“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17, NRSV)
It’s hard to dream in the middle of a pandemic. Oh, I’ve had plenty of dreams, but they seem to be more like nightmares—nothing too scary—but still demonstrative of the uncertainty and danger of these times in which we live. I guess it goes with the territory of feeling responsible for the safety and well-being of my family while, at the same time, wanting to be a trustworthy and conscientious leader for a congregation of gifted and amazing individuals. What were once simple decisions about what and how to do things, take on more considerable significance and liability. So it’s been more challenging to dream the kind of dreams that Peter preached about at Pentecost.
Please note that Peter preached about “young men” seeing visions and “old men” dreaming dreams—thus, my specific reference to dreams since, according to my almost-four-year-old granddaughter, I’m an old man! In reality, I’m more comfortable with the work of young people who do the visioning. And that’s where I find my energy directed these days. I’m trying (along with countless other pastors) to envision what our churches will be like after we come through this pandemic—and in case there was doubt, we will come through this pandemic. Still, I think a lot of churches will fail once we control the coronavirus and assume a new way of life. The virus won’t be the cause of these churches failing. An unwillingness to adapt to the new post-pandemic realities will be responsible.
Here are some of the new realities facing all churches:
In a world that feels more threatening due to the pandemic, people will not automatically return to assembling as they did before the pandemic hit—and this will be especially true for older adults.
Many people have not only grown comfortable worshiping online, but many are finding that doing so at home with their family in a non-stressful environment has many advantages.
Worshiping online opens up the possibilities of worshiping anywhere in the world—not just with a nearby congregation. Indeed, many people who have been watching our live stream are people from other churches who view multiple worship services on any given Sunday. It’s okay with me if you “tune in” to other churches, as long as you stay connected with us as your regular worshiping community!
Visitors to online worship services are likely to remain incognito until they are ready to connect with a congregation physically. This anonymity means we get less of an opportunity to engage with them before they decide to join a church.
While many people will still gravitate toward large gatherings, there will also be a lot of people who move toward smaller, cozier environments for spiritual nurture and sharing. Some people will connect with a small group long before venturing into large gatherings at a church.
Non-office centered work will become more prevalent, which means that some people will be less tied to “home.” Not only will people be able to work from home, but they can also work from the lake, the beach, the mountains, or anywhere. People will be away from home more, making it difficult to connect face-to-face with a congregation.
These are just a few of the new realities I see on the horizon. One researcher I read suggested that whereas the Christian church in America has remained a stable part of American culture, this pandemic is already showing signs that the disinterested church attendance patterns of Europe are beginning to take root here in America. This may or may not be true; however, time will tell.
All of these realities can be problems or opportunities. I am interested in responding to each of these (and any other challenges that emerge) as opportunities. Navigating these challenges feels like what I faced when I was starting a new congregation back in 1992. In the meantime, we’ll continue to offer worship in the sanctuary (when it’s safe to do so), and we’ll maintain the live stream of the services, too. But we’ll also be researching and designing a variety of ways to respond to the new realities. I envision as we approach our 200th year of ministry in 2022, we’ll be more vital than ever and reaching more new and younger people with the good news of God’s love for this hurting world. Please keep us in your prayers!