Zoom Fatigue For The Win: Final Thoughts.

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.

“In conclusion.”

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

Zoom Fatigue For The Win: What We Noticed By Picking a Format and Sticking To It.

Yesterday, Joel Mooneyhan shared some reflections on the train of thought that led the staff at Atlanta Christian Church to ditch pre-recorded worship services in favor of live services over Zoom. Today he’ll share what that has looked like and what the results have been in their faith community.

It’s worth pointing out right at the start that the decision to commit fully to weekly Zoom services was made somewhat reluctantly. The handful of Zoom services that we had done had been glitchy, a little awkward, and it just felt weird staring at a screen full of people. (If you’re reading this, obviously I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.)

And while our pre-recorded videos weren’t done with top-shelf production equipment, they were consistent in quality. We felt a little uneasy with all the ways a live service online could go sideways (for example: one Sunday, Zoom crashed worldwide for the morning and we just didn’t have worship.) Doing pre-recorded videos allowed us to follow the same Order of Worship we had used in person, and we thought that it would take the pressure off of people to do one more thing on Zoom during an already stressful and shifty time.

But, as I said before, our congregation said they preferred the Zoom services we had done, so we circled up as a staff and figured out a blueprint. Here’s a basic rundown of what we did, why, and what the impact has been:

First, we stripped the service to the bones in order to see what we needed, what we didn’t need, and even what had been missing.

  • We cut back how many songs we sing in worship from four to two. We did this in part because we didn’t want to stretch people’s ability to sit still staring at a screen when most people are doing that all week anyways. We also did it to take some strain off of our entirely volunteer driven worship team.
  • We shortened the average sermon time from around 25 minutes to about 10-12 minutes. This again respects people’s time on Sunday morning and also gives more space in the service for…
  • …The addition of Breakout Rooms. We added two spots for Breakout Rooms. One comes at the beginning of the service and tees up the message with a broad discussion topic, the second one comes after the sermon and gives space to discuss the sermon in more practical terms. These are led by a rotating team of church members and are anywhere from 6-8 people per group, sometimes more, sometimes less.

This has had some predictable and not so predictable outcomes for our congregation.

  • Research done during the first 3 months of the pandemic (March-May) indicates that nationwide, church engagement in every denomination dropped off by about 30%. We were no exception to that. However, once we switched to weekly Zoom services, our attendance leveled out, and has remained consistent ever since.
  • We fought burnout at first, but once we committed to a weekly live service, however glitchy, things began to feel less aimless. Doing videos week to week felt like sending out a message in a bottle, and the analytics of our engagement were frightening. Zoom services have given us a sense of rhythm and a sense of connection to our people.
  • Because Zoom puts faces with names, and because we added Breakout Rooms to our services, more people know each other better than ever have. It’s easy to park your car, go into church, say hello to one or two people, and then take off when it’s over, having not spent any meaningful time with anyone. This new format has given people the chance to get to know each other and encourage one another in ways that they may not have done otherwise.
  • Because services do not require in-person attendance, we have seen newcomers and returning members visit in from literally all around the world. Some of our guests are people who have been invited to attend from across the country, some are members who long ago moved to other parts of the world and can now reconnect with their old friends from church.

Yes. Online gatherings are glitchy and weird.

Staring at a grid of faces on a computer screen is no substitute for being face to face with people. Then again, neither is watching a Youtube video, and at least on Zoom, we can interact in real-time. It isn’t perfect, and we of course would rather meet in person. The reality is that it isn’t feasible for us at the moment, for a number of reasons.

And that is where we’ll leave this discussion for now to pick up again tomorrow.

Being Honest About The Bible, Part 3

Note To The Reader: This is the third post in a series on being honest about the Bible, especially as a pastor. To keep things simple, each post will have thoughts about only one aspect of the Bible and its use in our congregations. The first two posts are here and here.

