I’ve recently had a new article published in Witness (a USA-based journal). At the moment, it’s only available to members and subscribers, but I am permitted to provide a copy of it here on my blog. I’ve also included the abstract below.
I didn’t expect to go there, but analysing the data from the case study church took me back to my PhD research on contemporary conversion.
The covid-19 global pandemic radically interrupted all areas of life, including forcing churches to adapt their worship, mission, and pastoral care within new constraints of physical distancing. This article explores a case study of how one church communicated the message of faith; connected with, and cared for attenders, the wider community, and others; and experimented with different forms of worship and ministry during covid-19. Drawing on data from a questionnaire, focus groups, interviews, content analysis and participant observation, the article demonstrates the importance of amplifying a message consistent with one’s values, providing opportunities for warm connection, and continuing to make iterative change to ministry practices. Considering this alongside recent research on contemporary conversion, the paper affirms the significance of relational authenticity in engaging in Christian witness, including when the church is forced into unfamiliar and undesired realities. Churches can be encouraged by the potential fruitfulness of multiple voices communicating the significance and meaning of their faith; being honest about life’s challenges; and encouraging and resourcing engagement in spiritual practices as means of Christian witness, including in challenging times.
Taylor, L. M. (2021). “Reaching Out Online: Learning From One Church’s Embrace Of Digital Worship, Ministry And Witness.” Witness: The Journal of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education, 35, 1-14.
I don’t know if you experienced and remember the sense of
hope that perhaps the world and the church might be different in the future, because
of the pandemic. Maybe we’ll discover ways to live without trashing the planet.
Maybe we’ll find new ways of being the church in our local communities. Maybe
we’ll live into new ways of caring for one another. Maybe there are things that
we learn and do that might become part of our future, rather than just being
One person I interviewed described it like this: “What might
be normal going forward might be different, but we get to build that. We get to
decide what that is.” There was a sense of determined anticipation that the future
could be different, and we could be involved in shaping that.
At the same time, there was some resignation by then (March 2021) that much had returned to an old normal. That many church members simply wanted a return to what was, rather than a turn to what could be. That’s not surprising: a return to familiarity can be comfortable and comforting.
But let’s be honest. The Church is in decline and the things that have been done over past generations are not all that will be required into the future. So dream a little dream! (Or a big dream, even.) Imagine what could be. Look back in your journal on your computer and see what new and fresh things sparked a sense of joy and anticipation. What old or ancient practices were reinstated? What new things grew? As I write this, we’re still in Alert Level 4, here in Aotearoa New Zealand. None of us want to be here. So read this in the light of the previous nine things I also wanted to say.
Look back and draw on past strength; and live into and out
of your values. Those things will help sustain you. Lean into God, in whom our
hope and strength are found. Name the challenge: it’s hard, right? Prioritise connection
and invite participation. Be “good enough”: perfection not required; perfection
not possible. Invite people (online) into your place, even if it’s a bit messy
or muddly. Keep an eye out for God at work. Get people involved, reaching out
to others. And, strengthened and empowered by all that, dream a little dream of
what might be.
There are many things that are crucial to our wellbeing as
humans. In addition to our more obvious physical needs, some scholars talk in terms
of three inherent needs: autonomy, belonging and competency. Needless to say, pandemics
impact negatively on all three! Competency relates to a sense of purpose and
mastery – having something important to do and knowing that you do it well.
Belonging relates to a sense of connection and attachment to others: more
difficult to achieve when physical distancing is mandated, and travel
restricted or prohibited. Autonomy relates to a sense of being in control,
which is obviously diminished by uncertainty around lockdowns and the wider ongoing
One way that all three can be enhanced in covid times is through the simple act of reaching out to others. In the context of the church, this can be approached informally as everyone is encouraged to care for their friends and whanau. It can be approached formally through creating pastoral care structures that ensure each person is linked to others in the church; each caring and being cared for. Or there might be an approach somewhere in the middle, where informal care is encouraged, and those with particular needs matched with someone who can check in on them. However it happens, it’s good to celebrate its significance!
Autonomy is enhanced as the caregiver makes the effort to
offer care: as they decide for themselves to act in a way that is caring towards
another. This can give them some sense of having control over their actions.
Belonging is enhanced as relationships deepen, and the caregiver sees what they
are doing as making an important contribution to the church community. Competency
is enhanced as the carer regains a sense of purpose: they are doing something
that is important and is valued.
We often see such actions in terms of the benefits for the recipients
of that care, but in reality, they also benefit the one doing the caring. There’s
reciprocity here – the benefits go both ways.
Therefore, ministers can be encouraged to name and celebrate
the importance and significance of caring beyond one’s own bubble. Of taking
the time and making the effort to reach out to others. Sounds like a win-win to
(Of course, we need to ensure that there are clear ways that
people can escalate any concerns that they may have about those they are reaching
out to. In this way, appropriate pastoral, spiritual and practical care can be
offered to those who need it.)
