by Eddie Pipkin

Image by ambermb from Pixabay

The pandemic interlude had a dramatic impact on ministry.  Looking back on that era, we can see ways that things that felt like they were going to be monumental permanent shifts were really just temporary blips.  We can see ways that what was inevitable was simply accelerated.  And we can identify some things that never changed at all.  Some of the shifts, particularly because they were distributed unevenly across generational divides, will take a while to decipher.  For instance, people’s impulse to just stay home. The pandemic gave folks permission to fully embrace their homebody instincts, and the couple of years since haven’t shifted attitudes much.  Getting people together is different now.

A recent column from Boomberg by author Allison Schrager makes her point:

While many things are getting back to normal, the pandemic profoundly changed American life — sometimes just by speeding up prevailing trends. The technology already existed to allow many Americans to work from home, for example, but the pandemic normalized it. Americans also shop online far more than they did before Covid.

One other way the pandemic altered America: It has created what might be called the Introvert Economy. The time at home made Americans less fun. 2023 was a year for daytime office holiday parties, after all, and in general Americans are going out less. And odds are it will stick: It is the youngest adults who are going out less, and when they do go out, it is earlier.

There was a bit of a bump in socializing in 2022, probably in response to years of pandemic isolation. Yet the long-term trend is clear: more time watching TV or playing video games.

They key phrase there is “Introvert Economy.”  That means people are just staying home more often and getting out less.  While this phenomenon has proven true for entertainment (like movies and concerts) and eating out, which is the prime focus of the quoted article, it is an attitude that is leaking over into out-of-the-house activities in general, including civic engagement, volunteerism, and, as evidenced by plenty of other studies and reports, in-person church attendance.

People have plenty of options for shifting from in-person attendance to private home versions of the same activities when it comes to movies, concerts, sports spectatorship, and having someone else prepare their meals.  They have a vast array of streaming options, 75-inch HDTVs, and delivery services to bring the grub.  They don’t have to shop in person, go to the library to check out a book, or even go to school in person.

They don’t have to go church in person either, an evolution that intensified during the pandemic, when almost every local church found a way to produce an online version of their Sunday morning gathering and Tuesday night women’s Bible study via Zoom.

But while movie viewership and sports attendance has stabilized to pre-pandemic levels, while introvert stay-at-home versions of those activities have continued to grow, local church attendance has struggled to regain its pre-pandemic numbers.  Online worship and small group participation is still a thing, but their numbers have dropped like a rock post-pandemic.  Unlike with popular entertainment options, people haven’t just shifted their behaviors to a different platform.  People have dropped out, or they have shifted to “less is more.”

I know some introverted homebodies who are hard to get out of the house, so I have experimented on a personal level with some of the strategies required to convince the hermits to shed their comfy pajamas for a pair of jeans and a night out.  Perhaps you have had similar experiences, or maybe you are, yourself, the homebody.  I find that the introverts will come out for something that they think truly interesting that they can’t do at home or alone, and they will come out to indulge me or someone else who is important to them (family or friends) on occasion.  That’s an investment in relationships, so even if they’d rather stay home, they do understand the significance of honoring that relationship.

How do we best encourage people to come and take part in our ministry offerings?  One thing seems clear: the old strategies of “If you announce it, they will come” are woefully insufficient.

We have to understand what motivates people (which may be very different from what motivates us) and give them the incentive of A) colliding with events, activities, and programs that are going to meet their needs and interests; and B) reinforcing that these events, activities, and programs are best (and most usefully) experienced in person.

This will come back, as always – and as we have seen demonstrated in our interactions with the introverts in our lives – to developing relationships.

We are not called to do the work of building events, activities, and programs.  We are called to do the work of building relationships. Events, activities, and programs are simply some of the tools for achieving that goal.  Everybody knows (whether they want to admit it or not from the comfy confines of the pajama-and-popcorned couch) that in-person interactions are superior for relationship building.

