A critical presidential election looms before us. Christians want to play a constructive role and make a positive difference, but often are unsure how to get involved and what issues to address. Letters to the Church seeks to help the church:
- to think again about God’s presence and purposes in our lives and in the world
- to shine the light and language of our faith on issues and situations that diminish individuals and threaten our common life
- and to prompt us all to think about what it means to be the church in the face of these particular challenges and opportunities.
Designed for individuals and church study groups, the book begins with a letter to pastors and a letter to congregations. Pastors and congregations share a mutual vulnerability these days that is hampered by an inability or lack of interest in open, honest, faith-informed conversations.
What We Are Experiencing Now - letters in this section address the anxiety of often feeling on-edge and off-balance, the craving for certainty, the revival of deadly prejudices and unresolved grief.
What We Hope - readers can envision an inclusive American family portrait, the hope of trusting each other again, the desire to see courageous leadership exercised and the need for clarity between ethical commitments and political maneuvering.
What We Are Called To - letters encourage acts of confession and justice, careful and critical thinking, the need for allies, recognition of when to support and when to resist and a path for constructive engagement.
Each letter names a specific issue and describes the importance of that issue for our country and for this particular election season. Each letter concludes with reflections on “The Witness of the Church.”
Whatever the outcome of any heavily partisan election where money and shrill voices are likely to dominate, our first calling is to be the church, to be light to the world. Letters to the Church seeks to support the church in that vocation through re-centering ourselves, clarifying our commitments and engaging courageously.
Amid much speculation and pundit prophesying about how the pandemic is affecting congregations and will reshape their future, several denominational groups and research organizations are studying the issue in real-time. This isn’t an easy task. Trying to track congregational and public reactions to the pandemic is like attempting to hit a randomly moving target. Nevertheless, much can be learned from these glimpses into the evolving response by religious leaders and the general public. The Faith Communities Today (FACT) collaborative project has attempted to archive many of these research efforts. There have been more than 20 studies so far.
What do all these reports indicate, you might ask? There are no simple summaries given the diversity of surveys, audiences, congregational sizes, and the disparity of the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, four distinct phases seem apparent in the results:
Lost and Reactive Phase – Surveys from early in the pandemic indicated that most religious groups didn’t know what to do. They reacted the best they could, but many were unsure about technology, how to offer worship virtually, whether online access and usage would be feasible for everyone, and what to do next. Religious leaders needed resources and help desperately. Congregations closed temporarily or went online with a variety of formats. There were a lot of mistakes and giving plummeted. The majority of congregations were not ready for a crisis like COVID-19.
Hardship but Hopeful Phase – By April, a number of surveys found religious groups beginning to understand the technology and getting into their virtual groove with online giving and digital ministry. For many congregations, giving began to track upward (though not to pre-COVID levels). Congregational functioning was nothing like before, but leaders were more confident and creative outreach efforts were beginning to be implemented. Being a religious community at a distance was difficult but congregations were functioning overall. Of particular surprise to faith leaders were the large number of participants in their online worship, more than had ever attended in person.
Resilient Stability and/or Expectations of Resurrection Phase – Into May, quite a few surveys indicated a resilience mixed with attempts at creative efforts of adaptation. At the same time, a gap began to open between Protestant churches in different locales, regions of the country, and at different ends of the theological spectrum. Much of this was likely driven by the disparity of initial outbreak patterns. More theologically moderate, urban and east coast churches expressed the desire to hunker down and remain digital as long as necessary. At the same time, some evangelical churches in the south, midwest and western portions of the U.S. began to plan for, or attempt, a phased reopening. They had a glimpse of the end of the pandemic and were preparing for it. Giving had rebounded or was on the road to recovery for many congregations.
Exhaustion and Uncertainty Phase – By June (and anecdotally into July), as much as a third of evangelical congregations were opening, though most had not returned to in-person gatherings and were uncertain about reopening timelines. At the same time, positive cases were beginning to spike in parts of the country previously untouched by the virus. Uncertainty and anxiety were evident in the public, with nearly two-thirds of Americans saying they were somewhat or very uncomfortable attending an in-person religious service. This same tension is being felt within congregations with some members having to return to work while other remain at home, so some are more comfortable gathering than others. In every case, however, both clergy and congregational members are exhausted due to the continual anxiety about the virus (especially as it is now dramatically increasing), uncertainty about a clear way forward to “normalcy,” and the significant additional effort it takes to do virtual ministry with added pastoral care and social ministry demands.
