Greeting our return when the old is gone and the new is here

“When we return, we will all be newcomers.”

It was just a casual observation, but as soon as she said it, the nods of affirmation and recognition in every Zoom rectangle made it clear that she had put words to what we were all describing but could not quite name.

Of course! We will all be newcomers, again.

As church and office buildings begin to reopen in larger numbers after a year of on-again, off-again COVID-19 closures, our habits in these once-familiar physical spaces have been broken.

What was instinctive and comfortable in March 2020 is now, for many of us, just outside the realm of memory. How did we share life in these spaces? How did we get work done here?

Even with a widespread yearning for a return to normalcy, we may find that our familiar places now feel somewhat foreign. Ongoing and necessary health and safety precautions will change the ways we interact in these spaces.

Office doors that a year ago were usually left open to invite casual conversation may now be closed so that we can work without having to wear masks all day (for those of us who have that privilege).

There will no longer be a communal coffeepot, no impromptu lunch around the table in the office kitchen. Meetings will still be on Teams even though we’re all in our offices just a few feet apart.

On Sunday mornings, social distancing may mean that our usual pew can no longer be “our pew” because it’s now reserved to be the buffered distance between us. Some of us may find ourselves distributing individually wrapped, carefully sealed communion wafers to the faithful kneeling 6 feet apart at the altar rail.

It’s not only that our past habits have been broken; in some cases, our very ways of being in spaces together may no longer be advisable or possible. We will have to create new ways of being community together. How did she say it?

“We will all be newcomers.”

There’s also a deeper distancing that has occurred over the last year in our churches and office buildings. We may now be strangers not just to physical spaces but also to those with whom we previously shared those spaces. So much life happens in a year, even in a year of pandemic lockdown.

While congregations and organizations have tried to sustain community in difficult circumstances, there are still so many stories, so many experiences that we did not share with each other in real time. There’s been grief and joy that simply went unspoken.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes, “When someone you haven’t seen in ten years / appears at the door, / don’t start singing him all your new songs. / You will never catch up.”

If she were to write it today, we can imagine her saying, “When someone you haven’t seen except by Zoom / appears at the door …”

While it is tempting to agree that catching up will be virtually impossible (pun intended), one of the particular gifts of religious communities is that most of us do some of our most intentional ministry with newcomers.

In this moment after we have missed so many other moments, we will need the best of what we know from that to help us find a way of being back together.

For example, we have cultivated practices for welcoming one another and inviting one another to share in something larger than ourselves — the mission of the church in the world.

At our best, we know how to listen for, celebrate and receive the gifts of each new person.

We know how to help each other share our stories of heartbreak and hope and, in each telling, find new layers of meaning.

We know how to invite people into service in the world that is good for the world and deeply fulfilling for them personally.

We will need all those capacities and all that experience to help us be, and become more than, newcomers together.

She said it so casually, so clearly: “When we return, we will all be newcomers.”

In eight words, she named the truth that reopening our buildings was never going to be as simple as unlocking the doors or turning on the lights, roping off a few pews or putting out hand sanitizer — not that those things are all that simple.

Reopening our buildings, resuming life together, is an emotional and spiritual challenge. In the language of Ron Heifetz, it isn’t just a technical challenge but an adaptive one too.

It is good news for us that congregations know how to be in those spaces with faith, hope and love. Now as ever, the world needs all three.

As congregations across the United States make plans for the reopening of church buildings and a return to in-person worship, whenever that may happen, our attention has quite rightly been focused on how we will keep people safe when they come through our doors.

I am serving on a diocesan task force on church reopening and am finding that the challenges involved can be overwhelmingly complex. How will we ensure that people will abide by social distancing requirements, especially as they arrive and depart our sanctuaries? Which surfaces will need to be sanitized, and how often? Will mask wearing be required in our buildings, and if so, who will enforce that?

What platform will we use so people can make reservations for less-than-full-capacity seating in worship? How will we welcome visitors or newcomers who don’t have reservations? How will we maintain connection with a virtual community of higher-risk parishioners while lower-risk parishioners gather in person?

The draft of the guidelines addressing these questions already stretches beyond 20 single-spaced pages, and the task force has not yet finished its work.

