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 is 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 we move toward that day.
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 have measured the impact of their services in a couple of ways. Through analytics we have been able to measure the number of connections or views provided through various online platforms. These numbers tell you how many “views” or IP address connections each livestream broadcast, social media post, or Zoom meeting generated. While interesting, and not without value as a measurement, analytics alone cannot measure the true impact of ministry.
Savvy leaders, therefore, began to shift their language toward “engagement” instead of “views” or raw numbers from analytics. By engagement, we look 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? Are we providing persons 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 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 fallout from more than a year of such ministry. Persons have become distanced and disengaged from faith community during the pandemic. Distance has afforded some the space to evaluate their engagement moving forward. Just as the business world will see persons make career changes post-pandemic, and the real estate world has seen persons relocate to homes more attractive or functional to work at home or school from home needs, the church is likely to see persons evaluate their engagement in congregational life.
With that sober assessment as back drop, 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 gradually move toward a post-pandemic ministry era? I would offer the following:
- Think Dialogue verses 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 than 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 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 persons 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, mass shootings 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 persons become vaccinated for 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 persons 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 about this? Who needs to be invited, offered transportation, encouraged to participate? What new faces have joined you virtually over the past year, and 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 have adapted.
It would be a mistake to miss the opportunity we have been given to discern as we determine what should come back in our congregational life. Are there ministries that have run their course and will not be missed? Do we need to acknowledge this 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” verses 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
One of my favorite quotes, often attributed to the late Eugene Peterson is the very title of a book he wrote: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.[i] That, according to Peterson, is what ministry and the life of faith is all about. The things of discipleship, mission and congregational life are much more organic than 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, it will require time for things 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. It will often be a two-step forward, one-step back, kind of cadence we walk to. But, over time, those who press on will find themselves gaining ground.
Remember, it is work worth doing. It’s a marathon deserving of our long obedience in the same direction.
*About the Author: Daniel M. Cash, M.Div., D.Min. is the Sr. Pastor of the 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.
IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.