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From a friend of Ministry Architects, Pastor Kevin Allen, guest blogger
If the goal in Family Ministry is to help parents train up children who, as adults, are making disciples on their own, it may feel at times that it’s just wishful thinking and hopeful praying.
It can definitely seem overwhelming when a parent is cradling a newborn and trying to imagine what that child will be like as a young adult. Whether it’s picturing them on the mission field, leading friends to Christ, or even guiding their own family spiritually one day, uncertainty begins to creep in. Parents soon realize, children don’t just grow into spiritual champions, do they?
No, they do not. In fact, there’s something in the Bible about training them up. But many parents feel they don’t know enough about the Bible to lead spiritually. They begin thinking about how they didn’t see discipleship modeled in their own childhood home and, frankly, don’t want to try because they don’t want to fail.
Family Ministry Leaders, it’s our job to help our parents see that they can, indeed, complete the job God has given them.
The end goal can be difficult to imagine when all a parent can see in the present is their kid constantly getting pennies stuck up their nose. So it’s our job to help. We need to give parents identifiable markers to aim for at each stage of their child’s spiritual life.
One approach for this good work is the Four Stages of Family Discipleship:
When parents view their job of training up their children in bite-size goals, it becomes a little more clearer, as well as attainable. In fact, it can be very rewarding to look at a chart like this and see, “Oh, I’m already doing this and that. And we’re already on Stage 3 with this goal!”
Something to take note of in this chart is that it doesn’t start off with the spiritual aspect. This is important because building a strong house in Stages 2-4 requires the foundation of a healthy relationship in Stage 1. You can’t really do the last three stages if you’re not spending time together, having meaningful conversations, and if you don’t have consistent expectations. Some families will feel great that they’re already ahead in the charts, while others will see Stage 1 as a healthy wake-up call.
The Four Stages of Family Discipleship puts the responsibility on the parents, where it belongs, and we, as family ministry leaders, get to support by providing resources and strategies along the way.
For a generation that was mostly dropped off at church and who needs to relearn what discipleship in the home can look like, a model, such as this, can be a gift and a relief. To see a process that’s broken down into manageable parts doesn’t take away from the role of the Holy Spirit, but offers a way for families to experience measurable success and easy wins.
Interested in reading more about family ministry?
Check out Family Ministry Matters!
Kevin Allen studied Christian Theatre at Hannibal-LaGrange College in Hannibal, Missouri and received his Master of Arts in Theology from SWBTS in Fort Worth, Texas. He’s served in churches that have been small to mega and is currently the Pastor to Children and Young Families at First Baptist Church of Stephenville, Texas. He loves (most) activities with his family like camping, games, and movie nights. Kevin is available for speaking, coaching, or just plain brain-storming! Email him at KevinFamilyMin@gmail.com to get connected!
What Ted Lasso teaches us about caring for our congregations
Love it or loathe it, since its launch in 2020, ‘Ted Lasso’ has gained a global following. The award-winning Apple TV+ series follows the story of a college football coach from Kansas City who travels across the pond and manages a fictional English Premiere League soccer team, AFC Richmond.
Ted’s unique leadership style has led to numerous articles and podcasts debating his strengths and weaknesses. (A quick Google search for ‘Ted Lasso Leadership Lessons’ offers close to 1 million results!) But what can church leaders learn about caring for their congregations from this folksy, fictional sports coach?
(Note – this article may contain spoilers!)
- Be Relational
Ted comes into Richmond as an outsider with no experience of coaching soccer. With everyone sceptical about his ability and appointment, Ted knows that the first thing he needs to do is to win the trust of the playing squad, staff, and the fanbase. How does he do this? Ted values each person individually. He builds relationships with each person and gets to know them at more than just a superficial level. Eventually, most of the team are won over and Ted gains their trust, despite his lack of experience.
Caring for congregations must start from a place of relationship. If church leaders are going to care for their congregations well, they must connect with their people, build relationships intentionally, and get to know them as individuals and learn what is going on in their lives.
“If you care about someone, and you got a little love in your heart, there ain’t nothing you can’t get through together.” -Ted Lasso
- Be A Hope-Bringer
Ted, in many ways, is the ultimate optimist. Regardless of how bad the situation might appear to everyone else, how big a loss Richmond suffers, or how negative the newspapers are about a performance, Ted can see the good. When everyone else around him is down about something, Ted can bring hope. He sees beyond the present pain and frustration to what is possible in the future.
