many people were connected through one IP address? These measures of impact may be a bit slippery. It isn’t as simple as getting the head count from the ushers after worship to know that day’s attendance. And we have lacked those moments of greeting at the door, where much pastoral care happens, to gauge the impact of that day’s gathering or to discern the day-to-day health of congregants and congregation.
Savvy leaders, therefore, have begun to shift their language toward new measures to gauge the impact of ministry being shared. We speak of “engagement” instead of “views” or raw numbers of connection. By engagement, we are looking to measure a deeper investment of the online audience. How many people are responding to posts? Who are we hearing from through the online platforms? How are we encouraging a true dialogue instead of a mere monologue in worship and discipleship? Are we providing people options to engage through text, instant messaging, chat or comment features? And, most importantly, is someone consistently monitoring this and looking to deepen the engagement experience with those we attempt to reach?
As the pandemic settled upon us, it became apparent we were in for more of a marathon experience than a sprint. Simultaneously, our efforts toward engagement began to combat new hurdles. Zoom fatigue, screen over-exposure, and physical separation have all become real obstacles to ministry in 2021. Now ministry leaders are discovering some of the fallout from more than a year of such compromised ministry. People have become increasingly distanced and disengaged from faith community during the pandemic. This distance has afforded some the space to evaluate their engagement moving forward. Just as the business world will see people make career changes post-pandemic, and the real estate world has seen people relocate to homes more attractive or functional to work at home or school from home needs, the church is likely to see people evaluate their engagement in congregational life.
I would argue the seeds of this “disengagement” have been present as the lack of face-to-face community gave permission for more critical commentary through technology. As we move further along in the pandemic, I suspect what may have first surfaced in internet critique will manifest itself in congregant drift. Those who may have already been somewhat dissatisfied are more likely to act on that dissatisfaction by drifting away or making a break to participate elsewhere. Minus some of the more normal guardrails, namely physical togetherness, community is at risk to fracture ever more into the less attractive but ever-present consumer tendencies of faith in today’s Western culture. In short, we are in for a bumpy ride.
With that sober assessment as backdrop, let me turn in a more hopeful direction to offer what may be some new measures of (re)engagement we can pursue today. What kind of framework can we be building and sharing ministry from as we do gradually move toward a post-pandemic ministry era? I would offer the following:
Think dialogue versus monologue
One of my seminary texts on preaching spoke of the sermon as dialogue. As one who had at that point spent more time in front of and not behind a pulpit, I found it to be a funny concept. Over 30 years of preaching have taught me otherwise. There is a dialogical quality in preaching that emerges with a physically present congregation. That component, more than any other, went missing as churches shifted to online-only worship.
After a year of mostly monologue, people are craving dialogue. How can we provide that through our preaching? Can sermons, and other forms of communication, become less didactic and more conversational? Can we learn to utilize questions in preaching and bring some of the engagement learnings from our online efforts forward into the new hybridity that is ministry today? How, for example, can the chat feature still be used? How can we foster more small group experiences, where people are more likely to engage in dialogue?
Our pandemic experience has spawned and surfaced multiple big issues within society that deserve dialogical engagement from a biblical and faith community perspective. How will we equip our congregations to confront the rise of racism, Christian nationalism, and the bereavement work needed for healing today? Dialogue will be an important tool for re-engagement around these and other topics.
Foster presence over distance
As more and more people become vaccinated against the coronavirus, we are seeing family reunions happen. Grandparents who have been distant from their grandchildren are relishing the hugs and touches that FaceTime or Zoom could not replicate. Many of these elderly and younger populations are in our churches. Isolation and separation have been tremendous detriments to mental health, physical health and congregational health. It is time to (carefully and wisely) rebuild community through some hands-on, high-touch opportunities.
Yes, the hybrid approach to ministry, where people are able to engage both in-person or online, is here to stay. But even within such hybridity, we must find ways to be present together.
What might a faith community reunion look like in your context? How can you begin to dream together about this? Who needs to be invited, offered transportation, encouraged to participate? What new faces have joined you virtually over the past year, who may be ready to matriculate toward an in-person experience of community? How can you assimilate this new expression of the body of Christ together? Look for ways to be present.
Be discerning in determining what comes back online
If your congregation is like the one I share ministry with, when the restrictions of COVID-19 hit, many of our ministry traditions were shelved. We went to a bare-bones calendar of weekly events and shifted how we shared life together. If I am honest, I don’t miss some of the things we used to do. In fact, I prefer some of the new ways we’ve adapted.
It would be a mistake to miss the opportunity we have been given to discern as we determine what should come back online (so to speak) in our congregational life. Are there ministries that have run their course and will not be missed? Do we need to acknowledge that by naming it, giving thanks for what was, but determining not to invest energy or resources into something that was not effective or helpful? These are important discernment discussions to be had in this time.
Perhaps not every meeting has to be held in-person moving forward. Maybe some of the meetings do not need to be held at all. Have we learned how to oversee and engage in church governance in ways that are less cumbersome? Is there something to be said for a congregational calendar that provides people space to “be” versus always feeling the need to “do”? Now would be an optimal time for such discernment.
Practice outward not just inward
Inevitably, the pandemic focused many congregations inward as they worried about the pastoral care of the flock, the financial health of the organization, and the day-to-day challenges of staying connected. Pastors and ministry leaders expended a lot of energy just trying to stay in touch with people through various communication mediums. If we think of our outward-inward balance metaphorically as the old teeter-totter on the playground, in most (not all) cases the pandemic pushed us out of balance toward an inward focus.
It’s time to get back in balance. Now is the time to look outward again, or perhaps for the first time in a while. Our communities are hurting. Our neighborhoods need to know why the church makes a difference not just to them, or for them, but with them. Overcoming the isolation and fear of the pandemic should be a goal not only for individuals but congregations.
How can you begin (again) to practice outward ministry? Who are the ministry partners in your context you might join? What is the immediate mission field God has placed you in? How can an external focus bring new energy and meaning to your congregation?
Train for the marathon, not the sprint
The late Eugene Peterson wrote that ministry and the life of faith is all about “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” in his book by that title. Discipleship, mission and congregational life are much more organic than merely organizational. People grow over time. Change happens over time. Transformation takes root and bears fruit, but it takes time.
As we begin to emerge from the pandemic and grow into what will become the post-pandemic church, many things will require time to develop and mature. Which is to say, we need to give ourselves some grace and patience, and not assume it all has to be done at once.
Yes, ministry often presents itself with a sense of urgency. But the tyranny of the urgent can also derail what is more often a slow cooker kind of process. These measures of (re) engagement are intended to be markers by which we guide the work ahead. We will often walk to a two steps forward, one step back, kind of cadence. But, over time, those who press on will find themselves gaining ground.
Remember, it is work worth doing. It is a marathon deserving of our long obedience in the same direction.
Dr. Daniel M. Cash is senior pastor, First Baptist Church of Columbus, Indiana. He is co-author of two books, published by Judson Press—Eight Questions Jesus Asked: Discipleship for Leaders (2017) and The Changing Church: Finding Our Way to God’s New Thing (2019). He blogs at danielcash.org.
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash