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y small community has been meeting outside at Sixth Street Park (Grand Rapids, Michigan) every Sunday morning—weather permitting—and it’s been beautiful to be this close to one another, to watch children crawling around, to be able to pass the peace, to truly pause and look into the faces of one another. This time has been God-sent.

As much as it has been a blessing to be together again, thanks to the nice summer weather and the rise of vaccinated folks, I do wonder if we’re mistaking this as the era of “post-COVID.” In our urgency to move back to “normal,” many of us are pivoting back to only in-person services and programs. We consider online worship to have been a temporary means to an end.

The reality is that we have not moved out of the pandemic. As leaders, we are responsible for guiding our communities toward faithfully responding to the crises of our world. Today, this includes thoughtfully asking how we might step out of our comfort zones to prioritize a balance of in-person gathering and virtual community. This balance is critical because these forms of hybrid worship and discipleship are both more welcoming to a larger community of people and they offer particular opportunities that we only dreamed of before.

As tempting as it is to rush back to normal or the way things used to be, it is important for all of us, especially those in church leadership, to pause and reassess our discipleship rhythms, programs, and community events—to where God is calling us in this moment.

Moving our community toward something new (again)

To move forward, I believe we must acknowledge that we will never go back to our previous “normal.” We have endured a pandemic. We have learned to grieve with our young people who missed out on athletic seasons, dances, and so much more. We have learned to grieve with parents struggling to balance their own at-home work and their children’s complicated school-at-home or hybrid routines. And, of course, we have learned to grieve the ones we’ve lost to the virus, unable to honor their lives in the way we might typically do so.

We have learned to grieve anew, but so too have we learned to imagine and be innovative. We have fought to find rest amid exhaustion, yet we found new ways to engage and equip weary people. Our congregations were worn down, but we dreamed up ways to continue in community, as the body of believers. The opportunity that COVID provided was space—space to listen to the cares and concerns of our people and space to experiment. Continuing to do this is vital as we look toward the future of ministry.

While we continue to live into innovation, we should recognize that we—as individuals and as worshiping communities—cannot do all the things we might like to do, such as five different Bible studies, the coolest vacation Bible school, annual leadership conferences, or the full capacity Sunday worship service. Just because we can do church the way that we have before does not necessarily mean that we should.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we talked with many leaders who were assessing what needed to happen and what could be paused or pushed to the side. This is another skill that is vital to moving forward. As every good navigator knows, in order to move ahead, we have to know where we are. Asking questions about the effectiveness and engagement of present activities is not only the key to our success, but it’s the heart to helping our leaders serve God and one another faithfully by creating space for the things that matter most.

So here’s the takeaway: our discipleship rhythms should not be about adding more commitments to our calendar; rather, we should be enriching and adapting our current commitments for greater community relationships, building the body of Christ with a mind toward both online and in-person rhythms.

What simplifying discipleship rhythms might mean practically

Here are some simple ways we can be intentional about simplifying our discipleship rhythms as individuals and as worshiping communities during these times. As you read these ideas, begin to imagine how one, two, or five of them might play out in your context, giving special mind to that both/and space of in-person and digital community—what our friends in Church Multiplication are calling “phygital.”

In our teaching

1. Preach the gospel and elevate our sense of longing for God’s kingdom. We are once again a scattered church, so the language of lament—of “I long for you”—is real. Lean into it. 

>> Related: a toolkit for understanding and practicing biblical lament

2. Consider inviting your community into deeper engagement with Scripture and theological thoughtfulness through recorded podcasts or Zoom calls. 

3. Show your community how to sabbath in a way that is more than just attending a worship service. Consider offering resources about how to pray and practice rest, such as simple, yet meaningful, spiritual disciplines.

In our relationships

1. Promote longer times of conversation whenever the faith community is gathered together. Maybe it’s adding time during the passing of the peace or encouraging people to stay and chat a while after Sunday worship (in a fellowship hall or in Zoom breakout rooms). Challenge your community to engage others through thoughtful questions. 

2. Spend time listening to your community about where they are currently. Maybe this means hosting some dinners—giving care to people’s differing levels of safety and comfort—to invite conversation about how things are going, or offering digital surveys that allow people to give quality assessment and feedback. The goal is to invite community members to honestly share where they are and to do so with care.

In our going out

1. Equip faith community members to engage their neighbors. Examples include a neighborhood vacation Bible school, after-school activities, or evening bonfires and cookouts. 

>> Related: Five ways to love your neighbors and community during a pandemic

2. Invite different members to “go live,” sharing weekly testimonies about how they saw God moving that week.

3. Consider investing in the square mile around your church’s physical location. Invite the church to take prayer walks around the neighborhood, asking God to reveal the real needs of the people you see and meet. You can even create virtual prayer walks for those who are unable to get out and walk.

 

We know that COVID-19 has uniquely engineered spiritual and relational upheaval in our communities, affecting the church especially. The virus has truly infiltrated our world and scattered us. Our hope is not to overwhelm you with more things that you have to consider and do. Instead, we hope to invite you into a continued posture of learning and listening.

As we look ahead to the church of the future, we believe God will begin creating new things through the soil we’re tilling today. Above all, know that we are praying for you. We pray for courage and wisdom as you invite the Holy Spirit to show you how to proceed, who to listen to, and how to show up every day to care for those who are a part of your worshiping community.

Annalise Radcliffe

Annalise Radcliffe is coordinator for Next Generation Engagement for the Reformed Church in America. She is passionate about intergenerational ministry and believes that youth ministry is the work of the whole church, not just the youth pastor. She and her husband, Ron, are planting pastors of City Chapel in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Ruth Langkamp

Ruth Langkamp serves the Reformed Church in America as discipleship and next generation specialist.