By Eddie Pipkin

As we continue to find a way forward in this unprecedented crisis, it’s been inspiring to see local churches find creative ways to stay connected to their congregations and keep members of their flocks engaged and supporting one another.  Pastoral and volunteer leadership has really stepped up, making sure that their communities reflect the best of the Acts 2 church spirit.  There have been so many innovative approaches to Holy Week!  Since this is one of the two seasons that people stop by to check us out, even if they get along fine without us the rest of the year – and since this emergency offers a whole new significance to the hope that Easter offers – we’re looking this week at the ways that we can move beyond “caring for our own” to inviting in and supporting those people beyond our walls.

I was leading a ZOOM small group book study this past week, and the conversation turned to the wonderful ways that the people in the group had been involved in supporting others during this crisis or had heard about efforts to do so by their church family.  There were stories of special deliveries to the quarantined, reaching out with phone calls to the discouraged, and the joy of worship shared virtually together.  We talked about the model of the Acts 2 church, and how many congregations have been discovering new relevance in that model of “sharing all things together” as navigate this brave new world.  We celebrated that revival of spirit.  But I also was struck by how – as profoundly comforting as it is to hear and see the many ways we are, as Time Magazine has been putting it, “apart but together” – we have to be careful not to fold ourselves into a coverlet of insularity, making a metaphorical blanket fort of our church family while missing the opportunity to be a resource for the outside world.

It is in some ways easier than ever to reach out to people who are not already part of our faith circle of friends.  And in some ways, it is oddly more awkward.  The difficult part has to do with the disruption to our normal rhythms and routine.  Many of us have barely enough time to check in on our families and closest friends as we scramble to invent new ways to work and make relationship connections .  (How many hours have you spent on learning new forms of technology in the past three weeks?)  Some of the natural flow of conversation has been disrupted.  The events to which we casually invited people, like an Easter egg hunt for the neighbor’s kids, have evaporated.  We don’t have as familiar a vocabulary yet for inviting people to virtual venues.  But it’s time to get one!

On the other hand, my wife observed that even in work conversations, people are doing a lot more “how are you and your family doing” check-ins on one another, and these suddenly more open conversations lead to a natural discussion of things of faith where they might not have existed previously.  People are looking for comfort and reassurance, and we may be in a position to help them think more deeply about faith-related issues.

As leaders, here are some things to think about:

  • We can help the people we lead anticipate these “conversational” opportunities and think through how they will respond given an invitation to share. We can coach them on how to give people hope without being didactic or pushy.  We can help them “script out” how to reassure folks and guide them to rediscovering (or perhaps discovering for the first time) their own faith journey.
  • We can have suggested resources available, not only for our own faith family, but so that they may recommend these resources to people outside of our faith family. Here are books to read, videos to watch, articles to be inspired by, studies to undertake, music to listen to, and even movies to consider as you go through this time.  Families with children have seen an unending list of recommendations for craft projects, fun games, etc., but how about resources that help a family take a faith-based approach to reassuring those children during this time.
  • We can coach people (in fun ways) about how to extend virtual invitations to virtual events. Beyond just mentioning, “Hey, my church is streaming worship,” it is possible to take a more strategic approach to such invitations.  Coach people how to embed links in their Facebook feeds or give a shout-out on Instagram.  If your church is undertaking a project to feed people, thank medical professionals, donate blood, sew masks, or any other community support or direct response to alleviate suffering during this crisis, train your congregation members in how to spread he word and invite participation from friends, co-workers, and community members.  Don’t just assume they will do this automatically!  Or that they even know how to do this!  As for the people on the receiving end of these invitations to get involved, people are desperate right now for ways they can help out.  Provide them!
  • Ask better questions!  And coach our teams that are checking in on people (and all the individuals who are checking in on people) to ask better questions.  It turns out that if you ask an acquaintance or casually-known neighbor an open-ended question like, “Do you need anything?” we are programmed to decline that help, unless we are pretty desperate.  We don’t want to be a bother.  So, rather than staccato questions, what is really required is a primer on the lost art of conversation.  After the procedural formalities of “are you desperately low on anything, like toilet paper,” make time for more open-ended discussions: “What are you finding the most challenging about your routine right now?”  “Is all your technology working the way it’s supposed to?  Need any help with that?”  “Who are you missing the most?”  “What’s bringing you the most hope right now?”  We can all use a little coaching on better questions.
  • Technology coaching is a whole new ministry path.  Put those adorkable nerds in your congregation to work checking in on folks who need help figuring out all these virtual whiz-bangs.

I made the case with my small group that, if we honor the Acts 2 model by taking excellent care of one another through this crisis, but we never move out beyond our circles to engage the wider world, we have missed the mark.