With no clear end in sight, the religious response to the pandemic continues. Check the FACT site regularly for new research as the impact continues to be assessed and reported.
The always present reality of racism has revealed itself again through recent, senseless deaths. Racism is abhorrent. In the United States, racism is a cruel epidemic. It steals the breath of Black People and other people of color. Center for Congregations board member Dr. Alton Pollard recently commented, "The experience of Black America extends beyond death. Social death is no less real from disparities and inequities to disease and all manner of injustice." Racism has no place in our communities of faith.
There are excellent resources for courageous conversations about race. Congregations seeking an anti-racist journey are invited to explore this collection from Center president Tim Shapiro. We want to know your experience using these resources and on each you’ll see a box to tell us what you think. Also, feel free to suggest others that you find helpful.
Assessment tools are used in congregational planning. Such tools are helpful in strategic planning, formation of new programs, improvement of existing projects and more.
There are internal assessment tools and external assessment tools. Internal tools help you learn about your congregation, its members, staff and other constituents who are part of your congregation. External tools help you learn more about your neighborhood and the community around you.
Here are five things to keep in mind when thinking about using assessment tools.
- Surveys that you create yourself are not typically reliable. You often receive opinions rather than good data. Plus, surveys that you create yourself do not typically have additional data sets to which you can compare the information you gather. So, I do not recommend surveys that you create.
- Look for tools that have data sets that you can use as comparisons to the information you gather. This is especially true for internal assessments.
- Tools that measure strengths are helpful because you can connect the data to your congregation’s capacity and passion. Assessments that focus on problems or weaknesses can be dispiriting. It is typically more productive to fortify strengths than to try to fix weaknesses.
- It is natural to feel overwhelmed when you receive information from assessments. Don’t try to interpret all of it at once. Start with the data that most closely relates to your original reason for using the assessment tool. Go back to your original questions. Set your original questions alongside the data. What behaviors come to mind? What action steps get generated? In other words, allow yourself only so much time figuring out the data. Go with what generates the most energy and discern what actions, however small, might be first steps.
- Assessment tools should help conversation along. They are not the lasts word. The conversation you have about the results of the assessment is more important than the data. You know the tool is helping you when it leads you to a really good face-to-face conversation.
In the last few years there’s been a surge of congregations interested in their communities. Nearly 10% of all Center for Congregations calls include some type of community involvement. For many congregations, the first step is to gather data about the area.
The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) provides the ARDA Community Profile Builder, a free demographic data tool for clergy and lay leaders to learn about people and assets in their communities. This unique tool allows users to view the many characteristics of their communities by searching by ZIP code or local address.
How to Use the Community Profile Builder
- Go to this web address: http://www.thearda.com/demographicMap/ and enter your ZIP code, city and state, or address in the box at the top of the page and click “Go.” After clicking “Go,” the map will take you to your community and show you all congregations in the area.
- Enter the radius (in miles) that you would like the online tool to include. One option is to think of driving distance. How far do people typically travel to attend your congregation?
- Click on the map to set the center point for the radius you selected. A dashed circle will appear showing you the areas from which the tool will draw its data.
- Click the “Profile” button. This will generate your report for the area you selected.
The generated report can include eight different community metrics from religion and housing to income level and ethnicity. It can even include population projections.
Using the Data
This data can help your congregation consider community needs before investing your resources. As an example, in the report you just created look at the Gender/Age tab. A growing number of children could mean an opportunity for children’s programming or a daycare. On the other hand, if there are no young adults nearby, you could make a strategic decision to focus your efforts elsewhere. You might even consider a new building location based on community factors.Want to start learning about your community based on data and not conjecture? Go to http://www.thearda.com/demographicMap/ to get started!
ARDA’s Community Profile Builder is completely free thanks to generous support from the Lilly Endowment and others. The ARDA, which is housed at Pennsylvania State University and has been online since 1998, has more than 16 million pages of content, from profiles of hundreds of past and present religious groups in America to denominational reports and survey findings. Thanks to ARDA Assistant Director Andrew Whitehead for providing this information.
I’ve “attended” several synagogue and church worship services over the last weeks and must report my disappointment. That’s a nice way of saying that most really stink. Live streaming a regular worship service just doesn’t work.