This is not to discount of some of the pandemic era innovations, such as a focus on online worship.  We needed these technological innovations in order to catch up to the expectations of the modern, technically savvy age.  But we shouldn’t get confused about what a strong online presence is and what it’s not.  It’s not “the future of ministry for the local church.”  It is a reinforcement and creative variation in the local church’s identity, extending accessibility and deepening connections, not replacing them.

Likewise for killer apps and texting services and all the other technology.  They can enhance and extend relationships.  They can provide a lifeline for people who are cut off from regular in-person participation.  But they are not going to be the future evolution of who and what we are.

I have a niece – an introvert’s introvert – a veritable social hermit – who will, on the one hand, state her clear position that she hates going out ANYWHERE, but in the next sentence talk about how she has no meaningful social relationships.  It seems clear that one thing is dependent on the other.  And she lives in a town where there are as many events, activities, and programs on offer as a person would care to sample seven days a week.  But she’s an introvert, so she’s not going to launch herself into random new things with random new people – there’s going to have to be a relationship involved, somehow, some way to get her into the mix.

For ministry leaders, here are some things that are not going to entice the introverts to get off the couch (because these things are not going to be superior to the “introvert options”):

  • Good preaching. No matter how solid your preaching is, someone who is instantly clickable online is doing it better.  You are competing against all the best preachers all the time (at least online), accessible anytime, anywhere.
  • Good worship music. Again, great headphones and instant streaming options mean people whose primary motivation is the best praise music have 24-7 access to a personally curated list of all their favorites in exactly the order they want at exactly the volume they want – and the ability to skip the boring parts.
  • Good coffee service. You can go through the Starbucks drive-through in your pj’s.
  • Good Bible study. The internet is awash in quality instructional videos with links galore from great teachers.
  • Good options for donating to causes. If the bulk of your “mission opportunities” are a chance to make a monetary donation to storm relief, Habitat for Humanity, fighting hunger, or other worthy causes, people do not need to come to your building at a specific time to do that.  They understand they can do that anytime, anywhere from their smartphones.
  • A strong social media presence. You and everybody else – many, many of whom have way more talent on hand and available budget for featuring snazzy, creative, interactivity.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have those things.  Of course, you need those things!  They are at the core of what we do.  Core is the key word.  These things are the basics of doing modern ministry.  People will expect them, but we should not fool ourselves that people are coming to experience our version of these things because we are doing them better than everybody else they have the option to choose from.

They are coming to us and sticking with because we are building relationships with them, and they are excited about the prospect of building relationships with us.  They feel encouraged.  They feel nurtured.  They feel valued. They feel challenged (in the way a good trip to the gym challenges them – it makes them feel better, stronger).  They feel inspired, yes, but interactive – it’s an inspiration born of their in-the-room interaction with others.  If what we are doing is merely passive – if they are but spectators – it won’t be worth getting out of the house.

Here are some things even the flashiest new version of the iPhone can’t provide:

  • A hug.
  • Someone to pray with you in person.
  • A room full of people singing together.
  • A physical sense of community, and the delightful random interactions that such community provides.
  • A place to interact with multiple generations in meaningtul activities liking bread together and sharing wisdom and laughter.

Think about those “ministry opportunities.”  If we have hands-on, be-part-of-the-team, uniquely-connected-to-the-community ways to serve, then people who feel called to be useful and connected in this way are going to get off their couches and join us.  There’s no way to stay on your couch and have that kind of impact.

If we make it real, if we make it vital, if we make it fully sensory, fully relational, fully relevant, and fully real, people will want to be a part of it.  If we make it rote – even the most excellent rote, trendy, hip kind of event – people will shrug it off.  If we are providing a Spirit-led atmosphere, people will want to be in the room where it’s happening – in a setting that is all the more powerful because it’s not just personal – it’s shared with others!

Do you feel like you’ve drawn the introverts back to interaction in your local ministry setting?  How do you provoke the couch potatoes to shed those lounge pants and join you in person?  What special aspects of relationship building and invitation of the Holy Spirit do you emphasize when designing and planning your events, activities, and programs.  Share your thoughts!