What are the ways you are seeing these impacts by churches within the wider world?  First of all, we should make ourselves highly visible and communicate a clear message that we are available to help people through this trying time:

  • Find ways to get the word out that you want to be a resource to those who are struggling, those who are lonely, and those who feel isolated and cut off. Start with a simple message: “If you need someone to talk to, or if you need help, contact us!”  Put this on every social media platform you can (using your membership to help spread the word.)  Put a giant sign on your church property facing the street.  Put postcards in the mail if you can.  Not a “join us for virtual worship” marketing push (although you can certainly invite them there, too), but a simple “we are here for you – whatever you need” assurance.  Then, be prepared to handle those requests, having a dedicated team to help with conversations, directing people to resources, and connecting them to people who can partner with them through the months ahead.
  • You should definitely be involved in conversation with your community leaders, elected officials, and social service organizations. Ask them how you can help.  Don’t just assume you know what they need.  Ask them.  Then build a response based on those expressed needs.  By the way, this is a great way – in the way ministry can often be – to give some hope and purpose to people who have been laid off (blessing the providers of grace as well as the receivers of grace).  Give those folks a meaningful project in which to invest their time and energy.
  • Ramp up your opportunities to serve. These opportunities to get involved in making a difference should be front and center in your virtual community.  Communicate them to your virtual small group leaders.  Talk about them in your virtual worship.  Keep people focused outwardly, even as you are giving them the tools to be at peace inwardly.  Be creative in your approaches to how your faith community can have impact and help others.  Many of the traditional go-to outlets for volunteering are unavailable at the moment.  Don’t be afraid to steal a good idea as you scour the news and look to other churches for examples of what they are doing.

Here’s a new set of bullet points for some ideas about ways to help:

  • Benevolence funds are going to be a huge need in local churches as the financial impacts clobber families. Have a virtual fundraising concert!  These are happening on the national scene, but there is so much talent locally.  Give artists a chance to share, and at the same time support the funds that are going to help people help people.
  • Open up prayer requests to the community with a virtual prayer wall. Don’t just ask your congregants if they have prayer requests.  Come up with a creative way for people to request prayers virtually.
  • Also give people a forum for sharing GOOD NEWS. Invite stories, photography, and inspiration and give people a place to share it!  Again, this can move beyond your normal church social media feeds.  Imagine if your “ministry of nerds” throws together a new website or Facebook page that is a community page that your church administers but isn’t overtly just about your church: it’s genuinely a page for the COMMUNITY.  That’s how we move out beyond our virtual walls.
  • Food pantries and feeding programs are getting slammed, and this is only going to get worse. Your missions and outreach team should be actively exploring ways, right now, about how to be a part of meeting this tremendous need.  If you have people who can safely volunteer to help “on the ground,” such volunteers are desperately needed.
  • Continue to partner with and support existing community and international initiatives. Make a firm commitment to be there in the coming months for a local feeding program.  Remind people, as this disaster grows in impact around the world, how to support awesome groups like UMCOR.  (It will be a challenge not to forget the rest of the world as we are so focused on our own needs – but we need to remember that, even in our pain here in the U.S., we are still able to respond from a place of enormous privilege in comparison to the rest of the planet.)
  • Host some socially distant hope-and-togetherness parades for kids or nursing home parking lots! Find ways to thank those first responders and medical professionals!

We are continuing to rethink what our ancient traditions can and should look like in the context of this unexpected challenge – this unusual Holy Week especially.  Cameron Trimble notes that this kind of reinvention is going to be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future:

As we face weeks or perhaps months of not being able to gather, we will need to find new ways to celebrate weddings, baptize babies, grieve our dear ones who pass away, celebrate communion, sing together, pray together and stay connected through challenging days. But dare I say, we’ve needed new ways for a long time.

We are journeying into a world unknown with the freedom to create anew. Yet ironically we have been here before. History moves as echos of patterned pasts. All of our great movements have come from times of deep disruption. The new rituals will rise from us. You will find yourself singing a new song, and I will pray a new prayer, and your friend will find new words and ways to grieve. The rituals will come. But this time, they will come from the truest expression of all of us living in this time and this place. They carry the realness of our world and the earnestness of our seeking the Holy. This is as it should be.

Churches are pondering questions such as the appropriateness of virtual communion.  How do we live in a world without hugs?  How do we help the homeless who have been there all along and now find themselves in a more desperate scenario than ever?  How do we keep on the lookout for the depressed?  How do we comfort the grieving without falling into cliché?  How do you function as a chaplain right now?  We are the people who will be figuring out the answers to these questions, and the answers we provide will not only give meaning to this moment in time.  They will likely chart a way forward that can bring revival and a reimagining of who we are and how we do what we do.

How are you continuing to adapt to the new world order?  Specifically, how are you moving out beyond your virtual walls to offer comfort and hope to people that were not previously church insiders?  How are you being a beacon of hope and help to your wider community?

Share your stories.  We continue to pray for you and your ministries and are happy to talk with you if you need someone to bounce ideas off of or even just to share your frustrations and struggles.  We mean it.