As I interviewed church leaders and attenders, I heard some wonderful stories of how God had been at work in their churches. And I heard delight in the telling of those stories. For instance, there was a sense of wonder at the appropriateness of the texts pre-selected for the first Sunday service in Lockdown 2020. The Revised Common Lectionary Old Testament text, used by many churches, was about God breathing life into dry bones: a message of hope that even in the midst of their worst moment, God was at work, bringing the transformation of new life. Another church (that had selected their service theme and texts late in 2019) focused on Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes offered by one boy. They noted the relevance of this text for a time when they desperately needed God to multiply what God had given them. For this church, they saw and celebrated God’s hand at work in preparing them to be able to support others during covid. For each church, the naming and celebrating of this helped strengthen faith expectancy, and hope.
One woman recounted how a newcomer to church just before Lockdown had provided their email address, but she wasn’t able to read it and so couldn’t contact the person. She was delighted to encounter the newcomer on a Lockdown walk and was able to get their contact details and stay in contact.
These stories and others were told to me with a sense of
wonder and celebration. God is at work in our world! God’s activity can be recognised,
named and celebrated, building faith and courage among people who find
themselves in uncertain and difficult circumstances. So keep an eye out for God!
And don’t be afraid to name and celebrate what might just be the work of God in
Of course, one of the things that we miss in Lockdown is person to person interaction that occurs when we get together in the same physical space. During Lockdown, we don’t get to see each other in three dimensions, to share food and drink together, etc. That’s certainly a loss.
What Lockdown offers in exchange, however, is a different sort of intimacy – one that is from my home to your home. People value such interaction. They like seeing the minister speaking to them from their home office, or kitchen table, or garden or deck.
They also like seeing each other and other congregation members
in such settings.
During Lockdown, we have an opportunity to get into the homes of several people at once, and to invite them into our homes, without needing to do any dishes! As we do, we open ourselves to them and them to us in new ways.
So, invite people to share pictures of their home office and
school set ups. Share your own. It’s good if it’s not pristine – perhaps it is
even a little chaotic. Talk about where
you are and why. As I type this, I’m blessed to have space to work in our older
daughter’s room. She’s studying in the UK, and so I used her room for my Research
Leave, and come back up here (from Steve’s and my shared office) when I have a
meeting. I’ve had meetings on and off all day, so it wasn’t worth moving back
downstairs. Stellar-Boo the cat often comes to visit.
Open up your home to others, and get others talking about
their own space. It is a gift to encounter one another in such ways, and it is
missed when it is lost through staged settings.
Ironically, I’d already chosen this heading for today. Be
good enough. Donald Winnicott wrote decades ago about the “good enough” mother.
Look it up. It’s an encouragement to not stress about our imperfection.
I’m a perfectionist. One of the things I am learning, is to be “good enough”. To not be paralysed, or overworked, by the desire to be perfect.
Therefore, because it is already after 6pm (6.17pm now) and I (literally) have cold feet, have worked plenty of hours already today, and would like to do some exercise before dinner, I am going to write a “good enough” blog post and leave it there.
Be good enough. Create online worship that is good enough. Care for people in ways that are good enough. Perfection is unattainable.
One of the pastors I interviewed was guided by the question: “How much is enough?” It’s a great question.
Before covid, one of three key motivations for engaging in
online church was a desire to connect. The online space provides opportunities
for genuine community to be formed, including between people who are otherwise
separated by distance, disability, ideology, or – now – pandemic. More than a
platform for broadcasting a message, the internet is a place of connection: a
As humans, made in the image of the relational God, it’s
natural that we seek connection. And this connection is not passive but active.
During covid, it takes more intentionality to stay connected. We’re less likely
to encounter friends and acquaintances in the supermarket or on the street. We
need to make a particular effort to reach out to one another. But don’t we need
it? Those moments of interaction?
In the context of Sunday worship, connection requires more
than passive viewing and can be enhanced by inviting participation. It might be
as simple as inviting participants to respond to questions by commenting or posting
in the chat. Or there could be a way of reporting back after an offline
activity undertaken in bubble groups.
As I watched and analysed online services, I noticed that
over time the level of participation generally decreased. One church partially
dealt with this by having an online host who posted in the chat/comments in
order to facilitate engagement. That was great. But I noticed that it was
engagement that built engagement, and there was only so much that one person
could do. Assigning more than one person to the role of engagement officer(!)
would help to build engagement, particularly in larger contexts where it isn’t possible
to have everyone sharing out loud.
It takes more effort but inviting pre-production participation in services can be really effective. And we’re all a whole lot more familiar with recording ourselves, so more people would be able to do so than 18 months ago. In one group that I interviewed, they laughed as they told me that they liked hearing from people who weren’t “paid” to talk about the hope that they had in Christ. That is, they appreciated hearing from people who weren’t on the church’s payroll.
So invite participation and encourage connection. If you’re inviting online synchronous engagement, (eg through chat, comments or breakout rooms), make sure that you have people skilled and assigned to facilitate that engagement.
If what you’re offering online is pre-recorded, perhaps comments can still be made, or there might be a spot on your website or social media, where participants might share an insight later. Including (with permission, of course) photos of (or from) church members, or short video greetings or reflections helps to keep people feeling that sense of connection, as well as participating in meaningful ways.