These posts are reflections from my years of teaching the Bible to undergrad students. For most of my students, engaging with the Bible from an academic perspective is a new experience. And most common to this new experience is the process of un-learning. There’s a certain amount of deconstruction that happens in the classroom as students look more closely at the Biblical text. Students are encouraged to probe, ask questions, and to be skeptical of their previous understandings of certain texts and teachings. It’s fun. And sometimes unsettling.

One thing we explore are the intended audiences of the Bible. It’s not a shocking revelation to students, but it is one that requires some readjustment in their reading practices.

No. 3 – The Bible Was Written For Us, But Not To Us

My party line in class is, “Much of the New Testament is someone’s mail.” I recognize that it’s more complicated than that, but at its core it’s true: so much of what we’re reading in the New Testament is correspondence between people from the past. (It is remarkable to think that we even have these letters in the first place. We have no idea whether someone like Paul even imagined that his writings would survive beyond their intended destinations, much less be copied, stored, and even passed around. And though obvious, it is still somewhat unsettling for my students to learn that twenty-first Americans were not in Paul’s mind when he wrote his letters.)

John Walton was the first person I heard use the phrase, “The Bible was written for us, but not to us.” It is a simple reminder of an important truth: we are not the original recipients of these ancient writings. We are all peering through ancient windows into the other peoples’ worlds. And those worlds were dynamic and situational, each with its particular cultures, languages, world views, social structures, and belief systems. The more my students learn about those worlds, the more foreign and removed (and even barbaric) those worlds seem. When we read the Bible in an honest way, we are not permitted to transfer its words immediately in our world or even to find its relevancy to our experiences too quickly. We are instead asked to consider the very realtime situations in which its words and stories were written and then do the work of application. (Important here is the admission that some things we read are not applicable to our world or personal experiences because they were originally written to address very particular circumstances in a world that no longer functions in the same ways.)

Whether or not the Biblical writers envisioned future generations of people thousands of years removed even having these writings is unknown. There seems to be some indication that the stories themselves would be told and retold for years to come, but remember that something like a fully formed and contained Bible was hundreds years away from the days of Jesus. And when we look closely at the historical process of collecting all these writings, it almost feels like a miracle that we even have them in the first place.

As pastors:

  • We can be more upfront about the worlds in which these writings came to be, pointing out the cultural stories behind the texts. Tell people that Paul wrote during a time when women were seen as property and when slavery was a given. Show people how the Noah story is similar to other ancient flood stories (frighteningly so with the Gilgamesh Epic!) and how we might read and understand it in light of those truths. This helps people better place Biblical passages in their own context, which ends up helping them with a healthier experience of personal application.
  • While I recognize that “Study Bibles” are not always encouraged in academic settings, we can provide recommended versions for our people, especially ones that provide good historical and theological information on the books and stories of the Bible.

While the Bible is truly one of a kind—largely because it is God’s kind—it bears clear marks of humankind. Divine truth is inextricably interwoven within human culture, which means the categories of thinking, the expressions, the imagery, the motifs are drawn from the cultures in which God’s truth became incarnate. It couldn’t be any other way: it was necessary for God to speak in ways humans could understand, and he specifically chose the Greco-Roman-Jewish world of the first century for revealing the New Testament.

– John H. Walton –

Being Honest About The Bible, Part 2

Note To The Reader: This is the second post in a series on being honest about the Bible, especially as a pastor. To keep things simple, each post will have thoughts about only one aspect of the Bible and its use in our congregations. You can read the first post here.

This series of posts was inspired by my years of teaching Bible to university students. And since mine is the first in a run of required courses in the Biblical Studies program, I have had a front row seat in watching students engage with the Bible at an academic and theological level, many for the first time. It has taught me a great deal about the various ways students learned the stories of the Bible in their home churches from their pastors, youth leaders, and friends. And what I’ve found is that most students enter my course with a binary view of the Bible’s place in the world, seen as something of a dividing line between sinners and saints, of who’s in and who’s out. And with somewhat of a careful tread, this always leads us into a discussion of Biblical interpretation history that is both uncomfortable but necessary, which is how the Bible has been used as a tool of division, oppression, violence, and hatred.

