An octogenarian ponders the post-pandemic church

Editor’s note: This essay has been adapted from a longer version.

As I ponder the future of congregational life in America, I am filled with hope. I find the future to be exciting, because it is a mix of challenge, change, uncertainty and creative possibilities.

More importantly, my hope is invigorated by the young clergy I have come to know and walk alongside in recent years; they are more than up to this challenge. Indeed, if I could, I would turn back the calendar of my life 60 years and begin again.

Two years ago, just as we began to settle into the long winter of COVID, this haunting quote from Andy Crouch, the Praxis partner for theology and culture, froze my attention: “From today onward, most leaders must recognize that the business they were in no longer exists. This applies not just to for-profit businesses, but to nonprofits, and even in certain important respects to churches.”

True indeed! The great pandemic has brought church life as we know it to a halt. It has roused us from a deep sleep and waked us up to seismic cultural and religious realities we too long ignored. This shift has left many pastors and congregations in a quandary, depressed and paralyzed.

My sense of church has been shaped by the nearly 40 years I spent as a parish pastor and the 12 years I spent at a public university as the founding director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at Indiana University. During those 12 years, it was my privilege to work with nearly 3,000 congregations reflecting the diversity of congregational life in America.

What I discovered was this: most congregations have difficulty thinking about their future. For many, trapped in a one-year-at-a-time survival mode, their tomorrow is but a blur. I also observed that savvy pastors recognized that they dare not sit back permitting fate to run its course if their congregations are to have a tomorrow.

Their quandary is this: how do you plan for tomorrow in a fractured, fast-moving and ever-evolving world?

I think there are three questions clergy and congregations should address as they contemplate their tomorrows:

  • How do we plan for an uncertain future?
  • How can we best manage the messiness of change and innovation?
  • What are the questions we should be asking as we face the future?

In exploring these questions, I discovered several wise and insightful resources to share; clergy need conversation partners to walk alongside them as they navigate the murky shoals of congregational life:

How do we plan for an uncertain future?

In their book “The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present and Uncertain Future,” Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt lay out a tripartite methodology — a three-way mirror — that enables organizations to address this question. To gain insight into the future, they write, it is essential to look in three directions: backward, forward and sideways.

The look back unveils something as to the DNA of a congregation. How has it managed change in its past? The look forward focuses on the forces changing America,providing a window into the issues framing the horizon: demographic, economic, technological. The look sideways reveals the way other organizations have managed change.

How can we best manage the messiness of change and innovation?

Ronald Heifetz, senior lecturer in public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, has created a process by which institutions may redemptively address change and innovation: the practice of adaptive leadership.

What is adaptive leadership? It is based on the conviction that difficult problems are best solved with input from the entire organization. The adaptive process begins with the creation of a guiding coalition. This is a task force that serves as a think tank — in the case of a church, a congregation-based leadership laboratory.

What are the questions we should be asking as we face the future?

Ecclesial questions have to do with the forms and functions of the church and our life together. Institutional change usually falls into two buckets: the adaptive bucket and the disruptive bucket.

Adaptive congregations embrace change but believe that the church will essentially remain as it has always been. Today’s more disruptive voices believe that the church as an institution or denomination is passe.

Both visions raise ecclesial questions, questions for both established congregations and new emergent faith communities to wrestle with in fidelity to their heritage, calling and purpose.

  • What is a church? What purpose do congregations serve?
  • How do emerging new forms of congregational and community life fit into the more traditional and denominational understandings as to what a congregation is?
  • How do stand-alone faith communities see themselves; to whom are they accountable?
  • What ultimately shapes the purpose and identity of faith communities primarily built around personal interests, political values or social values?
  • How will online congregations administer the sacraments, nurture faith formation, build a sense of community and mirror the kingdom of God?

We also must be asking theological questions in our secular context. The church exists to witness to God’s redemptive presence in the world. However, the world in which the church now lives is not the world in which many of us grew up. As the philosopher Charles Taylor writes, we are living in “a world of secular time.”

A secular world is not a world without religion; it is a world where belief in God is understood to be but one option among others. In a world where is it assumed that God is absent, where unbelief is normal, little or no connection is perceived between God and everyday life. In short, it is a world shorn of any sense of transcendence, any sense of God.

Ministry in a secular age offers a rare opportunity for congregations to reframe the good news as they pour the aged wine of the gospel into new wineskins. In short, the challenge facing congregations today is how they will breathe new life and meaning into an old and oft-abused word: evangelism!

