Last week I led a webinar for Twenty-Third Publications on the technology that has become the air we breathe in ministry during a global pandemic. We explored the many ways ministry leaders have responded to the needs of their communities these last two years. I reflected on my own experience as a parishioner, and the lessons I’ve learned from watching ministry leaders pivot their approaches. And then we dreamed a little about what might be next.
In my home parish I learned an amazing lesson in how to build community through digital storytelling. Leaders in my church offered us a variety of virtual opportunities for worship, prayer, formation, and outreach. For example, our pastor and staff encouraged us to use digital tools to maximize our virtual participation in Sunday worship with family and friends by...
After the service we were invited to share our experiences on social media with the hashtags “#WeareOSP” and “#stilltogether” and more. People shared their images and reflections of our time together. We met new families and got to know one another in ways we might not have before—for example, we got a peek into each other’s homes, saw parents blessing their children, and experienced prayer spaces that were created specifically for this time of isolation and quarantine. Parishioners shared that these virtual approaches had provided connection when they felt lonely and comfort when they were depressed. At a time when my husband and I expected to feel far from friends and family this effort to prompt digital storytelling built faith-sharing practices that helped us grow closer with them instead.
Outside of my home parish I saw many examples of digital community-building, including...
Stories of Great Impact
As ministry leaders asked their communities what they needed, they created and implemented new ways to serve those needs—drive-thru Covid testing and outdoor prayer opportunities such as labyrinth experiences, prayer walks, and stations of the cross. Families were evangelizing each other through these shared experiences.
I had the privilege of interviewing parishioners to ask them about their pandemic faith experiences. One woman in her late 80s, Delores, spoke about being able to participate in a small Christian community for the first time in years. When she first stopped attending her small group it was because she didn’t like going out at night—later she quit driving all together. She missed her small group, but many of her friends had retired to Florida or Arizona, anyway, so it just wasn’t the same. When the parish offered virtual faith-sharing groups she joined again. She invited her friends who had moved away, and it was like a reunion. Instead of feeling isolated they felt connected once again.
Another woman, Helen, who is the primary caretaker of a loved one who is immunocompromised, shared that she didn’t know when she’d be able to return to gathered space. With her family member receiving cancer treatments she had to be incredibly careful. She missed her church friends, her pastor, and the sense of community she experienced in person. So, without a virtual option she’d lose her connection to the community, and perhaps to the church altogether. Instead she’s felt ministered to and supported during this very difficult time.
Fulfilling Our Mission, Not Our Spaces
Ministry leaders in the Archdiocese of Chicago called 2020 “a watershed year that separates the ‘before’ and the ‘after.’” In their 2021 resource guide they wrote, “The sense of ‘this is not business as usual’ creates an opportunity to focus the energy of the parish around its mission.” As parish ministry leaders we’ve been encouraged to focus on fulfilling our mission, not on filling our spaces—“Finding ways of blessing people where they are is more important at this point than getting them to show up where we are.”
It would be a mistake to presume that those who’ve not attended Sunday worship have not been spiritually nourished. This liminal space has given us an opportunity to reimagine church – to explore new possibilities. And we can learn from one another and from other nonprofit organizations that are embracing this use of technology, including senior centers that are using VR equipment to help seniors feel less isolated by “traveling” to places they were never able to see in their lifetimes to help them experience things able-bodied people take for granted (running, swimming, and more). Imagine how we might use these VR systems to help our people make pilgrimages to sacred spaces or immerse themselves in imaginative prayer experiences.
Of course, there are pros and cons to all these digital approaches to ministry, but we’ll need to navigate these challenges in the years to come—the need to pivot is not going away. Our virtual “workarounds” can help us take church beyond our own walls. The thriving congregations of the future will connect the home church and the church of the community (the parish). What will that look like in your community?
Originally published for Vibrant Faith's Online Community on January 31, 2022 at https://vibrant-faith-catalyst.mn.co/
I share my own thoughts here. They do not represent the opinions of any organization I work with or for. They are my own, and I reserve the right to change them when I please. I am still growing, and learning, and evolving.