Ted’s hopefulness enables him to be a non-anxious presence in the locker room. By being a non-anxious presence, Ted releases his players from their fears and empowers them to perform at their best. At Ministry Architects, one of our core values is to be a ‘non-anxious presence’ to the congregations and church leaders we work with who might be mired in anxiousness, conflict, and frustration (you can read more about that here.)
Ted’s approach to leadership provides an example to church leaders as they shepherd their congregations. In a culture that constantly tells us that the church is becoming less relevant, church leaders get to offer a different narrative. When church attendance is on the decline, church leaders get to cast a hopeful vision of the future and our ultimate hope in Jesus. When there’s difficulty with recruiting and retaining volunteers, being a non-anxious presence and not adding to the stress of a short-staffed team brings a gift of care others will greatly appreciate.
“There’s two buttons I never like to hit: that’s panic and snooze.” -Ted Lasso
- Be a Noticer and Nurturer
When Ted arrives at Richmond, Nate is working as the club kit-man. He spends most of his time focused on the behind-the-scenes preparations for the team. This is not the role Nate wants. Nate dreams of becoming a coach and shares his dream with Ted. As soon as Ted hears this, Ted helps to make Nate’s dream a reality and Nate joins the Richmond coaching staff.
Ted also notices a player named Roy. After Roy retires from his professional career as a footballer, he goes to work for a TV company, commentating on games, and sure that he is finished working for a soccer club. Ted, however, is sure that Roy would make a great coach and has something to offer the team. In the face of Roy’s reluctance, Ted does not relent, and continues to encourage Roy. When Roy eventually becomes dissatisfied with TV work, he returns to the sidelines of Richmond, joining Ted and the other coaches.
Noticing others and nurturing leadership potential in others is another way church leaders can care for their congregation. When Jesus talks about disciples making disciples, part of that care and teaching is the ability to notice and nurture in others their God given gifts and talents. Like Ted, church leaders need to create opportunities for members of the congregation to learn, try, and occasionally fail forward, in leadership roles.
“For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.” -Ted Lasso
- Be Aware of the Need for Self-Care
Ted learns this lesson the hard way. Ted sees himself as someone who is resilient, someone who is always able to see both the good in people and the positives in life, and someone who others seek for counsel. But in Season 2, and the arrival of team psychologist, Dr. Sharon, it quickly becomes clear that Ted is not OK.
Struggling to process his divorce, a transatlantic father-son relationship, and mixed results on the soccer field, the cracks begin to appear. But it takes more than one break before Ted bends and admits he needs help. During an important game, Ted has a panic attack, leaves the field, and finally acknowledges his need to meet with Dr. Sharon.
This is one area church leaders need to be less Ted. Pastorally looking after people and attending to their spiritual and emotional health needs can take its toll. In seasons of busyness, often the first thing that gets removed from one’s daily routine are the moments of rest and self-care that are crucial to supporting a congregation.
In order to care for congregations well, church leaders need to ensure they are getting the rest they need along with the emotional, mental health, and spiritual support they require. Being aware of the need for self-care allows a leader to reach out for help before they break.
“Your body is like day-old rice. If it ain’t warmed up properly, something real bad could happen.” -Ted Lasso
- And finally…Be a Goldfish!
Following some team conflict, Ted asks one of his players, Sam, if he knows what the happiest animal in the world is. Seeing Sam’s bemused face Ted explains to Sam that the happiest animal in the world is a goldfish because it only has a ten second memory. Ted then encourages Sam to be a goldfish.
Above my desk I have a poster with this Ted-ism written on it. It was put up to serve as a reminder to young people to not let what has just happened define what happens next in their day.
But it is also a helpful reminder for church leaders as they care for their congregations.
A bad service? A sub-par event? A disappointing sign up? Struggling to return to pre-COVID 19 numbers?
Be a goldfish. Don’t let memories of the past define the future.
“You know what the happiest animal on Earth is? It’s a goldfish. You know why? It’s got a 10-second memory.” – Ted Lasso
Mike lives in the UK with his wife, two children, and pet cockapoo. He has been involved in youth ministry for over 10 years, having spent the last nine as youth ministry coordinator at the Anglican Church he came to faith in as a teenager in South London. As part of his role, Mike also serves as the assistant chaplain at the local high school and has been part of the chaplaincy team for the local Premier League Football (soccer!) Team.