No. 2 – The Bible Has Been Used As A Weapon

When people in my church tell me they’re going to read straight through the Bible, I usually respond with, “Call me when you get to the Book of Joshua.”

More than any other book of the Bible, Joshua has repeatedly been the muse for all sorts of unneeded violence and oppression in the world. In 1099 C.E. Christian Crusaders mounted a Jericho-style attack on the city of Jerusalem. After a failed attempt at circling the city with hopes that the walls would come down (cf. Joshua 6:15-20), they took matters into their own hands, breaking over the city walls and killing Muslims in the streets. Jews were locked into the synagogue and burned alive.

The Conquistadores of the sixteenth century used Joshua as a justifying text for subjugation of indigenous peoples in the Americas. Their guiding analogy was: “Just as Joshua was willed by God to destroy the people of Canaan because they were idolaters, thus God willed Spain to destroy the Indians.” Scholar Ellen F. Davis points out how the English settlers of the seventeenth century identified America as “The New English Canaan”, and how at the 1783 inauguration of George Washington, Yale College President Ezra Stiles identified the nation as “God’s American Israel” and Washington as “This American Joshua.”*

It’s not just the Book of Joshua. We can move well beyond those stories and list off all the ways Christians have used the Bible to marginalize people based on their race, gender, sexual identity, ethnic origins, and more. (Lest we forget that even slavery in our own nation was seen as a justified system, one that was largely based in the Bible’s teachings.)

While this is not an exhaustive essay on interpretation practices, I will offer a few ways forward for how pastors might better help people navigate these issues:

  • We must first acknowledge the ways the Church has gotten so much of this wrong, and to be honest with our parishes about those dark places in our past. On a small scale, this can even take place in preaching when you’re working through a potentially difficult text where you might say, “This passage has been at the root of many different tragic misreadings.”
  • We can help our people understand the differences in how the Bible describes certain realities of its time versus how it prescribes a way of life in the world. Just because the Bible describes things doesn’t mean those things are to be normalized. Helping people learn to distinguish between the two is a worthy task. Remember: the prophets had a way of pointing backwards and saying, “Hey, we got those things wrong.”
  • We can, in our own personal study, do the work to better understand such troubling passages. We live in a time of extraordinary scholarship and advances in Biblical exegesis. The resources are out there for all to use, and if the hard work of study on my end can help turn down the energy around weaponizing the Bible, it’s a win.

A final word about power versus weakness.

The very first crisis in the Bible is around the desire for power. The temptation at the base of the tree in the garden was rooted in a fear that God was holding out on the couple. “You will not surely die”, the serpent says, for “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)

In my reading of the Bible I have noticed that it carries almost no concern for a person’s weaknesses. Not in the sense that it denies personal weakness, it doesn’t. It’s just not as concerned about it as we tend to be. We focus quite a lot of energy on dealing with what’s less-than in our lives. But the Bible’s concern appears to be with a person’s handling of power, or worse, their unmitigated desire for power. The pursuit of power and influence and a stronger social platform is at the root of so many downfalls. Power, not weakness, is humanity’s problem. In Biblical parlance, it is through weakness that grace comes alive and makes most sense; power, on the hand, has a deafening influence on grace – we can no longer recognize it.

The church must recall and retell the story of Jesus’ dealings with power, seen most visually in his death at the hands of power. God’s response to a world unhindered by advancement and cruelty and unreserved power was, in fact, an act of weakness: an uncontested dying. Perhaps this is some of what Paul meant when called followers of Jesus to be “living sacrifices” in the world.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

– 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 –

*From Opening Israel’s Scriptures (Oxford Press, p.129)

Being Honest About The Bible, Part 1

Note To The Reader: This is the first post in a series of musings on being honest about the Bible, especially as a pastor. To keep things simple, each post will have thoughts about only one aspect of the Bible and its use in our congregations.