To ignore these questions, I fear, is to be in danger, as congregations, of becoming little more than nesting places for preexisting Christians.

The role of the pastor in a secular world is to be more than an “institutional curate,” as Root writes in “The Pastor in a Secular Age.” It is to be a shepherd who leads people into “experiences of the ministering God.”

The mission of the congregation in a secular world is to focus on resonance, not relevance, on revelation, not innovation. A resonant congregation seeks “a narrative of connection to the world and those in the world who call out to us,” Root writes in a companion book, “The Congregation in a Secular Age.” It is sensitive to the yearnings of the secular soul that longs to live life more fully and find meaning in everyday life. It is a visual and experiential catalyst as it exposes the sacred ever lurking amid the nooks and crannies of everyday life.

I have found congregations to be amazingly resilient. They may be on life support, but they refuse to throw in the towel. They may be chronic one-year-at-a-time congregations, but they refuse to shutter their doors.

What is the source of their tenacious hope? That hope is rooted in their sense of calling and their trust in a slow God who nonetheless shows up.

I have not offered any answers to the questions I posed; to do so would be presumptuous, if not downright impertinent. The questions are intended to serve as channel markers for clergy and congregations as they traverse their uncharted future. They are questions to be addressed by congregations in the light of their particular ecclesial traditions and theological orientations.

The changes blowing in the wind are clearing out the cobwebs of stale church life. That wind is more than the howl of secularism. The blowing wind is the ruach — the wind, the breath, the spirit of an uncaged God. To a confused and bewildered Nicodemus, Jesus whispered this wisdom: “Listen to the wind, Nicodemus, listen to the wind!” The challenge of congregations grappling with an uncertain future is to listen. To listen, then dare to pour the new wine of a living God into new wineskins.

The changes blowing in the wind are clearing out the cobwebs of stale church life.

It was an hour before the doors would open. I was beginning to panic. The chairs were set, the sound check was done, and the speakers were ready. All I had left to do was set up the giant TheoEd letters on the stage. The problem was, the lowercase e would not stay in place. It leaned a little to the left, a little to the right, and sometimes it would flop over on its side.

After 18 months of planning and promoting, I thought, this e was about to ruin everything! In truth, it was the least of my concerns.

What I was trying to pull off back in 2017 was risky. At that time, I was a scholar-in-residence at a large church in Atlanta, and I was working with a group of lay leaders to re-imagine the congregation’s annual sermon and lecture series.

We wanted something fresh, something that could reach out into the community. We wanted to make the best learning available in a format that was accessible and engaging to a broader audience.

We wanted to bring a little bit of TED to church.

But could we really pull it off? Would leading thinkers in the church and the academy be willing to give the talk of their lives in 20 minutes or less, as TED Talks do? Would audiences show up? Could we produce the whole thing with the impeccable quality of TED?

We sold out that first TheoEd event, the speakers were fabulous, and the e stayed put.

Since then, we’ve put on seven TheoEd shows, with several thousand in attendance and more than 100,000 viewing our talks online. We have developed discussion guides to go along with each talk and a prize for graduate students. For the first time this February, we took TheoEd on the road, visiting Charlotte, North Carolina.

Through TheoEd, we’ve tried to do for the Bible, theology and spirituality what TED has done for technology, entertainment and design. In the process, we have been learning a lot about what it takes to engage public audiences in conversations about God, religion and the power of faith to shape lives and communities.

Here are three discoveries and how they might help churches and seminaries rethink their approach to education.

Re-imagining the sage on the stage

Conventional wisdom has it that the sage on the stage is dead. At least, that’s what I took away from Parker Palmer’s “The Courage to Teach” when I read it in seminary. Palmer describes a “community of learning” in which the expert is displaced from the center of attention and learning happens through a nonhierarchical web of relations between students, subject and teacher. I love this model and use it in the seminary classes I teach.

Much like Palmer, the TED organizers are convinced that the traditional academic lecture is not an effective vehicle for engaging most audiences. What Palmer solves through decentered, discussion-based learning, TED solves through well-coached speakers, compelling short-format talks, an attractive stage and high-end production.

We’ve followed a similar path in TheoEd. Getting there isn’t easy, as most of our speakers are more comfortable reading lectures from a lectern or delivering sermons from a pulpit. If there’s a secret sauce to TheoEd, it’s the insistence on the highly polished, no-notes, short-talk format that TED popularized.

