The back-to-school sales have begun. It’s still summer, but autumn is creeping closer. For many congregations, this is the first fall since 2019 where Christian Education ministries for children are resuming, since young children are finally able to be vaccinated. There is a lot of expectation and hope moving forward.
Yet we are still in a pre-post-pandemic world. Covid cases rise and fall with new variants. Some families are still uneasy about sending children to church. Others have found that the two plus years of online worship works better for their busy family schedules. As much as we may feel in-person worship is the best way to worship together, we know that for some it isn’t possible, especially those who are immunocompromised.
The return to in-person worship services after Covid closures has plateaued. While online attendance is up since pre-Covid times (how many of our churches had online service options before Covid?) it has remained roughly the same since last year.
Something has to shift. We are being asked to be adaptive and to change yet again. I know this is difficult. The world we once knew has changed, and in some ways the last two years have felt like twenty. Some churches who cannot adapt will close in the next five years. What is the determining factor?
“For the love of Christ urges us on” (2 Corinthians 5:14a). While there are some practical things we must do, such as adapting to digital space and connecting with our community (both online and in person) in tangible ways, there is one thing we must do: move forward in the love of Christ. We cannot stay the same. The rest of verse 14 into verse 15 reads “because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore, all have died. And Christ died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” We are reminded by Paul’s words that Christ died for all. For everyone. We live for Christ and not for ourselves, and if we live for Christ, we live for one another.
The churches I see that are thriving are the churches connecting with the needs of their neighbors and truly living out their love for Christ: through food banks, mental health services, community gardens, after-school programs, ministry to neighbors who live on our streets. People not connected with a church can become connected when they see a church living out their ministry and inviting them into those opportunities. Too often we focus on inviting people to worship on Sunday first. However, inviting someone into a tangible way of serving our neighbors in need is often even more life-transforming.
If you and your congregation are discerning where God might be calling you to shift, I hope you will consider attending “Adaptive Change: Responding to Volatile Times” on August 11th at 7pm on Zoom, as we listen and learn from congregations in ABCWI who have participated in the ReShaping Church initiative through Central Seminary. These are churches who are learning through this Covid time how to discern and integrate lasting change. We invite you to come and learn together.
This may be the perfect way to gear up for autumn, back to school and back to church. However, I hope you remember that numbers are not always a great indicator. While we love to see more people in worship, it’s the lives transformed that matter, and sometimes those people never set foot in our churches. But the love of Christ urges us on. Let Christ’s love urge you on, to not lose heart, to be encouraged. Even the churches Paul planted struggled (and not one of them survived to today!) but they transformed lives in the moment they were in. Perhaps that is the most we can do with the time given to us, to be transformed by Christ and to help others experience that transformative love.
With you on the journey of faith,
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell