By Eddie Pipkin

No such thing as a virtual hayride!  I love hayrides — one of my jobs over the years with the local church at which I was a member was making the hayride happen for the annual Trunk-or-Treat.  There’s just something simple, heartwarming, and fun about piling a bunch of kids onto a trailer full of hay and pulling them around an open field while they whoop and holler. Good times!  And definitely different from their normal routine (especially those suburban kids I was hauling around).  I was gratified to see that, although I’m not in charge of it anymore, the hayride is back at this year’s event.  As we’ve stutter-stepped our way back to some modified version of normalcy this fall, and as churches work out how to get people re-involved, it’s a great reminder that there are lots of things that don’t work as well virtually — and some that don’t work at all virtually.  There’s just nothing like being physically present and engaged with one another.  That’s been true as long as there has been a church.

The lifeblood of local churches is in-person connection, whether these are one-on-one encounters, small group gatherings, or large group events.  One-on-one exchanges promote intimacy and a strong sense of “you matter”; small groups are the backbone of accountability, encouragement, and spiritual growth; large assemblages produce the greatest effect when they provide something that is unique in the experience of those attending events — worship, for instance, should create an atmosphere that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the normal week’s experiences.  It just feels different and wonderful and necessary.

Each of these modes of interaction can be replicated to some degree through the use of technology (and we’ve now spent almost two years exploring that lesson), but they can’t replace it.  Technology definitely can and should augment our in-person connections, but it does not and cannot supplant it.  Even in the earliest accounts of technological adaptations in the work of the Gospel, Paul’s letters to the local churches, there is a palpable sense of Paul’s longing to be with them in person for that hands-on connection:

“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.”  — 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20

We spent a lot of time during the pandemic convincing ourselves that technology-enabled remote connection was as good as in-person connection — it was psychologically healthy that we did so — and we did great work making sure it was as good as it could be.  But still we were left with the nagging guilt that it wasn’t enough.

Local churches did astoundingly creative work responding to the “disconnection crisis,” learning how to do video production, Zoom gatherings, and interactive social media.  I even wrote about ideas for a “Virtual Easter Egg Hunt.”  Bravo to us all!  But c’mon, a virtual Easter Egg Hunt is the kind of thing that you come up with to do something, anything, when the alternative is giving up and doing nothing.  And even though, if I may say so, we explored some relatively cool options for logging in and participating in colorful and engaging egg and Easter-related ideas, a virtual version of a hayride just feels like a bridge too far.  A hayride is the epitome of a tactile, physical experience: the feel of the hay, the bumps and bounces of the hay wagon, the squeals of the children and the accompanying laughter of their parents, the cool chill of the wind announcing fall’s arrival, the smells of hot dogs and burgers and other concessions.  The fun is sensory by definition.

What feels good about being present together is not limited to two senses (the seeing and hearing of virtual connection — and we must add the caveat of seeing and hearing of an oftentimes frustrating nature, because it is seeing and hearing based on the literal stability of a communications connection — people don’t generally pixelate in person).

I guess what I’m trying to say in this week’s blog is — whatever your well thought-out protocol for keeping people safe and making them feel comfortable with that level of safety moving forward — lean into a return to physical presence with one another.  You’ve figured out your mask policy (for some that’s been a smooth, cooperative process — for others it’s been tricky and exhausting, but you’ve done the hard work to get to this point), so, having done that hard work, don’t go halfway in the “getting back together / getting back towards normal / getting back to work” phase.  I’ve seen plenty of churches who are slow-rolling a return to activities (sometimes really slow rolling), but once we have our safety guidelines in place (and having acknowledged that this virus is going to be with us permanently), let’s go all in on giving people safe options to get together and be in one another’s company.

If anything, we should probably be doubling down on opportunities to get together in person at this stage.  And this should be a main focus of the upcoming holiday season.  There are two factors at play: first, that people are desperately hungry for the human interaction they’ve been missing; and secondly, that the longer we give a tacit “it is what it is” to people not getting together in the ways that they used to, the more ingrained is their new habit of not attending in-person opportunities.

Compounding our hesitation to foster a renewed surge of personal, physical interactions is our thinking that the virtual options we have built are sufficient substitutes for face-to-face encounters.  In most cases, they are not.  They are alternatives.  They are addendums.  But they never were, except in the rarest of cases, going to be close to the core of who we are and what we do.  If we’ve let virtual visitations take the place of in-person visitation (because we had to), now is the time to redouble our efforts for us and our visitation teams to spend extra time with those who were isolated and alone.  If groups had to revert to Zoom calls, now is the time to support group leaders in safely returning to some form of in-person togetherness.  If we delayed or cancelled gatherings, now is the time to celebrate with enthusiasm, enhance the opportunities, and promote people safely doing things together.

I do want to give a shout-out to the ways that the challenges of the past two years have moved us to creatively embrace the new tools of tech.  Here’s an article on the ways a local church developed a ministry around helping older members understand and use technology — this is a ministry that was greatly needed and could be replicated in churches everywhere.  And here’s an article on “Nerd Church,” which is an online gathering for spiritual growth and encouragement for people whose comfortable first space is a virtual space.  It’s super cool, but it’s a fellowship of 100 people.  It’s not going to be the ‘future of the church’ writ large.

As we have written often in this space, it has been inspirational to see the quantum leap that local churches have made to produce viewable and engaging versions of online worship, but online worship was always going to be an alternative for those who couldn’t make it in person (either permanently or temporarily).  In-person worship with a community of believers, with the sights and sounds and hugs and direct interaction with speakers and coffee station encounters and prayer in the moment is at the heart of the local church, and that is not going to be changing.  We should lean into and celebrate those experiences as vividly as we can right now.

If the return to worship has been sluggish, we should be doing some marketing reminding people, here’s what you’ve been missing — remember how good it felt to be together in one another’s presence, marinating in the presence of the Holy Spirit in a sacred space?  Here’s how you can join us to do that safely again — with all the sensory details that trigger their nostalgic memories and encourage them to return to the community fold.

Do a ‘presence audit’ with your staff and leadership teams.  Where are in-person opportunities back to normal (or at an appropriate approximation of normal) and where are they stuck in limbo, either not happening or still stranded in virtual mode.  Dig a little deeper than your main events like Sunday worship.  Think about the myriad small number exchanges that form the foundation of any healthy community.  How do you encourage and promote the resumption of those rhythms?

What has this transition to ‘normal’ been like in your faith community?  Are you back to a healthy resumption of in-person opportunities?  What have the challenges been in your context?  What has made you smile as you have seen people reconnecting in one-to-one ways?  Have you been on a hayride lately?  Tell us all about it!