What TED reminds us is that the church and the seminary of the future will need new wineskins, not just good ideas. We’ll have to let go of some well-established models of education, and we’ll have to lean into creative experiments. Some of those might look like what Palmer describes. Others might, like TED, try to re-imagine the role of the sage and the design of the stage.

Reaching the second audience

What sets TED apart from most speaker series is that its primary audience is not the people who attend in-person conferences. Rather, TED is all about the “second audience” — those who experience its content only digitally. Focusing on the second audience doesn’t just involve remembering to turn on the camera and set up the livestream. From how the speakers are coached to where the cameras are placed, the whole point of TED is to make the second audience feel like the primary audience.

We try to do the same with TheoEd. A case in point: During our February 2020 event, a speaker’s microphone malfunctioned during the first few minutes of the talk. The in-person audience could still hear the speaker, but the malfunction would render the digital recording unusable. Having prepared for this scenario, we paused the talk, fixed the microphone and asked the speaker to start over.

It was a bit awkward for the in-person audience, but we were convinced that this was worth it, because we knew that far more people would eventually listen to this talk through our website than were actually in the room that day.

If churches and seminaries are going to get serious about using digital media to reach new audiences, they will have to start designing offerings with the second audience squarely in mind.

How will that change things? It will mean paying more attention to elements like lighting, sound quality, camera angles, stage design and run of show. It will also mean making strategic decisions about which offerings should be online and which should not — doing less might well be the key to doing better when it comes to reaching the second audience.

Creating communities of curious souls

The look and feel of TED is inviting and inquisitive. The talks prompt the audience to ask questions and to consider new ideas — or to revisit old ones. The point of TED, as its website says, is to create “a community of curious souls.”

Isn’t that what a church should be — a community of curious souls? Becoming such a community will mean valuing questions over creeds, dialogue over dogmatism (whether conservative or liberal) and wrestling with difficult texts over trying to protect God from people’s doubts.

It will also mean rethinking where education happens. We’ve chosen to hold TheoEd in community centers and performance venues rather than church sanctuaries. We’ve found that these spaces can be more inviting to those for whom the institutional church has ceased to be a place of meaningful belonging.

Rather than inviting people to their buildings, perhaps it’s time for churches and seminaries to do their work out where their audiences are already gathering — coffee shops, pubs, community centers, art venues, gyms, parks.

Taking TED to church is no panacea for all that ails traditional models of Christian learning and theological education. But learning from TED is, as their tagline puts it, an idea worth spreading.

What TED reminds us is that the church and the seminary of the future will need new wineskins, not just good ideas.

As executive presbyter of a Midwest presbytery, Tim was asked to help a struggling church discern an answer to a difficult question: Should we close our doors?

Like most mainline churches, this once-thriving congregation had gone through years of persistent decline. Only about 30 members were left, and most of them were older than 60.

Over a weekend, Tim taught the congregants the basics of discernment. He then asked them to spend an hour listening for God’s guidance. Amazingly, when they returned, they all had heard the same answer: Plant a new church.

They never even answered the original question.

Tim took their decision back to the presbytery council. You can imagine the reaction: How can a church that can’t even grow itself grow another church?

Tim’s response: “Do you want me to tell these members, who just spent a whole weekend discerning God’s will, that this council, who hasn’t discerned anything, knows better what their fate should be?”

Grudgingly, the council supported the church’s decision and the congregation embarked on a new church plant. As it grew, so did their own church.

Tim is a former spiritual director of mine. A few years after he shared this story with me, I was telling it to a group of small-church pastors in a training session when an older pastor raised his hand: “Dr. Standish, do you want to hear the rest of the story?”

My heart raced: Is he going to discredit it?

Instead, he said, “I just came from that presbytery. Everything you said is true, but there’s more that Tim may not know. They recently wrote a history of their church and discovered that, as the first church established in the area, they were responsible for starting over 20 other churches.”

Starting new churches was part of their DNA.

This story gave me insight into the church I was pastoring, Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania. We had experienced growth over the years, something that I attribute in part to our emphasis on prayer and discernment. As I explored our history, I realized that our own discernments reconnected us with our DNA.

We had been started in 1845 as a church for misfits — those who didn’t fit into the dominant culture — and we had recovered that legacy.

Zelienople and the surrounding communities were originally settled by German Lutheran immigrants in 1802 and then attracted Germans from a variety of religious backgrounds: Harmonite, Reformed, Mennonite and more.