Mike is passionate about young people finding their place in the church and equipping parents to disciple their teenage children at home. Mike recently completed the Certificate in Youth and Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. In his spare time Mike enjoys watching soccer, baseball (Let’s Go Mets!), and running marathons.
“Out beyond ideas of wrong and right, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
When Rumi was writing poetry, there was no binary right way or wrong way to do things. There was simply expression. And the outward expression of what’s rolling around inside is a universal experience amongst poets. The interesting truth is, such an experience is also shared amongst leaders.
Leadership and poetry have a few things in common: leadership is about connections, both with self and others. There are certain treasures that we find in the leaders we connect with most, similar to how some poems are particular favorites.
Leaders have shapes, styles, and leanings that are uniquely their own, too. Take, for instance, Fiorello LaGuardia.
Fiorello LaGuardia was the mayor of New York during World War II and the great depression. He was lovingly called, “the little flower” because, standing at 5’3”, he always wore a red carnation in his suit pocket. His larger than life image, or “his kind of crazy” is remembered around New York to this day.
LaGuardia was known to go to orphanages and surprise the children by taking them all to a baseball game. When the papers were on strike, he read the Sunday paper over the radio so New Yorkers could know what was happening in the world. His leadership was unique, and he surrounded himself with support and discipline to connect with others. During a time of uncertainty, LaGuardia led by example underscoring that little acts of love make a tremendous difference. Acts of kindness, mercy and love are contagious.
Identifying what William Vanderbloemen calls “our kind of crazy” in his book, Culture Wins, allows us to notice and wonder how our leadership is an integral part of an organization’s leadership. Because, much like leaders and poems, organizations have shapes, styles, and leans, as well.
During this time of pandemic and change, organizations are thirsty for strong and aware leadership, while leaders are at the cusp of creating new normals. This creating, expressing, and determining our nexts is just what image-bearers do. Because God is always doing something new.
At Starbucks, the standard greeting one is met with is not, “What would you like?” or “How can I help?”. Rather, baristas are trained to ask, “What can I get started for you?”. It is with that wonder that we get to approach leadership, too. By engaging others, like LaGuardia, and meeting them in fields, like what Rumi wrote about, we get to start nexts – together.
Are you ready for a next? Are you ready to make a real and lasting investment in you and your organization’s growth? Then consider inviting a coach to walk with you for a season through the Next Level Leader.
If you’re a reader, you can check out Jeff Cochran’s book, Next Level Leader, and order it here.
If you’re curious where you are as a leader, take a free online assessment and see how your leadership styles might be identified.
And, if you want to start immediately, learn more here about the Next Level Leader 360 options and watch this time of change become a time to achieve a new level of leadership.
Betsy Zarzour is a lead consultant and certified Next Level Leader. She has experienced how leaders who move to their next level help grow and produce other leaders, strengthening their organizations and expanding their reach and impact of connection. Click here to learn more or connect with Betsy.
In navigating another holiday season, I wonder if you’ve found yourself in a place where so many of us land: hyper-focused on programs and events that, while really good and ever-so timely, tend to move ministry leaders away from our daily rhythms. One of the rhythms that I try not to lose sight of amidst the hustle and bustle is showing pastoral generosity to the people in my community.
What is pastoral generosity? I’m glad you asked. In its simplest terms, pastoral generosity is the act of taking time to care for the personal, spiritual, and emotional needs of our congregation members. The connection between generosity and showing care for others finds its foundation in the scriptures. Proverbs 11:25 tells us that, “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.”
As we make the move from Christmas into a new year, many of us are tired and feeling far from refreshed. But, could it be that if we want to feel refreshed in our ministries, then the first step may be to intentionally refresh others?
If you’re looking for a way to turn up the generosity dial, there are three shifts I’ve found that can be of tremendous help. Spoiler alert: these three shifts are the same three shifts that I’ve used in my local congregation to develop generosity in service and financial support of the church’s ministry.
The first move toward generosity is the act of being charitable with what we’ve been given. That might seem oversimplified, but those of us who have learned, lived, and discipled others in the ways of generosity know it’s the first step toward living a generous life.
In the same way that we might look for ways for our congregants to take their first step into generous living through acts of charity – giving a small something out of the excess that they possess – pastors can step into generosity in their care for congregants by looking for small ways to bless their people.
- Write five thank you cards this week to let families in the church know you’re grateful to have them in your life.
