Over the past few days, I’ve shared a little about why the staff at Atlanta Christian Church decided to move to Zoom services instead of weekly videos and why we have leaned into it for the foreseeable future. You can read more about that thought process here and then read about what we noticed happen in our congregation as a result here. Today, I want to close the discussion with some odds and ends. Buckle up, because this is long.
Aside from Zoom meetings during the week, we have also gone low-tech with some of our other ministries, and handed more responsibility to our congregation in others. For example:
We have monthly deliveries of our children’s curriculum so that families know that we are looking out for them, and so that children and parents can engage with Scripture together. We call them Kid’s Crates. Every 4-6 weeks, a team drops off boxes that have the next month or so of material in them. It excites the kids to know that they are getting mail, and it gives them something to talk about in the Sunday morning Zoom calls that we do for families with children.
We have held over a dozen different classes, book clubs, and small groups throughout the year. Some are long-term, 8-12 weeks. Some are short term, 4-6 weeks. Some are Sunday morning meetings. Some are during the week. This flexibility allows for people to attend no matter what their schedule. Since we do them virtually, we’ve seen more involvement than before because people can do them from the comfort of home.
We have also started hiking and biking groups for people to get out in the fresh air and spend time together without having to be inside.
We also noticed that other churches around us who have tried to restart in person gatherings have had to start, stop, restart, reconfigure, over and over and over again. This sort of inconsistency burns out and often disheartens the staffs of those churches, and it disrupts any sense of continuity or consistency within the congregation. By committing to one thing and digging into it, we’ve had a chance to thrive and grow in ways that we could not have expected. It turns out that Christ can even do his work on people through online services. Go figure.
Don’t let any of this discussion fool you. We long for the time when we can get back together in person and worship Christ in the same building at the same time. But one thing that it is important to remember is this:
Christ’s Church has never been dependent on a location. It also tends to thrive in adversity.
I’ve had conversations with people who think that churches should just get together anyway. Either because some people’s perception of the pandemic is less severe or because they simply don’t like the idea that they aren’t allowed to worship Christ together or because they believe that we should meet and simply trust God to protect us. This conversations require more time than this space allows, but I will address them broadly.
“It really isn’t that bad, churches should get together and lead by example of courage rather than fear.”
I understand the thought behind this, and I don’t altogether disagree. However, Christians are called to be compassionate as well as courageous. We have held a few in-person gatherings, and while they were very meaningful, they were not widely attended. On the other hand, nearly everyone who came to the in-person gatherings still attend our Zoom services week to week. If the choice is between courageously holding gatherings that 75% of our congregation are uncomfortable attending and are therefore left out of the fellowship, or holding Zoom services that rival the attendance of our pre-Covid gatherings—and in fact, have seen growth—so that everyone can engage and attend, we’ll go with the latter. Christ does not live in the sanctuary, he lives in the hearts of people. Courage is not always about facing danger. Courage is also about doing things that are unfamiliar and trusting that the God who spoke light into the universe can also sustain a community that can’t meet under the same roof. For more on that, read the Exodus story.
“This is America. They can’t tell us that we can’t worship.”
No one is telling anyone that they “can’t worship.” Yes, there are places where lockdowns prohibit gathering, and if you want to argue whether that is right or wrong, go ahead. But that topic is tangential to the real one: You can worship Christ anywhere, and in fact you should have been doing that all along. If your worship of Christ is only defined by a building, then maybe expand your idea of worship. Worship isn’t singing songs. That’s just, singing songs. Worship is glorifying and praising Christ with every breath of your life. It is not, nor has it ever been, confined to a space or a building. The fact that congregations can’t meet in person is not a prohibition on worship. Our church worships together every single Sunday. If you ask me, the greatest miracle is that we live in a time and a place where everyone can worship in their homes and yet still see each other’s faces as they lift the name of Christ together.
If you want some perspective on this, I suggest you look up the underground church. Quick example, in China, where Bibles are confiscated and pastors are imprisoned for their faith, Protestant Christianity has grown from 22million adherents to an estimated 38million adherents in the last decade. In the United States, where religious freedom is something we say we care deeply about, the number of people who identify as Christian has declined.
Again, another topic for another day. The point is, the health and vitality of Christ’s church is not, and has never been, tied to the freedom to gather in houses of worship. History tells the opposite story. Lockdowns have not done anything to the Church that wasn’t already happening. Whatever the Church had been doing in the U.S. was not working. Maybe it’s time we let go of that and see what else can work. Now’s as good a time as any.
“Churches should meet and trust God to protect them.”
Yes, this is a real thing that real people have said. I’m not going to go into the problematic theology that undergirds a statement like that, other than to say that I trust in God, but I still lock the door to my house, I still wear a seatbelt when I drive my car, I still look both ways before crossing the street, and I still wash my hands.
What I can say for certain is that if there are availably ways to effectively engage with a congregation in worship, ways that allow for the largest number of people to attend and be a part, ways that open the door for people across the world to participate in the same service at the same time, then we should pay attention to that and se what Christ can do with it. That isn’t a lack of faith that God will protect us, it’s a deep demonstration of faith in God to do unimaginable things in impossible circumstances.
We at ACC recognize that what we are doing may not scale up to churches many times larger than ours. We also recognize that every congregation is different. It took a lot of trial and error and yes, faith in God, to land on what we’re doing. But this has worked for us, and so I merely offer it up for other pastors to reflect on.
If you’re a pastor or on staff at a church that is struggling, I encourage you to try things that don’t seem to make sense. I encourage you to reach out to your congregation and see what they tell you. I encourage you to speak with other church leaders and share ideas. We’re all serving the same creative God, the same remarkable Savior, the same impossible Spirit. Let’s help each other thrive, let’s keep pointing people to the One who we serve, and let’s believe that there are better things ahead than what we have left behind.
The Church has left the building.
This is the final entry of a series written with the help of Derek Sweatman and Lindsey Self, my partners in church leadership at Atlanta Christian Church. You can learn more about ACC here