The ways that congregations are adapting their lives together to the complexities of this time fascinate me. As I have written previously, the agility we have seen in congregational practices has been inspiring — and it will need to be maintained into this next season.

In conversations with church leaders, I hear them worrying about another set of complex challenges of this time as well. A season at home has given our members, volunteers, donors and staffs an opportunity to reevaluate commitments. In assessing and reassessing their priorities, they’re finding that some of the causes to which they were giving time, effort, energy and money just months ago now seem decidedly less important. We might say that for some people, week upon week of physical distancing has led to an emotional distancing from the organizations — including congregations — they once held dear.

We see this kind of distancing reflected in recent Barna Group polling. (Whether you rely regularly on Barna research or never read their reports, their numbers here are worth noting and comparing with your congregation’s numbers in the same categories.) In their survey of churchgoers, 48% indicated that in the last four weeks they had not attended online worship services.

While 40% said they had worshipped with their own churches online, roughly a quarter of those had also worshipped elsewhere, overlapping with the 23% overall who said they had streamed online worship offered by a church other than their own. At the same time, after an initial spike in attendance following the move to online-only worship, more than half of churches surveyed reported that online attendance had plateaued (29%) or declined (32%).

One pastor told me recently, “I feel incredible pressure to make online worship different each week to keep people coming back, but I am running out of creative energy. The novelty of online has definitely worn off for my people.”

All of this suggests that in addition to the practical preparation for a return to shared space, we will need to plan reengagement strategies for our members, staffs and donors, to reconnect them with our missions, ministries, visions and values — an additional complication for congregational leaders wearied by the upheavals of church life in the last few months, along with weeks upon weeks of ministry by Zoom.

How might we develop these strategies without further taxing already-taxed people? I can imagine three ready invitations in our present context.

First, many churches have found themselves serving new constituencies during the months of the pandemic. For some congregations, these have been neighbors in need that we never knew before. For others, these have been hospital workers or first responders. For still more, these have been online worshippers who have joined from communities that are miles — if not an ocean — away.

Telling the story of whom you have served and how you have served during “coronatide” can remind your people of your community, your purpose and your mission. Furthermore, inviting your people to name those they have served during this time is a way of helping them name their own passions, their own ministries.

Second, for every congregation board that had identified their annual priorities and strategies in the first weeks of the year and for every church that had just put the final touches on a strategic plan, you now have the opportunity to revisit that work as an investment in reengagement. Though it may not feel like it, this is a gift to share conversations about “where from here.”

These conversations are a way of inviting our boards, members, staffs and donors to dream together about a new shared future — one that may be difficult to imagine but is important to imagine all the same. When we invite people to picture the future, we are engaging them in an exercise of hope. And as they picture the future of the congregation, they are putting themselves, however subconsciously, into that future.

Third, as has been observed, we are confronting two true pandemics in these days. There are many forums where people are having new or renewed conversations about the shape of racial justice in this country, and there are distinct contributions that faith-based communities can make to these discussions.

For Christians, of course, racial justice is not primarily a political, economic or sociological concern; it is a theological and spiritual concern. Equipping our members to name the practical importance of their faith in their reach and work for an anti-racist world matters — and we can do this now by inviting people to participate in racial equity trainings, book studies or frank Zoom conversations. Rooting our activism in our faith can renew our commitments to both.

Inviting people to reengage in congregational life through racial justice work has implications for the ways that we invite people to reengage around community and our strategic visions, too. The racial justice conversation may spur us to reexamine whom we have served during the COVID-19 pandemic and how we have served them. How have we practiced “power with” rather than “power over”?

Likewise, it may spur us to review our strategic planning goals for the year and years ahead. Do those goals name justice and anti-racist work as a concrete congregational commitment? If not, there is new work for us to do together. If so, what are our next steps in that shared work?

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped our congregational life, and will continue to do so. As we develop plans for reopening our buildings, we must also develop strategies for reengaging our congregations in our ministries. Neither process will be easy, but neither can be ignored. We cannot assume that just opening our doors will bring people back.


The question came at the end of a workshop from a senior pastor of a large New England congregation. “If average Sunday attendance means less than what it once did, then what do we measure now?”

From the participants’ responses, it was clear that the question was on the minds of many of the clergy attendees. Despite several suggestions, no single answer satisfied the room.