People of Scottish and English descent felt like outliers, and so what would eventually be called Calvin Church was founded to reach out to those who didn’t fit in. This narrative became clear from reading the church’s own history.

Later, our discernment led us to become a church for modern Christian misfits, serving people who similarly didn’t fit in with the surrounding evangelical-to-fundamentalist culture.

I wondered: Can other churches grow by reconnecting with their founding DNA and purpose? I think that all churches, like all individuals, have a unique purpose that’s grounded in their original creation. Each church was created to be a certain kind of church in a unique community, reaching out to a distinct population that was grappling with specific life situations.

Every church open today had a golden age at its founding. Otherwise, it wouldn’t still exist. It grew out of a deeply felt, intuitively understood purpose that may be forgotten during years of decline.

As a clergy coach, consultant and guide for pastors and churches, I have led many congregations through a process of reconnecting with their founding DNA.

We helped one church turn around by reconnecting with its start as a mission grounded in a multichurch, camp-like vacation Bible school in the 1950s.

Another recovered its roots as a frontier church reaching out to people who felt isolated and alone.

Another reclaimed its original purpose as a farm church of people committed to feeding others.

In my present position as executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, I led our organization in exploring our founding purpose. We recommitted to our grounding in the good Samaritan story (Luke 10:25-37) as a community of therapists called to heal the hidden wounded no matter what their condition or situation.

The work of recapturing a sense of purpose requires delving into the history of our congregations with some imagination to fill in the blanks.

Ask yourselves: What’s our founding purpose? Whom were we created to reach out to? What was the situation then, and how is it related to now? What was the context? What were the challenges? How were they overcome? How do we recapture that founding purpose?

These questions are a rich vein of discernment and discovery. Through prayer, listening and historical inquiry, we can reconnect our congregations with their founding purpose — their DNA.

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Explore your congregation’s DNA

The following exercise, adapted from my book “… And the Church Actually Changed,” is designed to get congregations started in the process of uncovering their DNA.

1. Investigate your church’s history enough to gain a sense of why your church was founded, whom it sought to serve, what led it to thrive originally, and what were its unique characteristics that may still be part of the church.

Some suggestions:

  • Read histories of the local community.
  • Read a history of the church or look through the church’s historical documents.
  • Talk with older, lifetime members who may have early memories or insights.
  • Look over original or early board minutes.
  • Reflect on early church pictures.
  • Talk with previous pastors.

2. Distill what you’ve found into a short sentence that captures the character of that early church.

3. Create a few succinct sentences that reflect the church’s original purpose and can be used to give focus to the modern ministry and mission of your church.

4. Develop a descriptive statement for your church rooted in its DNA. It may go something like this: “Originally founded as a church for ___________________________ [insert demographic], ___________________________ [insert name of your church] is a now a community striving to _______________________________ [insert active statement].”

The work of recapturing a sense of purpose requires delving into the history of our congregations with some imagination to fill in the blanks.

On Easter Sunday 2020, churches across the globe were closed in response to the pandemic.

During the course of the past two years, few could have anticipated the number of shifts that have happened in our individual congregations and communities.

As two researchers who have conducted extensive interviews in the post-Christian contexts of Aotearoa/New Zealand and Seattle, Washington, we have seen churches turn to the particular in the wake of COVID closures and restrictions.

Much of the research on churches’ response to the pandemic has explored the rise of digital church. Our research across these contexts reveals another story — a turn to the local, in which spiritual practices have been recalibrated. Even in instances when a worshipping community has employed technology to support its common practice, this work has been disciplined by its commitment to a neighborly faith. What is instructive is how these practices of neighborly faith have occurred against the backdrop of a local and ordinary Christian existence.

We completed 17 in-depth interviews with ministry leaders from two post-Christian contexts in the aftermath of COVID-19. Each was creatively drawing on local practices to renew the local mission.

Although separated by culture and geography, churches like Awake Church in Seattle, Washington, and Timaru Presbyterian in Aotearoa/New Zealand bear witness to how it is possible to thrive within limits by turning to the local. Throughout our interviews, we saw several practices that have sustained a neighborly faith in the time of COVID.

Walking and placemaking. When limits restricted gathering in local congregations, people took to the streets. A neighborly faith was pursued through the practice of walking in the contexts we researched. Historic Christian practices were redirected toward local geography in ways that took faith outside the church walls.