- Go out of your way to comment on social media pictures that celebrate significant moments in the life of those you lead in worship.
- Send a couple of text messages to some of your core volunteers to let them know that you’re praying for them. (And actually pray for them.)
Such simple acts may take only a matter of minutes but they begin cultivating generosity in our own lives and filling up that refresh tank.
Once charitable gestures have a place in our regular practice of pastoral care, our next move is to consider how we can shift from giving out of our excess to giving from the margins of our life.
I know a pastor who has a printed birthday directory of her church’s membership and she gives each person a birthday phone call, aiming to spend 10-20 minutes in conversation with each person. In doing this, she’s being more than just charitable with her time. As you consider your congregation and their needs, it’s easy to become overwhelmed if you think you have to be everything to everyone. Instead, choose a rotating circle of people to connect with in generous ways – where it might require a little more of you – and you’ll begin to see the shift in yourself and your bandwidth for caring for your people.
You’re probably familiar with the story from the Gospel of Luke where Jesus sends out the 72 to do ministry in His name. But, did you know that this story includes the key to what can empower you to make the final shift into an increased level of pastoral generosity?
And that key is sacrifice.
After giving what many coaches would call the worst pep rally speech ever (“Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” – Jesus, Luke 10:3), followers of Jesus are sent out to do work in His name, with very little to call their own. One might think that such a stressful task would wear a person out but, instead, Luke tells us that they “returned with joy” after seeing God’s power lived out through their ministry.
Pastoral generosity can wear a person out, whether it’s done charitably or sacrificially. The difference is often found in your ability to find joy in the work you’re doing and your desire to share that joy with others. The key to avoiding burnout when we shift into sacrificial pastoral care is finding ways to spend our time beyond our margins in ways that bring us enough joy that we can’t help but share it with others.
If your joy quotient is low, consider scaling back and assessing what acts of pastoral care you could focus on that would bring you joy.
- Some pastors enjoy spending Saturdays at the little league field and praying over kids and families before the start of each game.
- Others are filled up by spending time in the homes of new parents, holding their little ones while mom or dad can take a much-needed chance to catch their breath.
- This past year, as I fought off my own experience of a joy-less season of ministry, I joined a friend from our church and became a high school football referee. Though it meant that I was sacrificing three nights each week that I wouldn’t be at home, the joy that I found in getting to provide pastoral care as a chaplain-of-sorts to sixty other referees in our association and the school administrators more-than-filled my bucket and gave me a renewed energy for caring for those in my local congregation.
As we turn the clock on this month and look forward to the next, take some time in self-reflection to determine where your pastoral generosity dial sits today and what your next step might be to live into your role as caregiver and shepherd within your congregation a little more fully. If the teachings of scripture are true, and I believe that they are, then I hope you’re refreshed as you refresh those you are called to pastor.
Anthony Prince is a husband, dad, and pastor—in that order. Anthony currently serves as the Executive Pastor at Real Life Church of LA, a growing multi-site church plant in the foothills of Los Angeles, CA. He is a graduate of Fuller Seminary, with an M.A. in Global Leadership and an emphasis in Youth, Family & Culture. Anthony is a sought-after speaker on the topics of children & family ministry, strategic church leadership, and volunteer recruitment.
Who have you seen today? Who have you thought about, talked to, connected with? Who have you passed as you walked, shopped, or went about your day? We ask because we’re wondering. . . who in your life needs the gifts this season brings? Who needs an experience with the gifts this season brings? An experience. . . with Jesus?
We’ve thought about you. And our guess is that you, much like everyone you know or pass by, could use a few more breaths of hope and faith this year. A few more moments of joy and peace. A few more encounters with the Light of the World.
That’s our heart in sharing this Advent devotional with you: that you might find a few times each week of this season to sit with our Lord and ponder anew the gift He is to you.
Merry Christmas and may God bless you and keep you as you journey into a new year.
Simply let us know your name and email to download our 2021 Advent Devotional.
(A follow-up to “They’re Not Coming Back”)
If you’re familiar with the Broadway musical Hamilton, then you’ve probably heard the song “You’ll Be Back.” Sung by the character of King George III, this song is a sharp shift in style and tone from the rest of the show and serves to remind the colonists that their attempted revolution will inevitably be just a passing phase. Because, of course, as the King reminds, they’ll be back; he can’t imagine they won’t.