For many years I have taught an undergrad course in the Bible, mostly to freshman as part of a required run of classes within the College of Biblical Studies at the university. Mine is also the first class students take within that required list, making it their first academic engagement with the Bible. This has given me a front row seat in watching students learn new things (and often disorienting things) about the design and storyline of the Scriptures. The experience has also informed the way I think about the role of the Bible in the local parish, and about the mistakes we pastors have made in how we so often present its stories and teachings and messages to our people. Furthermore, and most uncomfortably, there are ways that our presentation of the Bible has been the cause of all sorts of confusion, disillusionment, and, in many cases, of people giving up on it altogether. Our willingness to be honest and upfront with our people about the Bible just may be a positive way forward. And so, what follows is the first of a run of personal epiphanies that I’ve experienced in being both an instructor of the Bible to college students and also as a pastor of a local parish.

No. 1 – The Bible Is Complicated

My running joke is that the Bible shouldn’t be read without supervision. The reason is simple: the Bible is quite complicated. Yes, there are running themes and storylines throughout the Bible that help us latch on to its overall purpose(s) – which can help us survive the journey – but when we read closer and more attentively we find ourselves dealing with very complicated writings.

It reminds me of the beginning of each new semester when I have students open to Genesis 1:1-2:3 and instruct them to count the words (in the Hebrew version), to find the repeated words and phrases, to see if they can “see” the patterns and even graph the story. There’s also the work of reading Genesis 1:1-2:3 alongside the much older Babylonian creation story – Enuma Elish (“When God On High”) – and to compare the similarities and differences of the two stories, and to begin to figure out what the writer of the Genesis creation story may have been trying to accomplish.

It gets complicated. Students find themselves swept up in a current of study that pushes them well beyond the familiar shores of simple devotions and sermon series. They’re thinking now. They’re processing past understandings. There’s an un-learning that’s taking place.

The role of preaching in many traditions has become a sales pitch to get people on the right side of eternal history, and a sales pitch is famously simplistic by design: here’s the problem, here’s the solution, sign here. To be fair, these three ideas do run through the pages of the Bible. It does not hide its belief that the world is broken, that God is working to bring healing, and that all people are welcome to join in the work and the life of God here and now, and forevermore. (There is a great line from Duke University professor and theologian Stanley Hauerwas that reads: “Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit.” I will talk about this in a future post!)

A lot can be said about the limitations of preaching and its inabilities to house all the necessary elements needed to gain a fuller understanding of the Bible. And that may not be preaching’s role anyway – it may instead be but a piece of the fuller liturgy, a thing that leads us to the Eucharist where we see and hear and taste the Gospel once again.

  • What we can do, however, is help create a parish environment where hard questions about the Bible are welcomed and embraced, and also where we provide educational spaces for people to engage with the Scriptures at various levels.
  • We can also be honest from the pulpit and name the ways that the church has gotten certain passages wrong and how it has used those in destructive ways.
  • We can do a better job at pointing out the different genres that exist within the Bible’s writings, teaching our people how to understand the differences of application between poetry, parable, history, apocalypse, prophecy, wisdom writings, correspondence (the epistles), and the Jesus biographies.
  • We can invite professors in to lead workshops on various topics related to the Bible.
  • We can provide reading lists and theological essays for people to access.
  • We can get better at saying, “I don’t know.”

The Bible tells a wonderful story, but it is also wonderfully complicated. As preachers we can learn to take complicated things and say them simply, but with enough depth to shine a light on those untraveled paths of learning that many have been afraid to take. And that begins with us.

“There is perhaps hardly a theological student who has not been earnestly and emphatically warned by some pious soul against the dubious undertaking taking of approaching Holy Scripture with scientific tools, against studying all “doubtful questions,” and against casting himself into the arms of that omnivorous octopus, the unbelieving professor. Here I need only to appeal to your memories. What lies at the root of these warnings, these anxieties of the quiet in the land that forever trouble us?”

– Helmut Thielicke –