The dark pandemic storm caught congregations in their own deep and familiar forests. Paths habitually taken to stay safe and comfortable suddenly washed away. Lightning-like bolts of truth jarred the consciences of many in pulpits and in pews.
As the storm subsides, some congregations, realizing they are still in the dark about the impacts of racism, injustice or poverty in their own communities, are heading out with flashlights or even flood lights. They are peering into nearby neighborhoods to discover ministry needs.
Certainly many needs exist, but how are churches to discover what God is calling them to find? One way is to simultaneously turn on another search beam – one pointing inward. This can be just as intimidating because shortcomings have a way of blocking light.
COVID-19 and the uprisings in response to the murder of Black bodies have brought into sharp relief the continued economic, health, environmental, and racial injustices and brutalities impacting the Black community. Some have felt helpless, anxious to respond compassionately and participate in effectual work that changes brutal conditions, but feeling at a loss about where to begin, overwhelmed with the magnitude of the task.
And the task is overwhelming. Neither health inequities nor police injustice began with COVID-19. Both are the result of long-term, structural injustices. They are the result of how we are situated socially. Where you find yourself today is the consequence of where you were months or years or even generations ago. Many feel flat-footed because of decades of separation. The good news is, whatever you do now can change where you will be, where we all will be in the future.
True confession: in my pre-COVID days, I always had good intentions about being a good neighbor. I thought about joining the neighborhood association, had casual conversations like “wouldn’t it be great to have a block party” but never made it happen, met people whom I intended to get together with but never did, but mostly, I would raise my hand and speak when passing, pick up trash when I saw it, and disappear into my backyard sanctuary for solitude, gardening, and fellowship with friends (most of whom are not neighbors).
This kind of describes a lot of pre-COVID 19 churches I know, too. They are friendly to their neighbors (the people and business owners), they care about the appearance of the neighborhood, they offer assistance to those in need… but often, friendly church members park in front of the church, enter the church doors, and find meaning, and fellowship with people like them inside the walls, and work to grow and nurture what they find there.
This month we offer five resources on outreach during this time of COVID-19. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers, blogs, and the monthly digest.
1) Has your church ventured online? In Evangelism, Connection, and Our New (Virtual) Reality, Alan Bentrup shares tips and guidelines for connecting to online congregants old and new.
On Easter Eve, the United States of America passed a milestone: peak resource use as a result of COVID-19 infections. Every state has a unique peak resource use date. Some have already passed them. Others have yet to. But as a nation, we are starting down the mountain. This according to The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
There is no “on” switch to be flipped. Scientists and other health care professionals continue to warn us that restarting a nation as big as the United States will have to be done with great care, in stages, over time. Balancing health concerns and economic recovery from a pandemic will be one of the most extraordinary challenges that our nation, and, in fact, the world, will ever face.
During this time of quarantine from the COVID-19 virus many are reflecting on its meaning for the church. Concerns abound: the doors of our churches were barely open, now they are shut; our attendance was dwindling, now it’s zero; our income was falling, now it’s further decreased; our pastoral care was spotty, now it’s non-existent; our community outreach was fragile, now it’s shuttered. This is a pessimistic view and thankfully creative church solutions are already being deployed to address these unusual times. We can further explore.
For many homebound on Sunday mornings the televangelist on the religious television stations have been a source for worship. Many televangelists have been vilified for questionable activities, however for some their popularity and longevity demonstrate success in ministry. Below are some observations.
The emerging and ever-changing challenges of the coronavirus are really quite daunting. The entire landscape of human gatherings has been changed in rapid succession. And yet COVID-19 has encouraged amazing creativity on the part of Episcopal worshipping communities, clergy, and lay leaders. We’re not normally early adapters, we Episcopalians, nor are we the quickest when it comes to innovative technology, but we’ve leaned hard into some new territory – connecting people who cannot be together in person. No one wanted to learn adaptive leadership and remote technology in this way, but many have learned – and learned it on the fly and really quite well.
YouTube channels have been created or, in some cases, more populated. Zoom is the tool I’ve been using, and we experienced this past Sunday the struggle of getting so many Zoom accounts to go live on Facebook at the same time! Facebook live is another popular option. The good news is that we’re learning together how to do church in a virtual space. Many can see what’s going on in other faith communities as well as share pro-tips and horror stories.
As I walked into All Saints’ Phoenix for the 11:00 AM Mass this past Sunday, something felt palpably different. I spoke with our Rector, Father Poulson Reed, the Bishop-Elect of Oklahoma. Plans were in full swing for next week’s going away party and final celebrations of the Holy Eucharist after a decade as our Rector.
But we both had a sinking feeling that things were about to change, and change rapidly. It was as if the walls were closing in, and there was nothing that could be done about it.
During the Mass, I recalled stories I had read of Europe at the onset of World War II. People in church, knowing that it would be the last time they would gather as a community for months or years, because the enemy was fast approaching.
The idea was simple: Let’s invite people to read the Bible together every day.
When the Good Book Club began in 2018, we weren’t sure how folks would engage. Organized by Forward Movement, the initiative brought in partner organizations from across the Episcopal Church. Groups prepared free resources for formation and study, everything from podcasts to downloadable Bible studies. That first year, we read through the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. And people responded. By the end of the first session of the Good Book Club, our weekly email list was about 3,800, with an open rate of about 50 percent. To put that into perspective, the national average open rate for emails is 25 percent. Something was stirring.