It wasn’t until this past week that I was struck by the irony of just how tragically perfect that song is for this time. Think about it: an authority, who thinks he’s in touch with his people, sweetly sings a song of truth to remind them, compel them, threaten them to return. Assured they will, he recites with disdain their reasons for distancing and counters each one with his own version of reality. As we know, the colonists did not come back. The revolution went forward. And those who once were citizens survived, nay, thrived without the home they once knew.
Living within the collective trauma of the pandemic, many people have stepped back from their churches. One of the responses from church leaders has been to lament decreased attendance, volunteer shortages, emptier rooms, and reduced giving. While the message of such a response might be conveyed with a mindfulness of people needing the church, the motivation is not without the awareness that the church needs the people, too. How will we survive without their offerings? This may sound harsh, but we are dangerously close to thinking of the people as numbers and seat-fillers we need – barely a step above property.
While we aren’t pulling a full King George III impersonation here with violent threats, there has been disdain. Expressions of frustration and disappointment with people have been shared in a multitude of ways including (but not limited to) passive-aggressive “invitations” in weekly church emails, non-specific but pointed social media posts, and maybe even face-to-face. I’ve seen it, my colleagues have seen it, and, in the end, such a stance with our stanzas will probably produce the same result as that tired king: they won’t come back.
In working to figure out this reality in my own context, here’s where I’ve landed: collective lamenting has its place. Ever since sharing the blog “They’re Not Coming Back,” I’ve been overwhelmed with emails, phone calls, and social media interactions with church leaders from around the nation who are feeling the pains, fears, and confusion of this situation. To be honest, it was so humbling and healing for me simply to be heard and know that I am not alone. But we can’t sit in the land of doom and gloom forever because the Gospel is bigger than all of this. The world still desperately needs a church that shows up where the people are, even if the people aren’t where we are.
In part one of “They’re Not Coming Back”, I shared three steps for addressing this new reality of absent individuals:
- We need to stop telling stories that we know are not true.
- We need to see this situation for what it is.
- We need to understand why.
It’s with this last one I’d like to springboard into a more specific idea that every church in every town can do next: We need to become spiritual trauma centers for our communities.
What it means to become a spiritual trauma center
In many circles, “spiritual trauma center” is a term that is used for organizations that are trying to help people recover from unhealthy church experiences or other religious trauma. When I use this term, I am more generally speaking of the way we can reframe the role of the church in any community to address trauma from a spiritual perspective.
The Church is called to see the real pains of the human condition and then to offer the Good News in response, with hopeful reframing and merciful actions. When we do this well, we become a spiritual trauma center for the everyday and the extreme situations of life (like, let’s say, a global pandemic.) Trauma-informed ministry teaches us that we are interacting with wounded people who need help reframing the narrative of how they see themselves in the world and in the image of Christ.
What it does NOT mean
We cannot approach this work with secret goals of increasing membership, attendance, or giving. Our goal should be to help heal the wounded and show them a path that leads to life abundant.
This means the answer to the collective trauma of the pandemic is probably not found in simply attending our worship services. Our worship services can be good and important, but they aren’t so great that all the world needs is fifty-two Sundays of perfect attendance to experience real healing and wholeness.
Hosea 6:6 and Matthew 9:13 teach us that God desires us to be agents of mercy more than robots of ritual. If we succeeded in bringing all the people back to regular worship, weekly serving roles, and consistent giving, but never helped them heal from the spiritual trauma of the pandemic, that would just be “noisy gong and clanging cymbal” ministry. Sure, our seats would be filled. But then when they return to all the other seats they fill every other day of the week, how will they be doing, really?
How to be Agents of Mercy
First, get everyone in your congregation their own “agent of mercy” cape. They’ll blow everyone away as they walk through town, ready to care for others.
Actually, the first thing to do is recognize your unique setting and context and consider where you can start. Not everyone in your congregation is ready – or able – to take these steps. And that’s okay. The encouraging news is you don’t need everyone to start doing this work. In fact, none of the steps to becoming a spiritual trauma center require that you get your church’s permission before trying. And, nobody is forced to participate (of course.) But the offering of what you’re about to endeavor to try will, hopefully, start to impact in ways others are drawn to be a part. It should also be noted that the more people who engage in this work, the more likely you’ll find yourself leading a church that is a spiritual trauma center for your community.
Practical Step #1: Learn to listen for people’s particular pains.
