We all know it by now - there is no going ‘back to normal’.
We are starting to worship together in-person again. slowly and carefully.
Yet most of us have vowed not to let go of Digital Ministry: ‘Zoom church’, live streaming, pre-recorded worship, online prayer, or any other creative manifestation of our common life of faith.
We have already been changed by virtual church, in ways we are just starting to understand. One is how we think about church membership itself. Who is joining us for worship, and why?
It's not just 'us' anymore, it's all of us!
We are used to stable congregations - defined groups who gather regularly in one place.
Now the definition has widened to include those who join us briefly, those we don't know and never really meet, and those who are part of several different faith communities simultaneously.
Geography is no longer a barrier, and neither is time - we can participate in more than one type of worship at once; we can have members across the globe!
How we count as members and how they show up at church is entirely different today than it was even months ago. This changes how we understand ourselves as church, our mission and ministry.
In many ways, it seems like church today is more like the grocery store …
1. We deliver
Like the store, church is a place we are used to going to.
As we have gone virtual, everything is more available online. And just like groceries, church delivers to your door! Worship, prayer, community, and pastoral care come to you now, rather than the other way around. This changes how we think about our life of faith, how we engage with it, and how we share it with others.
Spiritual 'delivery' means we all have Good News to share, and new ways of engaging others.
2. There's more choice
We can still go to the store, (as some are returning to in-person worship), but we can now choose either virtual or in-person options. We can also choose to watch a live stream from one church, attend Zoom coffee hour at another, and be part of online Bible study at a third, just like we might drop by or order from different stores with different specialties.
Some communities are afraid of this - what if we lose our members?
But we can learn from stores: more people shop in areas with multiple stores because they can find what they need from each. More faith communities attract more people with more offerings.
This adds to everyone's membership; and most importantly, it adds to everyone's discipleship.
It also encourages us to have 'specialties'. Instead of all congregations offering the same things, we each know and serve our own particular mission and ministry.
3. We expect people to pass through
This is a small but radical shift for church, and it is not exactly like a store. We will still have committed members who make up the core of our communities.
But it is no longer the only way to be a member.
Now we know and plan for those who will join us for mere minutes or seconds, and those who are not part of our faith (yet!) and may know nothing about it. It challenges us to make all parts of our worship (and other offerings) meaningful and engaging.
In-person worship rarely permits people to 'sample' - just dip their toe into faith and worship practices and community. Digital Ministry has the advantage of allowing those who are curious about our religious community to get a low-stakes glimpse into it. This may lead to a new and lifelong relationship with God for some. For others, it may simply be a minute of oasis in a sea of spiritual chaos. However long the engagement, it is a venue of Good News.
In this way, even small congregations can have hundreds or thousands of virtual members, with different levels of engagement.
4. People are looking for something
No one goes to the store for no reason. You go because you need something - regular supplies, special ingredients, the makings of a feast.
The same is true for church. You don't go unless you are curious about God, hungry for spiritual connection, craving community or longing for comfort.
Whether they are scrolling by, wandering through, or making a beeline towards the good stuff, when people engage with our ministry, we know they are looking for something: peace, meaning, reconciliation, love...
We are seeing more clearly how we are called to connect those who are seeking with what it is we have found - the love of God, the life of faith.
5. It's a consumer model
This is usually the first objection to thinking about church as any kind of business, or the idea of members ‘shopping’ for the right community:
church should NOT be a product. Faith is not a commodity.
And this is true enough. But the flip side of this is considering that as the church, we are in the business of serving others, of bringing something of value into their lives.
The work of sharing the Scripture, sacraments, and traditions of our faith is priceless. We are called to bring this gift to as many as possible, and engage with others in a way that brings them closer to God. We should not be afraid to make this appealing to others. Different ways of sharing our faith will appeal to different people at different times. This is Good News!
We can now reach people where they are with the church, instead of waiting for them to come to us.
We may change someone’s life with the Good News we bring into it - Good News of God’s love for them; of peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, resurrection. Maybe they’re just wandering our aisles, not knowing for sure what they need, or maybe they are looking for something very specific that only we can provide.
Even though it is changing, it is still the work of the whole church: bearing the love of God into the world, sharing it with as many as we can.
As the world changes, so do we.
the Rev. Catherine Caimano