A couple of conversations this week got me thinking about the ways congregational leaders are responding to the challenge of keeping church going through the ever-lengthening Covid crisis.
We are familiar with the talk of shifting from a sprint to a marathon, as our immediate, emergency responses from the spring lockdown period have steadily been adjusted and replaced by more medium-term solutions.
Software has been upgraded and new equipment installed, and our creaking old churches have shown themselves to be remarkably adept at learning the language and practices of new technology.
Old habits die hard
And yet, some old habits die hard. Congregational leaders who once fretted about average Sunday attendance now pore over YouTube analytics, Facebook likes, and download numbers. There is a widespread fear about losing what we now think of as our viewing audience.
We struggle to make ourselves heard in a medium that measures success in terms of how many seconds you can hold someone’s attention for, before they click on someone else’s content.
There is a longer term component to this fear too, as leaders fret that congregation members who have been set free to roam the wide expanses of internet church might wander off for good, finding greener pastures elsewhere or losing interest all together.
This fear has pushed some leaders to tear their hair out seeking ways to make their uploaded content more engaging. For others it has led to feeling pressured to resume in-person worship in an attempt to limit losses.
A long winter ahead
But the Covid pandemic shows no sign of abating before next spring, and it is likely to be even longer until a vaccine is widely available and some form of more normal social interaction will be safe.
More cautious communities will remain online-only for many months to come, and those congregations that have opted for in-person worship will face the head winds of winter flu season and the possibility of the imposition of further restrictions on gatherings.
In other words, the challenge is not going to get easier anytime soon. Simply put, the challenge is, How do we hold our communities together when we can no longer get together?
This is where the sometimes desperate focus on numbers and the pressure to “reopen” our churches comes in.
But what if we took this opportunity to ask some deeper questions about our communities of faith and the purpose of our gatherings? What opportunities might emerge?
In my next post, I’ll turn to some of those questions.
Rev. Dr. Jeff Seaton is an Anglican priest and former United Church of Canada minister, church leadership consultant, and author of Who’s Minding the Story? (Wipf & Stock, 2018).