When you talk with people, whether they are an estranged member or someone new that you want to reach, actively listen to what they are experiencing and don’t worry about a response. When people talk about what life is like for them now, don’t try to solve the problem or give your own examples. Just listen to people with the hope that you will learn something and maybe even be changed by what they share. There is healing in being heard and wisdom in listening.
Taking notes while you are listening to people can be awkward unless you are chatting over the phone. So, as soon as you wrap up talking with someone, give yourself time to make notes on what you heard and think deeply about what they have shared with you.
If you are in tune with the needs of real people, then your prayerful discernments for the actions of your ministry will be better grounded in the actual human condition, the actual pains of the people. You have an answer for these pains in the next two steps. When the timing is right, trust that the Spirit will guide you in sharing this answer.
Checkpoint #1 to becoming a spiritual trauma center: Do you know the particular pains of the people you are trying to reach?
Practical Step #2: Be ready to articulate the benefits of following Jesus.
How many of us can actually articulate the benefits of following Jesus? When the people in pain open their minds and their hearts, do we just offer a series of wonderful worship services and programs? I hope not. I hope we find a way to fully articulate how Jesus has become the spiritual cure in our own lives – and can be in theirs, too.
As I type this, I know how ridiculously basic and simple this seems, but each of us needs an elevator speech. Each of us needs that 30-second “here’s why my life is better with Jesus” snapshot that explains why you’re different and life is different because of Him. And then you need to have the deeper version for when someone asks for more.
Let’s be honest, most of our churches are filled with people who cannot do this. If both the leaders and the people cannot express why the good news is good – then does it really surprise us that connections with the Church have grown so thin amidst all the terrible, very bad news that has monopolized almost every facet of our lives over the last 18 months?
Checkpoint #2 to becoming a spiritual trauma center: Can you genuinely explain the benefits of following Jesus in a way that is 100% authentic to your experience of life?
Practical Step #3: Invite the people into a generosity of steadfast love.
If we can find ourselves in church communities where both the pains of life and the benefits of the Gospel are known, this next step should be easy: start inviting people to join you in loving others.
Someone you know needs help. Go help them. Take someone with you. And experience firsthand how those physical, mental, and emotional pains you learned about during step #1 begin to heal through acts of steadfast love from people of faith.
The collective trauma of the pandemic has been predominantly fueled by a lack of connection with others. People need people. And those needs aren’t met solely through a Sunday morning hour or Wednesday night dinner within our church walls. Such an expression of love responding to such a deep need will overflow into the streets of the surrounding neighborhoods and beyond time frames of convenience. We have got to start loving people so extravagantly that they ask us why we are doing it. And it will be in those moments that we will get to tell them about Jesus. Because He loves in these ways. And when we know and follow Him, we can’t help but do the same.
Checkpoint #3 to becoming a spiritual trauma center: Are you loving people in extravagant ways with the help of other people?
Millions of people have seen the Broadway musical Hamilton. This means millions of people have heard the out-of-touch leader who’s too proud to acknowledge the needs of his people, and instead continues offering solutions for problems they don’t have, eventually losing them for good.
Yet, in the second act of Hamilton, another song is sung. This one by a new kind of leader who simply wants to be in “The Room Where It Happens.” This leader wants to have a role in the important things. He wants to be a part of that which makes a lasting difference in the lives of the people.
There is a god of attendance that can demand our attention. There is a god of giving and a god of doing-what-we’ve-always-done that can drive our actions too. But then there’s the God of Love. Our God sees pain, weeps with those who weep, offers healing truth, loves deeply, and invites us to do the same. Our God is not worried about how many seats are filled on a Sunday. Our God is wondering how many hearts will be seen and served by the people of God. If we choose this God of Love in our churches, then I imagine many others will want to be in the room where it happens.
Years ago, we used to tell ourselves that young adults who had strayed from the church would come back after they got married. When that didn’t happen, we shifted our hopes and proclaimed that they would return when they had kids. Some came back for baptisms, but the tsunami of baby-toting individuals never quite hit the shores of our weekly worship.
And, so, we edited the story, confident that the returns would happen once their kids reached school age. As school-age children began signing up for all sorts of activities, we figured that our amazing youth programs would make the list of prioritized pursuits. While many congregations saw some waves of church reengagement, many others experienced something entirely different about “their” young adults…
They weren’t coming back.