Remember that as soon as you put something on a screen, the viewer compares it to everything else they see on their screens. I’m not suggesting you need a full multicamera production, but sticking a laptop in front of the sanctuary does not cut it.
There are lots of churches which offer well done, live services online. Many are megachurches that do this weekly. You don’t have to match the professional productions of megachurches, but think about raising your standards of excellence.
Some things to keep in mind:
Is your sanctuary the best place to hold an online worship service? If it’s a large cavernous space, probably not since you’ll likely have audio and lighting issues.
Can people hear everything well? The microphone in a laptop or webcam isn’t adequate, especially if it’s not within 3-5 feet from the worship leader. Purchase a simple, inexpensive, USB microphone and move it close to your presenter. Better yet, get several lavalier type mics and a small mixer that feeds your computer.
Is the video clear and well lit? Even cheap, high definition webcams are better than most stock cameras in laptops (not necessarily true for some smart phones). And they’re inexpensive. A separate camera allows you to position the camera where it sees the best not where the computer sits best.
If you’re using one camera as a catch-all, keep the view tight. Have worship leaders stand close together. Most sanctuaries are too dark for video and lit to focus on certain spots that aren’t optimal for video casting.
Don’t ask people to download worship documents beforehand, include them in the experience. This is tougher to do since you’ll need a way to split the screen. If that’s not an option, an alternative is showing just the text during singing and responsive readings. Not only is it easier to view but helps break up the visuals and monotony.
If your worship service is boring it will be more boring on video. Consider modifying your normal service. Most importantly, make it shorter, focused and familiar. Remember, your audience is sitting in front of a computer or holding their phones. People want the familiar and the comfortable.
Form a team to help. That team may be two people, and that may be enough. Have someone else (not your worship leader) run the computer and handle technical issues.
Rehearse! Even if it’s 30 minutes before you go live, practice! You will find things you didn’t think about. Nothing kills the moment worse than congregants watching you mess around trying to fix stuff. Oh, and by the way, start on time!
Resources You Can Use
Here’s a great list of online church resources from PRC-Practical Resources for Churches.
Using a cell phone and Facebook for livestreaming, check out https://thecrg.org/resources/introduction-to-live-streaming
A guide to using Facebook Live can be found here: https://www.thecrg.org/resources/how-to-use-facebook-live-the-ultimate-guide
This article first appeared at https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/virtual-worship/
During the rapidly evolving pandemic, please know that your congregation is not alone. We offer this short list of resources that you might continue your work faithfully and safely.
Looking for different resources? Get information that meets your needs by connecting with us at email@example.com or click Chat with an Expert at the bottom of this page.
Resource List for Online Church
This succinct guide quickly connects leaders to information on a variety of topics: COVID-19 processes and checklists, streaming software and equipment, faith formation, online giving and recorded webinars.
The Episcopal Church provides guidelines for compassionate Christians, instructions for live streaming and mass messaging, plus creative worship and faith formation resources.
Coronavirus Resources for the Church
This Wheaton College resource center offers a congregational planning manual (also available in Spanish), a free weekly webinar to prepare congregations for the coronavirus, a free online summit starting March 26, as well as tip sheets and links to top resources.
How to Lead Calmly in a Global Outbreak
In this article, experienced pastors George Mason and Mark Wingfield provide a pep-talk for faith leaders to lead calmly in a time of crisis.
Q&A: How to care for the elderly without putting them at risk of coronavirus
In this article, the chief medical officer at AARP offers advice for common COVID questions and how to support elderly loved ones.
Virtual Shabbat Box
Create a virtual shabbat with short meditations and readings. Instead of a physical group gathering, engage the senses through rituals that heal the body, mind, and spirit.
Resources for Community- and Faith-Based Leaders
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers official information for emergency planning and action steps, verified information about the virus, cleaning and disinfecting practices, and important organizational practices.
Three Big Communication Mistakes Organizations are Making During the COVID-19 Crisis
Communications leader Kem Meyer offers advice to organizations about communications during the pandemic.
Many congregations are looking for resources to help them talk about racism. White congregations want to prepare for dialogue with their multi-cultural neighbors. They want to learn more about the historical roots of racism and how it has become ingrained through social and economic structures.
Among the many fine books available, there is one curriculum that stands out as practical, accessible, and free. White Privilege: Let’s Talk – a Resource for Transformational Dialogue is a free, downloadable curriculum from the United Church of Christ.
