It was a simple question. Are you going to church tomorrow? Church: a building. Gathering in-person was now an option, so thus a choice: Watch it online or go in person. Church, meaning worship. The church, which in its fullest sense is the body of Christ living in the way of Jesus, has been so defined by one main activity: the Sunday morning worship service. So when the question was asked—Are you going to church tomorrow?—I knew exactly what was meant. Am I going to the building for that particular activity of the gathered community for worship?
My response told me how much my notions of church have been upended by this pandemic. I said, “No, I don’t think so.” I checked in with my soul and what it was hungry for, and it longed to be outside in creation on this beautiful summer weekend, not inside a building. I said, “I think I am going for a bike ride instead. If I want to, I can always watch it later.” It got me wondering: What is church if the Sunday morning worship service is not the main thing anymore?
I know, as I write this, there will be many who will be disconcerted by my wonderings. Others of you will provide fine arguments about why I am wrong and worshipping with the gathered community is the defining experience of the Christian community. But still I wonder: Is it the only thing? Is it THE thing? I know it is how we judge a church’s success. Our key metric for the health and vitality of the church has been the average Sunday morning worship attendance. It is where we take the pulse of the church, and where we sense the energy and momentum. For preachers, is the apex of the week that we build toward. But as one pastor colleague put it to me recently: COVID attendance sucks. It seems I am not the only one who has left the building behind. So while we, the preachers and music leaders, think Sunday morning worship is the thing and want and expect everyone to be there…what if the people we are seeking to reach are saying, “no thanks.” Then what?
As I was biking that Sunday morning, I was mulling all of this over. What I know to be true is that I need Sabbath and a weekly reset. I need to reconnect with myself, with my soul, with God, and yes, with community. And while sitting inside a building for an hour wasn’t calling me after our long winter of being stuck at home, I would be up for a group bike ride or a group hike, or a picnic where community gathered to be in creation, spent some time sharing joys and concerns and praying for one another, reading scripture, and talking about what it means to live this passage today.
I thought about all the different ways folks are wired, and what speaks to us spiritually, and I wondered: What would it be like to create options for a Sabbath experience that connect to our varied soul hungers? That would mean giving up the notion that the Sunday morning worship service is the main or only thing and moving some of the resources we put there toward gathering and walking with people in other ways. It would mean re-thinking church and our measure of success from how many people are in worship on a Sunday morning to how many people are growing deeper in their love of God and neighbor, resulting in them sharing their experience of Jesus with others, finding their calling and passion that engages them in healing a broken world, and excited to invite others to come and join this community on the journey of living the way of Jesus.
In congregational trainings on the future of the church, I would posit that we need to make the mindset shift from “I go to church” to “I am the church.” The quest to get more and more people to say “I go to church” puts us on an endless cycle of seeking to compete for people’s time and attention, needing to have the best show, building, and programs to keep people coming back. When we are in the business of helping more and more people understand I am the church, we release missionaries out into the mission field who are living differently and transforming the world.
The trend was already there. We have not been attracting as many people to “go to church” for decades now, but the pandemic has definitely busted it wide open and this season of introspection has caused many to question their previous commitments and activities. So, okay. That is our new reality. But what a great opportunity. People are questioning. We are hungry. We see so much of our world in disarray and on fire. We are looking for a way of life that will sustain us. In Christian terms, we call that salvation. It just might be that the church, the body of Christ living the way of Jesus, knows something about that.
But in order to share it and reach folks who simply are not interested in going to church, we need to recognize that we cannot go back to what was before the pandemic. Oh, snap! Deep breath. We can do this. We ARE the church, and God is already meeting us there. “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness” (Isaiah 43:19)…or possibly on a bike path near you!
Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries and clergy assistant to the bishop for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church