The reality is, this is the story for many churches for many years; it isn’t a truth we found out in 2020 or even 2021. And surveys and church statistics continue to reveal that missing church members are more likely to stay home than to go to a different church. So it’s not that they’re going somewhere else. They aren’t going anywhere. And they certainly aren’t coming back.
Then came the pandemic.
Churches around the nation had a reset button hit. In-person church was halted and then, slowly, restarted. In the meanwhile, online methods of worship filled the gaps. In the beginning, many churches experienced numbers that exceeded their previous in-person numbers. “We’ve got so many people attending our church from out-of-state!” we exclaimed with delight, as evangelism seemed to thrive despite the pandemic. At the same time, our church members were laying down some of the activities and hustle of everyday life that used to conflict with church options.
But they were doing this all while at the same time picking up the stress of daily pandemic navigation. And experiencing the rise of political and social tensions. And a general feeling of exhaustion grew in our people.
Then we started to notice that the proverbial back door of the church was propped open.
People were starting to drop off of the Zoom gatherings and online worship events. Online children and youth ministry activities saw an increase of cameras turned off and eventually a decrease in participants. Our masked and socially distanced gatherings that started to emerge attracted fewer numbers, but we figured that the people would return, volunteer, and help us rebuild the church once we reached that “new normal.” We started editing the story that we told each other – making excuses for individuals and families who were not showing up.
While church leaders did the hard work of navigating health guidelines and exercising creative adjustments, many people got used to life with less church. Or, perhaps, even life without church.
As our society is opening up more and more, people are starting to pick up the weight of busy lives again. With the pandemic and virus variants over their heads, people are finding that they have a reduced capacity for weight bearing. Even joyful activities are getting sidelined in this “new normal.” Now, the church is realizing something not just about young adults, but also about people of all ages in our churches. They’re not coming back.
- The super volunteers who used to carry twenty positions in the church are now looking to do just a few things.
- Our regular attenders are becoming semi-regular.
- Our fringe folks are fading away.
People are not coming back to the church at the same level of engagement.
So, what do we do?
1. We need to stop telling stories that we know are not true.
Our excuses for the absence of others don’t help anyone. We can hope – and speak in goals and prayers and aspirations – for a someday return. But there’s a reality to our relationships, or lack thereof, that’s been hushed or is being ignored. And our stories aren’t as true as they could be.
2. We need to see this situation for what it is.
It’s not even that people aren’t returning – they might never have been connected in the first place. People have experienced how easy (or how difficult) it is to live without their church. Obligation and duty no longer make up for a lack of connectedness, devotion, or faith itself. People learned who their friends are and some discovered – or finally acknowledged – that the church isn’t a necessary part of their lives. As much as churches miss people, people just aren’t missing back.
3. We need to understand why.
The story many are not acknowledging is that we are a traumatized people. For each and every one of us – all at once – our world stopped. And, now, every single person – from the ones present to the ones we claim to miss to the ones we don’t even know yet – everyone is recovering from a shared trauma. The events we’ve walked through have had many questioning their livelihoods, their safety, and their relationships.
And if the church hasn’t offered answers for those questions yet, then we need to figure out how to do so now. We need to figure out what it means to be a spiritual trauma center for our communities. We need to reintroduce ourselves as a place that can tend to the wounds this pandemic has opened. Each church needs to consider how they might evangelize to their neighbors (and some of their own members) – almost as if they were launching a new church in 2021.
For years we’ve had no magic answer for the young adult losses that many churches grappled with before the pandemic. In that context, though, we believed too many false narratives and failed to adequately address the motivations involved. Similarly, no magic answer exists for the receding engagement across multiple age groups that we are seeing post-pandemic.
But what we do know is that the future of the church will require innovative changes. We have experienced how developing healthy systems is essential for all church seasons to not just survive – but thrive – and it’s time to admit we cannot move forward with our pre-pandemic approaches.
The need for a major pivot is before us, and we know that God will provide for the times and places where we are found. Therefore, let us walk into this valley with eyes wide open, ready to step forward with intention, believing in the presence of the Good Shepherd, the proximity of green pastures, the provided meal amongst adversity, the anointing of our heads, the overflowing of our cups, and our place in the House of the Lord forever.
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Reverend Rob Dyer is Senior Pastor at First United Presbyterian Church of Belleville, IL. Rob has spent the last several years working in the areas of community missions and leadership development in southern Illinois where he lives with his brilliant and supportive wife, Sarah, and their four children. Click here to connect with Rob.