Take the opportunity to prioritise connection and invite
It’s all very well to remember that God loves us, but it’s
hard, right? There’s uncertainty and the attendant lack of control. People are
sick. People are at risk. We’re stuck at home. Many are trying to do our usual
work. Many have children to care for. Many have parents they are concerned
about. We’re not sure when this will end. Will this end? How long will we need
to live like this? How long?
Just as we’re invited to look back, to draw on past strength;
to live into and out of our values; to lean into God, we’re also invited to name
the challenge. There’s a good amount of that in the Bible! Lament. I write in an
upcoming article (citing Robert Beamish): “Those who suffer need time to
acknowledge the reality of their suffering.” We shouldn’t rush past the pain.
Rather, we name it. Hold space for it.
There are rich resources in the Hebrew scriptures that we can
draw on: Psalms of Lament, the book of Lamentations, for example. Lament doesn’t
prematurely move to explanations or solutions that fail to touch the heart. Preaching
at such a time can create space to honestly talk about both God and about the
context that we find ourselves in. Naming the difficulty of the current reality.
Not rushing towards a solution. Sitting with the pain. Not because there is no
hope, but because we humans need space to acknowledge our big feelings. To name
them before God.
Over the last couple of days, I’ve encouraged us to look
back and draw on past strength, and to look back and draw on the values of your
church. The former helps build personal well-being in these difficult days, and
the latter helps orient and focus pastoral leaders, when the possibilities are
many and the energy is lacking.
Today, we’re looking back again: but instead of looking back
to ourselves or to our church, we’re looking back to God: to how we’ve known
God to act in the past, and who we know God to be.
In the Bible reading plan I follow, I was reading Psalm 56
on Friday. While I’m not feeling trampled on by others at the moment, I did do
a bit of tossing and turning the previous night as I struggled to sleep. So verse
8 was a comfort to read: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in a
bottle.” There’s comfort as I look way back to these ancient songs: to others who
have named God’s presence and activity. The idea of God knowing that I struggled
to sleep was comforting. I wasn’t alone in the night. And the image of God capturing
and storing my tears speaks to me of tenderness and care.
So, I look way back, and lean into God. Into the comfort of
God, whose presence has been declared since the beginning. Into the comfort of
God, whose presence I have known. Today’s image is of a FIMO piece (signed by “Madeline”,
with the verse Isaiah 51:16 inscribed on the bottom). It was gifted to me by a lovely
friend when I was in hospital years ago. As I look at it, I remember God’s presence
with me then. And I trust in God’s presence with me today.
May the same be true for you. Remember, God loves you. Lean
How might you encourage others in your church to also remember
God’s never-ending faithfulness? Perhaps with stories shared? Perhaps with
songs offered and scriptures read? Perhaps with an invitation for them to
recall a time that was difficult for them, yet when they knew or trusted God to
be with them. God is the source of our life and our hope. We can lean into God.
Yesterday, I encouraged you to look back and remember what
helped you get through the first Lockdown last year. We can draw on our past
strength as we face our current reality. We can lean into, or perhaps reinstate,
things that were helpful last time around.
There’s a second kind of looking back that I want to encourage
today (and it’s the second of three, so come back tomorrow for more!). This one
is for you as a church, more than it is for you individually.
I encourage you to look back and live into, and out of, your
values as a church. I saw this clearly demonstrated in one of the churches that
I included in my case studies of covid responses. As I analysed data from their
church services, interviews, and focus groups, I realised that I was hearing echoes
of their values in the actions that they took and the words that they spoke.
It’s how values should work, right? They both reflect who we
are as churches and provide a framework by which to discern future actions. We
can ask questions like: Does this fit with our values?
There’s a whole load of resourcing and possibilities out
there: a seemingly infinite number of ways you might respond to covid. Creative
ideas for online worship. Pastoral care initiatives that could be implemented.
Ways that you might engage with the wider community. I reckon it’d be pretty easy
to get overwhelmed, or perhaps to feel inadequate, that you’re not doing
Our values help hold us and guide us. If you’re a small church
that prioritises community, make connecting a priority in whatever you do this
week. You don’t need gorgeous visuals and cleverly-worded preaching. Open up space
to share with one another. Build connections. Build on your strengths.
If you value being connected with the wider community, come
together online for a quick chat, reminding people of that value, and then send
everyone off to check in with (online of course) their neighbours. Then come
back 30 minutes later for a final catch up.
If you particularly emphasise preaching, pull out the key
points of your last two or three sermons and invite discussion of what they might
have to say in our current situation. If your church is feeling the loss of sung
worship, invite a couple of people to share about why a particular song is
their favourite. And then play it.
It doesn’t need to be massive. It doesn’t need to be amazing.
It just needs to be you.
If you’re not sure of your values, perhaps that is something
you could explore together one Sunday. Asking people to share what it is that
they value about your church. Mentimeter polls are fun here. You can build a
word cloud of the values that are named the most frequently. (When I say YOU, I
mean you can set it up to happen automatically.)