Have you ever known someone whose home was destroyed by a fire or a flood or a tornado or other natural disaster? I have. And I’ve been thinking about those friends while watching the choices churches are making after their pandemic closures.
Here’s why: There are two kinds of people who rebuild after a disaster destroys their home. Some people are determined to rebuild just the way it was before, down to the paint color and finishes. Others are determined to take advantage of the unfortunate opportunity to make changes, maybe move a wall or add more technology, for example.
That’s exactly the choice churches face this summer as they reoccupy the sacred spaces that sat mainly empty for more than a year. Their decisions are not so much about the structure of the building, but about what goes on inside the building. Will they walk back in the door and pick up the church calendar from early 2020 and duplicate it just as it was before? Or will they take advantage of the opportunity to look at things a new way, maybe even ditch some things that weren’t working any more or tweak some things that had grown stale? And if they determine to make some changes, how much “change” really counts as change?
Surely there’s no one right answer to these questions, just as there’s no one right answer to rebuilding a house after a disaster. We all — humans and churches — have our own personalities and perspectives.
If you pay attention to the trend lines, however, you could make a strong case that this is a rare opportunity to make some fundamental changes to the way churches operate. If ever there was a time to throw a program or ministry overboard with little regret, it’s now.
The evidence slowly coming in indicates that churches that reopen thinking like they did in 2019 might as well think like it’s 1971 instead of 2021. The gap in the way people see the world post-pandemic compared to before the pandemic is almost that wide. We are all different people, different families, because of what we’ve been through. We see the world differently, and we likely have different priorities than we did two years ago.
“The evidence slowly coming in indicates that churches that reopen thinking like they did in 2019 might as well think like it’s 1971 instead of 2021.”
Take, for example, families with children at home. After a year of home-schooling or hybrid-schooling, parents are worn out, worn to a frazzle. Yes, they are eager for their kids to enjoy socialization again, but they’ve also discovered church isn’t the only place to get that. They’ve experienced the joys of not having to get up and get everyone fed and dressed and in the car on Sunday mornings, and it’s going to be hard to make them feel guilty about that.
Parents I’ve talked to also worry that their kids have forgotten how to behave at church — particularly in worship — and they’re afraid of being embarrassed about that. Now, I know that hearing this news, every parent my age and older is clucking about how we all sucked it up and got our kids to church back in the day, and if these young parents just loved Jesus more, they’d do what we did. I’ve given that speech before; I know it by heart.
The motto in our house — and the motto I’ve encouraged other parents to adopt in the past — was, “If it’s Sunday, we’re going to church.” Meaning there was no need for our kids to wake up on Sunday mornings and ask, “Do we have to go to church today?” They knew the answer was “yes” before they could ask the question.
Church kids these days have lived through more than a year of not really “going” to church, and they’ve learned that the sky hasn’t fallen and the wrath of God has not descended upon them. And their parents have noticed the same thing.
“We’ve been coercing people to eat their spiritual vegetables, but now they’ve learned that bacon and pancakes taste pretty good for a leisurely Sunday brunch.”
One of the primary motivators we pastors and church leaders used forever before the pandemic was guilt. Going to church every Sunday is the right thing to do, the righteous thing to do, the necessary thing to do. We’ve been coercing people to eat their spiritual vegetables, but now they’ve learned that bacon and pancakes taste pretty good for a leisurely Sunday brunch.
I am not saying Christians shouldn’t go to church or that parents shouldn’t take their kids to church. What I am saying is that guilt won’t motivate anyone anymore. We’ve got to offer more than that.
Last Sunday, I attended a committee meeting at church (and here I thought I got rid of those darned things) where a friend passed around a booklet he recently found. It originally was published in the 1930s by the Baptist General Convention of Texas and then republished many times after that into the late 1960s. It was a guide to leading Training Union in Baptist churches, and the book was at least 60 or 70 pages in total.
Everything in that book was about the mechanics of running a successful Sunday night Training Union program in a Baptist church. (For the uninformed, Training Union used to be the Sunday evening equivalent of Sunday school and was a system of age-graded classes offered before the Sunday evening worship service. This is why kids like me never saw the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz” or other TV shows on the “Wonderful World of Disney.”)
If you handed that manual for the nuts and bolts of running Training Union to your most faithful church member today, she or he would laugh in your face. No one will do that stuff anymore, and everyone realizes that much detail to duty is a waste of their time.
“We’re at a serious juncture in the organizational life of the church, and we’ve got to decide quickly how to rebuild.”
We’re at a serious juncture in the organizational life of the church, and we’ve got to decide quickly how to rebuild. It’s not as easy as just stopping this program or reducing the time allotted to that program. Nor will it be effective just to rearrange the items on the agenda so that they happen at different times now. This is not just about when things happen on the calendar; it’s about what’s on the calendar.
One of the lessons Baptist churches need to learn from some of our mainline friends is that failure to engage children or youth after a certain age — say, after confirmation class ends — ensures they won’t keep coming back. Churches should, and must, offer compelling programming and service opportunities for all ages. The question of the hour is, “What’s compelling?”
The answer may not be what it was two years ago, because the catastrophe we have lived through has changed the way we see the world.
For that reason, this is a time to rebuild the organizational life of the church from scratch. Keep the foundation, but think hard about where you put the walls and doors and windows.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global. Prior to that, he served 17 years as executive pastor of a large Baptist congregation.
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What will become of Sunday school? | Opinion by Mark Wingfield