For Brent and Catherine Richardson of Timaru Presbyterian, their peripatetic practice became a site of discovery as they recognized an opportunity to serve their community in innovative ways. Noting the importance of walking, they spoke of how “you’re praying for the local area and you’re contemplating what’s happening.”

Other church leaders took familiar Christian practices, such as the Stations of the Cross, outside the church walls. With familiar places in local neighborhoods as sites for prayer, this public pilgrimage invited people to receive these familiar spaces as sites of divine encounter.

The innovations in localized spiritual practices that individuals across these contexts pursued were rooted in place. Church leaders encouraged people to be mindful of what the Spirit might be up to in the particularity of the streets where God had called them.

For pastors Andy Carlson and Hayden Wartes at Awake Church, placemaking was an organizing principle for their common life. Awake Church defines its mission in relation to the particular geography that surrounds the worshipping community.

Although the particularities of place differed, the pastors and the broader community learned how to receive the limits of their particular spaces as an invitation to practice a neighborly faith.

Slowing down and blessing others. While the limits of this period of time demanded a different pace for many leaders, an intentional effort to slow down became a practice that catalyzed innovation.

This was one of the insights Carlson and Wartes discovered at Awake Church: even when the world was turned upside down, they found slowing to be one form of faithful response.

Freed from a catalog of previous commitments (commutes, sporting events, social gatherings), Awake Church and other communities received the gift of a measured pace as an opportunity to practice a neighborly faith amid unaccustomed limits.

Leaders across contexts and communities of faith aimed to bless others despite the limitations they shared. Amid uncertainty, leaders and communities expressed the desire to work for the well-being of those they served, particularly in the time of heightened vulnerability.

Blessing took a variety of forms: offering prayer, extending hospitality, giving congregants space to discern how to respond to new limits on their lives, even if it meant worshipping elsewhere or not at all. Churches innovated by seeking ways to equip and resource local congregants to bless their neighborhoods.

Connecting and localizing care. Despite the unavoidable limits of social distancing, a shared commitment to connecting with people inspired leaders’ innovation across continents.

As Brent and Catherine Richardson of Timaru Presbyterian walked their community in the wake of COVID-19, they noticed teddy bears appearing in windows.

They wondered, “How do we as a church engage with the community when we can’t be open? Well, we have these windows and we have these teddies. What could the teddies do?”

In an answer to this question, teddy bears began to bear witness at Timaru Presbyterian. During Easter, at one window, bears gathered in a Last Supper tableau. At a second window, the cross had a ribbon. At a third window, bears ran toward an empty tomb.

“Really, the whole thing was about connection,” said Catherine Richardson as she described the inspiration for their playful witness with teddy bears.

These leaders experienced the disruption as a renewal of the need to be connected.

While the Richardsons offered playful witness to their neighbors, Carlson and Wartes experimented with what they called audio church. Following a period of rest and reflection after the first break in services due to COVID-19, Awake Church grounded its worshipping community, which was now dispersed, around audio church.

Resisting the allure of highly produced online church experiences, they crafted and distributed each recording with the intent that individuals would gather in their particular localities: their homes, their cars, in isolation.

Audio church provided a flexible liturgical template that people could engage with amid their unique pressures and schedules.

Another church opened its facility to the homeless population when other community service agencies closed. The faith communities we researched discovered the need to localize care.

These creative acts became yeast for innovations in neighborly spiritual practice, leavening the neighborly spiritual life and witness of local faith communities.

While the limits of this pandemic time were extraordinary, leaders and the broader community received these limits as an invitation to pursue and cultivate faith in the “ten thousand places” that mark a life of faith.

Innovation is both its own practice and an extension of these neighborly practices. Among the leaders we researched, the ability to engage in this form of enforced innovation was learned over time, beginning long before the constraints of the pandemic.

The people gathered around Awake Church were already practiced in adaptability.

“That was just kind of always part of our thing,” Carlson said. “We already had just kind of developed a sense of like, ‘It’s OK to not go to church on a Sunday.’ And that held us; that created a lot of space, I think, for us to kind of figure out what to do.”

Much like a muscle developed over time, communities’ ability to adapt in the face of uncertainty builds upon previous practice. That practice enables risk taking in seeking to meet the needs of their particular contexts.

In these stories, from the Pacific Northwest to Aotearoa New Zealand, a neighborly faith has given rise to innovative practice and missional resilience. Gathered worship might be disrupted, yet the word and work of God continues to go forward through this neighborly faith.