This month we offer five resources for Christmas reflections. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
1) Did you ever think, why, oh why, did I host that last Christmas party? In Bearing Gifts, Hosting Parties Richelle Thompson invites us to slow down and enjoy Christmas, while joining the Epiphany party trend.
This month we offer five resources on generous hospitality. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practicesto receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
1) Do you take notice of members who aren’t at church? How can we practice mindfulness in caring for our church family? In his blog, Who’s New and Who’s Missing, Peter Strimer shares his method for keeping everyone in the loop of ministry.
There once were young parents who decided to find a church family with whom they might raise their family in the faith. Though they’d attend the occasional Christmas and Easter service, they wanted to be more intentional. They committed to attending regularly, and after a little, they began being recognized as regular church attenders. People began to learn their names and that of their little girl. They eventually met with the priest and decided to have their toddler baptized.
As their little girl grew, they began looking forward to when she could participate in Sunday morning formation. It was about that time when they learned they’d become parents to a second child.
This month we offer five resources on community outreach. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
1. What does a New Orleans magician have in common with the early church? In Street Performers, Strangers, and Community, Alan Bentrup makes the connection that the early church drew people to it by virtue of what that smaller community was doing for the larger community – caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, etc. What could our modern church learn from that experience?
Most of us who are in the Episcopal Church have a love of the liturgy. Or at least an appreciation for it. Some are well-versed in the meaning of the movement and the posture, the theological nuance of the words. Others have been formed by decades of weekly practice, the words of the canticles still rolling off the tongue, the Prayer of Humble Access still echoing in our soul.
But there are many in our pews and chairs who are still learning the rhythms of the liturgy. They know that there are songs, readings, the Peace and the Eucharist, and that the clergy come in at the beginning and go out at the end. But they don’t even think about the idea of being formed as the Body of Christ. Maybe they have a grasp of the liturgical year, but they still think of Pentecost as the day we wear red. And, increasingly, they are likely to attend about once a month, so may only get one Sunday in the shorter seasons. They will not have the continuity and repetition that leads to learning.
The patch was rough. Three years after the old man who had lovingly tended the south five acres of the site for decades had moved to Florida, The Church of the Advocate acquired the land. Three years after that, we finally had a building in which to worship on the land. But having rented worship space for 11 years, it took us a while just to recover from all the transition and to settle into the reality of having our own place. We didn’t pay very much attention to what was growing where. We just tried to keep some of the grass mowed.
Soon, however, it became clear that the grounds just weren’t as pretty as they had been. Invasive plants had moved in, aggressive natives, like honeysuckle, sweet gum and pine had started growing like weeds. We had been clear from the beginning that the site was to be shared with anyone who came our way, whether they wanted to be part of the church or not. And wonderfully, one person who came our way was an amateur horticulturalist, a woman passionate about restoring land to native flora and fauna. We got to talking.
Last time we started talking about practices to build our confidence around evangelism.
There’s a good basic list of resources available on the Episcopal Church’s website. One of those great resources is a “Prayer Walk.” Prayer walking is a great starting point, but I think walking can do much more.
There’s a term, “walk-up evangelism,” which is the type of evangelism many people think about. You walk up to someone and start telling them about Jesus (or telling them that they need Jesus). That’s not what I propose. What I’m talking about is “walk-around evangelism.”
I figured the Memorial Day concert and cookout would be a good way for folks to experience the hospitality of the church.
We had invited Will Parker, now a student at Yale Divinity School touring for the summer, to provide a concert “for kids of all ages”. We debated about hosting an event on a secular holiday (unlike Independence Day and Thanksgiving, Memorial Day does not appear in the church calendar). But while we knew that many would be out of town for the Memorial Day weekend, we also knew that those who were still in town would be looking for something to do. We promoted the concert among the folks of the church, encouraging them to invite their friends. We promoted it on social media, paying a bit extra to send the ad out into the 10-mile radius of the church. And, for the first time, we posted it on the “Next Door” list serve. Neighbors near and far are welcome, we said.
It is not uncommon to hear the question: “How do we get Millennials (aka Young Adults) into our church(es)?” This question, however, misses the goal if you are a faith community trying to connect with young adults and invite them to join you in following Jesus. The motivation behind this question is misguided. Masked as an attempt at evangelism, the real question being asked is “how do we get young adults to buy/invest/tithe into our communities and the work of our church institution.” My response to this is to re-think the question.
Why not try these on instead: What is it about my experience of faith in this community that I want to share with young adults? What are we doing here in this church, at this time and place, that young adults would want to be a part of, be companions in, be leaders of? How is my relationship with God leading me to invite others to know the joy of following Jesus? And how does inviting young adults to be a part of this faith community nourish, equip, encourage me to do that?
I feel like I need to tell you upfront that I didn’t join Tinder to spread the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all of my potential matches. I do hope you already knew that. But after three years, a laundry list of bad first dates and a handful of short-term relationships, I learned that I have become readily equipped with all of the skills I need to be an evangelist. I’m no longer involved in online dating rings - moving from the San Francisco Bay Area to Northwest Arkansas meant a swift and jarring shrinking of the dating pool. Also, online dating in a college town when your match radius only reaches the campus population you are responsible for pastoring to is an absolute non-starter. I’m now in an #offline relationship. Still, I use the skill set entrusted to me to by God, developed with a little nurturing by Tinder and OKCupid, every single day. There are quite a few transferable skills between partially blind dating and talking to strangers about Jesus. And maybe, the online platforms that the church has given side eye to are actually doing the work of equipping the saints of God.