Behind the question are both a phenomenon and a mentality that need to be explored a bit before we might venture an answer.

First, the phenomenon. As David Odom noted for Faith & Leadership in 2014 (“RIP, average attendance”), at one time, the church relied on average Sunday attendance (ASA) as a primary measure of congregational life, vitality and health. Church consultants used ASA as a metric reflecting congregational complexity, which in turn suggested certain organizational structures and best practices.

In many judicatories and denominations, the number of people coming to a congregation on Sunday mornings — and whether that number was increasing, decreasing or holding steady — defined the reputation of that congregation, its ministries and its ministers. An uptick in ASA could be a harbinger of career advancement for clergy; a downtick could be reputationally ruinous.

In the later years of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st, shifting patterns in church attendance offered a significant challenge to this reliance on ASA as a meaningful measure. The perception of “good church attendance” shifted downward from three or four Sundays a month to one or two Sundays, even among some of the church’s most committed members. Worshippers began watching Sunday services through online platforms. Small group participation increased.

In some places, midweek events began bringing more people through church doors than Sunday morning worship; as the senior pastor of a 1,000-member church in Houston told me recently, “Sunday is the least-busy day in our church’s week.” Odom described it this way in 2014: “It is more and more difficult to determine what ‘attending’ means, much less judge someone as ‘active.’” Thus, the phenomenon behind the question — shifting patterns of church attendance — makes average Sunday attendance mean less than what it once did.

Yet we must also consider, second, a mentality behind the question. Peter Drucker gets the credit for saying it, but this feels like the kind of corporate aphorism that almost any leader of a certain era would have uttered: “You can’t manage it if you can’t measure it.” Strangely, for many clergy, congregations, judicatories and denominations, there’s something almost comforting about tracking ASA, in ways similar to how we follow the Dow Jones.

If we know that it is up this week or down this quarter, then perhaps we have the capacity to manage it, remedy it, change it. Perhaps we can finish the year in positive territory. By measuring it, we feel some sense of control over the phenomenon of shifting attendance patterns. Which brings us to the current question: What do we measure now?

I appreciate that in a number of places, even in corporate America, Drucker’s insistence on the link between measurement and management now holds less sway than the tension articulated by the sociologist William Bruce Cameron in 1963: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

This maxim — often misattributed to Albert Einstein — has been frequently quoted in recent decades as part of the movement toward the “human-centered workplace.” Initiatives in workplace health, work-life balance and family care have all been influenced by the notion that “not everything that counts can be counted” on a corporate bottom line.

If we in the church stepped more confidently into this tension, we might imagine what it could mean for congregational ministry. We can look at places where it is already happening as examples and at places where it might happen to dream.

There’s the congregation in New York that has defined its most significant number as six — as in the six ZIP codes where its members serve. For them, their footprint is more important than average Sunday attendance. The leaders of the church now evaluate every ministry in terms of its depth and breadth of engagement across that geography.

Or there’s the congregation in North Carolina that rightfully takes pride in the number 11 — as in the network of 11 collaborating institutions that the church brought together to achieve one of its most significant ministries in building tiny homes for housing-insecure persons. For them, it is partners across sectors for the sake of mission that is more important than ASA.

Or we can imagine a congregation in Illinois that would choose to say that 20,799 is its most meaningful number — as in the estimated number of homeless children in the city of Chicago. Imagine a congregation that is committed to reducing that number to zero. That place would be more worried about impact, about the change they want to effect in the world, than how many people come on Sundays.

Or we can picture a congregation in South Dakota that took as its significant number 407,000 — as in the number of gallons of oil that the Keystone XL pipeline leaked into South Dakota farmland in 2017. For those in that community of faith, such a number might represent something of a calling to creation care and environmental stewardship, a calling that could easily eclipse Sunday attendance.

If average Sunday attendance means less than what it once did, then what do we measure now?

For your church, the number may not be six or 11 or 20,799 or 407,000. But there is a number that has the potential to motivate, inspire and challenge you. There is a number that can rally your congregation into mission and service, that can help you see and understand your community context in new ways. There is a number that can fuel your passion, restructure your ministry and change how you evaluate your work.

You know, the way ASA once did.