Post-Pandemic Pivot: Step One

I believe it’s time for what I call “the pandemic pivot,” the development of spaces in which the best of what was and the possibilities of what could be intersect as the hybrid church. This article is the first in a series that explores how questioning tradition, examining embedded understandings of the Divine, creating curious conversations, developing a holistic hospitable approach, and innovating failure is the recipe for digital discipleship. 

Just when we thought there was light at the end of the proverbial pandemic tunnel, we get news that some members of our communities want digital gatherings as part of the “new normal” moving forward. While it’s true most churchgoers don’t prefer digital gatherings, they are interested in having both physical and digital options. According to the latest Barna research 35% of folks claim a preference for both physical and digital gatherings. This is not welcome news to pastors who are exhausted from preaching to empty sanctuaries for the last year.

Online is here to stay – Instead of seeing this as an insurmountable challenge we have to overcome and grieving the loss of what was, I invite you to consider the opportunity this time has given us. 

Bikes and Bullhorns

Mainline churches have long been late adopters to technology. Case in point, the bicycle.  Many Ministers were not pleased when bicycles came onto the scene in the late 19th century calling them the work of the Devil!  “No greater crime against civilization can be committed than the action of bicycle clubs to hold meets, parades, races, and other sports on Sunday. It is a question of health and civic virtue. For to trample upon the religious use of Sunday as a day of rest and worship is to poison the lifeblood of our American civilization.” (Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1895) Clergy were very concerned about desecrating the sabbath – seems a lot of folks were forgoing Sunday services for bicycle sojourn.

In addition, many clergy worried what would become of the relationships forged by long talks on a carriage ride or walk to Sunday services. Now that bicycles were the primary mode of transportation, how would these relationships be impacted now that a quick bicycle ride was the norm. Those ministers who did take to a tour on a bike were met with harsh repercussions. It was reported that a Rockford Illinois minister lost a church trustee and a number of members due to his bike embrace.

“Rev. F. M. Johnson, of Rockford, Illinois, is in trouble. He bought a bicycle and learned to ride it. One of his trustees remonstrated with him, but the pastor claimed the inalienable right to find happiness on a wheel and the trustee resigned, a number of the members going with him. Probably the disgruntled prefer that he should ride the foal of an ass.”

 -Sandusky Register Oct. 31, 1894

As we all know, the Church survived the great bicycle debauchery of the 19th century and lived to ride another day. Yet, I can’t help but see some similarities in how many clergy responded to the invention of the bicycle then and the introduction of digital worship now.  

The first similarity is simple resistance to change. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has heard the phrase, “Well, this is how we’ve always done it” or some variation thereof. The church, Mainline protestants in particular, are very set in their ways and have a soft spot for tradition. Don’t get me wrong, Tradition is wonderful in many ways, however, when it stands in the way of the Gospel, we have a problem…and we’ve had a problem for going on more than 70 years now.

The Evangelical church, for me, is troublesome in theology, unchecked power dynamics, and oppression of women and marginalized groups. However, one lesson Mainline denominations could learn from our fundamentalist siblings is to be early adopters of technology. Leveraging mass media provided a unique opportunity for fundamentalist religion to effect cultural change during the past seventy years. Take for example TELevangelists. Bursting onto the scene in the 1950’s harnessing the power and influence of the media, Dr. William F. Fore, asserts that they are the main reason for the increased role of religion in American life, and in particular, its political life. 

“In America there were scores of television evangelists and hundreds of radio preachers on the air, day and night, preaching a bogus religion whose story is a wild tale of the end of the world, and whose values closely resemble the values and worldview of secular America — the values of winning, of wealth, of power, and of being Number One. On the other side of the Atlantic, European audiences were never subjected to this kind of message.”

Dr. William F. Fore

The teachings of Christ in the Gospels are clear: love, justice, and generosity. Yet, these are all overshadowed and skewed by television evangelists for more than half a century because they had they bullhorn. Fundamental evangelicals were quick to harness the power of new media technology to spread their flavor of the Gospel – and they have continued to be early adaptors of technology throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries. History shows evangelical churches were some of the first to develop websites, embrace social media, and live stream worship services. Meanwhile, most mainline denominations continued to do things as they had for more than a hundred years.

The love of tradition, complacency, comfort, judgmentalism, and perceived piety, all play a factor in mainline denominations not adapting, innovating, and participating in sharing the Gospel of Christ by embracing new media. Instead of harnessing the latest technology to advocate to love, justice, and peace, we continued to demand people come to us on our terms and at our prescribed time. We turned our noses to changes in culture, families, and held tightly to “The way we’ve always done it.”

I’ve heard it said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Stop the insanity! It’s time we embrace the opportunity this time has gifted the Church, get ourselves a bicycle, and enjoy the ride!

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