When Covid-19 caused many churches to shut down in-person worship and go exclusively online, it was an amazing and swift transformation for most churches. There is nothing but applause from all the cabinet on how well pastors, staff, and laity have morphed to be the church in an unprecedented time. We are all learning together.
But one thing that happened immediately; most pastors and worship leaders doubled down on caring for their members, encouraging and supporting them in this crisis time. They worked diligently to keep present members and attenders connected. This was good and right to do. We sure didn’t want to lose anyone and there is certainly fear of that. So, even though churches have expanded digital communication, many are aiming even more at existing members.
For many churches this was a continuation of a culture that had already become entrenched. Too many churches over many years, multiple pastors, and a priority of maintaining the church had already created a culture that is about the member and the services and activities that serve the member. The guest is invited to join those existing services and activities, but these are not typically aimed at them. They are not designed to make new disciples and they are not very welcoming to the guest. This is why so many Methodists want to go back as quick as they can to the way it was before the pandemic. It's how they understand church. It’s what they have been taught. It's the church they joined.
I have watched many online services where there is no mention of the guest attender, the new person, or the person who might have returned after a hiatus. They are not included in the welcome, the message, or the prayer, and often there are no clear communicated next steps for them. Rather than building a church that aims at reaching new people with this new opportunity and to do so in a new way, we often neglect that new person or family who might be connecting digitally the first or second time. I think this is a terrific mistake. New people may not be all the future, but they will be a critical part of a successful future if making disciples of Jesus Christ is our goal. Most of our churches are having far more guests checking us out online than we ever had in person.
The unintended consequence of focusing primarily on our members, who are in legitimate need of pastoral care and their church, might bring less focus on reaching new people, and the guest who might be checking out the church through the digital connection. For some churches this was a continuation of what was already happening (member centered churches rather than disciple making churches), reaching people we are not already reaching and connecting them to Jesus and the life He modeled and taught.
In worship planning, sermon preparation, design of our digital opportunity and creating communication tools, reaching new people should be up front in the process (reaching the non-churched, de-churched, non-Christian, searcher, skeptic, the person who feels alone, isolated, and lost in this strange season, etc.) It should be clear what their next steps are - how new people can connect more deeply. You and your team must be clear on your system to reach these folks and prioritize doing so.
Creating invitational worship, groups, and activities not only gives a place for guests to connect but it also transforms the church (slowly) to become an invitational people. We all know culture changes slowly because it was created over a long period of time. The principle of the new reaching the new is just as important in this season as it was before Covid-19 and it will be after Covid-19. This culture change can be slow because many churches have been taught by non-invitational worship and activities that the church is about their needs and concerns and not about the lost, hurting, and broken people Jesus birthed the church for. This is an unique opportunity in this season as digital worship aimed at the unchurched, those we are trying to reach, can begin to create a changed culture. When we step back into in-person worship, or those already having in-person worship, can open more fully. The church will already be in the process of this cultural change.
When we create worship around the guest, not only do we make room for the people we have not already reached, but we transform the culture of those that we have reached as they begin to understand the community we call the church as a place that makes disciples of those not yet discipled.
The intent is to both make disciples of those who are not, and build a disciple making culture for the church.
Rev. Mike Ramsdell, Executive Director
Center for Evangelism, Mission & Church Growth