In the upcoming April-May 2022 issue of the Canada Lutheran: The Magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the following article will be published. Here follows a pre-edit version ‘answering’ a question from someone who during the pandemic first engaged the church online. Now they consider getting involved onsite and in person …
Q: During the pandemic, I began to take an interest in faith and started participating regularly in an online church. And they have been helpful. Some sites talk about the need for in-person worship. Why should I consider getting involved that way?
A: The preachers, worship-leaders, lectors, musicans and pastoral counselors you engage on the screen are part of a community. These leaders you listen to and visualize in mediated ministry are key influencers of the culture of a faith community, somewhere.
At some point, I believe, if you have started building relationships with them online you will want to explore at least the possibility of meeting them in person. And if you decide trying this, before you go, articulate for yourself: What is it about their presentation online that first attracted you – their authenticity, or humility, spirituality, courage, intelligence, skill, or vulnerability, etc.? Identifying what you value about the relationship is an important starting point for growing it—online and in person.
Before COVID I married a young couple who first met via a relationship site online. They told me the goal of the site they both used was to create an appropriate in-person activity, tailored to their personalities and interests. For them, it was a games room. And this activity, then, would provide the context for their first in person meeting.
In a faith community emerging from the pandemic, people will participate because they share something they value with others. An outdated social strategy for the church that is based on the building (i.e. ‘build it and they will come’ or ‘open the doors and they will come’) is as ineffective a way of building relationships as is the passive, social bias with which we lived pre-COVID (socialize simply for the sake of socializing). What is now required more than ever is being intentional and clear about what purpose any gathering serves.
Back to your reflections about what attracted you, specifically, to the online church? What qualities of this social engagement kept you coming back? Very likely what attracted you to the online experience will present for you an opportunity to enjoy those same qualities in another, possibly deeper, way—in person.
The manner in which we relate to one another will matter, more than ever. The post-pandemic church will need to be intentional about how we behave with one another in the space we share.
Many, in the months and mabye even years to come, will hesitate going into a public building apart from obtaining groceries and attending medical appointments. So, what about going to places where the church gathers in person, indoor or outdoor?
If whatever setting will serve an important purpose for Christians living out their calling in Jesus Christ, notice what the hosts of the gathering do when you arrive to ensure that you will encounter an emotionally and physically safe environment. Does what they do, in the physical space, communicate an openess to your needs?
The church’s behaviour, especially by those who lead, will intentionally address accessibility issues and different risk tolerances of those who gather in-person.
Will those welcoming newcomers continue to wear masks even if not required by law? Will they improve air circulation and climate control systems in place you gather? Will they be intentional to make holy space for everyone, especially those they don’t know? Will they reconstruct entry ways to ensure physical accessibility for all? By these actions, and the loving heart behind them, you will know that someone else pays attention to you, respects your boundaries and gives you freedom to be you in the shared space.
Christians do not gather in person to prove a social point from pre-COVID days, but to be mindful and heartful towards those who come in-person for the first time, or re-enter the gathered community after a long hiatus.
It is not our beliefs that make us better people. It is our behaviour in relationships that makes us better people. It is our commitment to act intentionally with love.