It is designed to engage participants in “safe, meaningful, substantive, and bold” conversations on race. The curriculum contains background reading, webinars, and a conversation guide.
To get a feel for the material, it may be helpful to watch one of the five accompanying webinars, such as Whiteness as the Norm. For congregations who want to delve more deeply into racial issues impacting communities of faith, take a look at https://thecrg.org/search/results?query=race.
As a consultant with the Center for Congregations, I travel a good bit. Sometimes I spend several hours in the car on a given day. While it’s nice to listen to music or enjoy the silence, it can also be nice to continue learning during the extra time. Thank you, podcasts!
Many don’t realize that podcasts are not just about entertainment. There is a great variety of valuable educational content and subject matter out there, ranging from practical to spiritual. Podcasts can be beneficial not just for you but for helping those in your congregation learn.
And did I mention that podcasts themselves are free? The term “subscribe” can be a bit misleading, but this just means that you are giving permission for the podcast to send you new episodes. It doesn’t require you to pay for it.
For Apple mobile device users, simply download the podcast app. For Android users, there are many possibilities: some free, some requiring a subscription. If you prefer to listen from a computer, a number of podcasts also have the audio available on its website.
If you haven’t yet delved into the world of podcasts, I encourage you to check it out. Here are some recommendations to get you started.
Thinkorange Podcast – “ideas and conversations to help you influence the next generation”
Youth Culture Matters from The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU) – “helping parents, youth workers, educators pastors and others understand and reach today’s youth culture”
Download Youth Ministry (DYM) – “a collection of shows to help you win in youth ministry”
Culture and context:
On Being with Krista Tippett – this podcast seeks to have conversations about the questions of meaning in our current context
Sermon Brainwave by Working Preacher – geared towards helping pastors interpret and preach the weekly lectionary
The Harvard Business Review defines innovation as “the difficult discipline of newness.” What new thing is forming in your congregation? The congregation I attended last Sunday is starting a Friday night dinner, which will end with communion. In explaining the gathering, the pastor said “We don’t have to wait for Sunday to break bread together.”
My colleague Kara Faris and I have learned about the difficult discipline of newness from 12 innovative congregations. Stories from leaders of these congregations are in the book Divergent Church.
We learned of six practices evident in various configurations among these congregations. By practices, we mean universal human activities that take on unique and often new shape in these innovative congregations.
The congregations told remarkable stories that featured creative expressions of these six practices:
- Shaping Community
- Artistic Expression
- Breaking Bread
- Community Engagement
If you were given full license to innovate regarding a practice, which practice would you choose and what would the innovation look like?
If you are interested in reading the book Divergent Church email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you a copy.
By the way, the congregation starting the Friday night gathering is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Innovation is not dependent on a congregation being shiny and new.
Websites are the “front door” for congregations, and having a web presence is no longer optional. Visitors often search for a new church home online. Savvy congregations even use their websites to gather information from people.
Investing the right resources in a website can help your congregation attract new visitors and better interact with members. Ask yourself these questions before jumping into your website project.
- What is our budget?
- What are our goals for the website? Examples: To share information, gather new information, reach new people, interaction, advertise, etc.
- Who will maintain the site and can they devote enough time to this work?
- Based on who will be maintaining the site, what type of training do we need?
Considering those questions will help you find the right web-solution for your congregation.
How would you describe a thriving congregation? Perhaps a thriving congregation has young people attending worship. Another thriving congregation might manage conflict well.
At the Center for Congregations in Indiana, we interact with all kinds of flourishing congregations. Here’s what we’re learning from faith communities that thrive.
- Focus on congregational assets rather than problems. Reframe observations as a positive question “What is going well?”
- Learn to do new things. This encourages intentional growth as a community. See the book How Your Congregation Learns.
- Help your people to live life well. Connect teachings, worship, and faith convictions to the challenges and opportunities of everyday life.
As part of our work, we captured the stories of 12 innovative, thriving congregations around the United States. Below are some of their common practices.
Intentional Practices of Innovative Congregations
For more information, see the book Divergent Church.
On the surface, thriving may look like growing worship attendance or conflict management. By considering the strategies and practices listed above, your congregation can take new steps to thrive.
For further discussion
Brainstorm strategies or practices that happen within thriving congregations.