By Bishop Michael Rinehart
There, I said it. Post-pandemic. I know, I know, the World Health Organization reports that there are still variants running around, and that some nasty new variants may yet emerge. The Omicron variant represents 99% of all COVID-19 cases now, and Omicron has 300 subvariants. The variants are more numerous and some more viral. Subvariant BA.5 has run its course, but BA.4.6 seems to be taking off. Fortunately, these subvariants are much, much less deadly.
So I know the WHO is right, and yet, approaching this from an emotional standpoint, it’s time for us to get serious about recovery. Families and congregations are so over hunkering down as if the hurricane is still upon us. And yet there seems to be a malaise about fully moving into recovery mode. We are all a bit traumatized and tired. We aren’t ready for a sprint, but we need to map our way forward. Before, I was saying it was not yet time for strategic planning. You don’t begin recovery during a hurricane. Now, I am saying it is time to plan. And we can start with Christmas.
The question I’ve been getting most recently is, “How do we recover from the last few years?” Most congregations are at 70% of pre-pandemic worship attendance, some a bit less, some a bit more. Giving is not down as much, but down nevertheless. Uptake on children’s ministries, youth ministry, adult faith formation, service projects in the community, etc. are slow in coming. Good things are happening in places, let’s learn from them. Check out the Wednesday service with Pastor Mark Groves at Christ in Brenham or youth ministry with Angela Fleeger at Peace College Station. There are places where youth ministry is up, even while worship attendance is down. At our synod assembly May 19-20 at Lord of Life in The Woodlands, we will be telling stories about some creative things that are working.
My first response to “How do we recover?” is to start by celebrating. We have all been through so much, we’re a bit traumatized and depressed as a society. It’s all been a bit much, so our brains go immediately to a tense state of fight or flight. As one person said recently, our brains have a superhighway to stress and anxiety, but a dirt road to joy. Let’s create spaces for celebration. Celebrate anything: baptisms, confirmations, weddings, a fundraiser for a community cause; anniversaries of couples, of pastors’ and deacons’ ordination or installation, of the congregation. Dedicate one Sunday a quarter, or one Sunday a month if you can manage it. Pull out all the stops. Advertise it in the community. Draw a crowd. Have food! Rent a bouncy house or a climbing wall. Whatever it takes to throw a party.
Let’s start now with Christmas.
For many churches, Christmas and Easter are our biggest Sundays, even if we put in very little effort. What if we put in a lot of effort? Many churches will see double their average Sunday worship attendance on Christmas and Easter. Let’s double down. Here are some thoughts. Add your own. Share your ideas with colleagues. Start a movement. Focus on three things: Invite, Welcome, and Follow-Up.
I ask congregations who is invited to Christmas Eve worship, and they invariably respond anyone and everyone. Then I ask where they advertise their service times, and they tell me in the church bulletin. Spend some time thinking about how we invite the community. An ad in the paper? Social media? The church sign? Mailings to nearby neighborhoods? Door hangers?
- Invitation cards: Studies show the most common reason for people to visit church is an invitation from a friend. Make it easy for them by printing some kind of invitation that they can hand someone with service times on them.
- Evite: Consider creating an online invitation that members can use to invite their friends.
- Banner: Print a banner to place on your church property near the street so that those who drive by know they are invited and welcome. Be sure to print the service times.
- Voicemail: Most people will search for your service times online, but some will call the church office. Make sure your voicemail message shares the service times.
- Website: Don’t make people scroll or sift through various levels to find out when service times are. Put a Christmas-y graphic on your landing page with service times and make sure it’s clear that everyone is welcome.
- Visitor-friendly: Plan worship with visitors in mind. I always remember being astounded on Christmas and Easter at all the people who I don’t recognize. New visitors, family from out of town, and so on. If you issue a broad invitation, expect newcomers. Make sure worship is easy to navigate. People coming forward for communion will not know what to do, so there is a risk of embarrassing them. Help them know.
- Special music: Sometimes music is hard on Christmas Eve. If half of the choir is going out of town to spend Christmas with family elsewhere, it can be a challenge. Consider investing a little bit in a soloist, an ensemble, a brass group, or strings. Let people know what you’re doing to build excitement. Paying musicians on Christmas Eve is pricey, but it may be worth it.
- Greet: Organize well for greeting people. Place people at the doors to offer a warm welcome with a hearty “Merry Christmas!” Visitors should never have to touch a door handle. If there’s any doubt about parking, recruit a couple volunteers to help people out.
- Expect children: Many families will be looking for a sacred space for Christmas, for a host of reasons. There will be children. They will make noise. Consider carefully how long worship runs. Think about something special for the children.
- Make it memorable: What will make people want to return? Music that touches the heart. A sermon that touches the heart. Warm and friendly people. An invitation to return. Think about what is happening next Sunday and in the month of January. Consider an intriguing sermon series that sparks interest and makes people want to come back.
- Who came? Figure out a way to collect names and contact information from all who come. Some visitors will want to remain anonymous, and some will be from out of town. But some are in town and will give their information. A book in the narthex is fine (if someone checks it), but most people will not find it and you don’t want to create a line at the door. A card in the pew, a card in the bulletin, a tear-off in the bulletin? Be sure to point it out. Are pens and pencils in the pew? Invite people to write their name and information and maybe even a prayer request and drop it in the offering plate. (Yes, it’s time to get back to passing the plate).
- Who will follow up and when? It is essential to make a connection with those who came. Are you new to the community? Is there anything you need? What brought you to church? How can we serve you? So, the question becomes who makes these calls? If it’s a handful of visitors, the pastor can do it. If there are lots, it should be shared. Those who make those calls should be well trained.
- How to follow up? People get creeped out by drop-in visitors at their house these days, at least in most places. A phone call will suffice. If no one answers, leave a detailed message with a number they can call back. You don’t need to make a second or third attempt. You don’t want them to feel stalked but rather supported. The follow-up call has 4 parts: 1). Thank you for coming. 2). What brought you? (Listen for the need). 3). How can we serve you? 4). Invitation to return next Sunday or an upcoming special event or a group that addresses their need. (Train your callers to be prepared for negative comments like “the bathroom wasn’t clean” or “no one talked to me.” Have them write it down, and thank them for their comments. No arguing. This is immensely helpful information. A learning moment). Most churches do not follow up, and people feel their presence was either unwanted or unnoticed. People respond to people.
- Connect: When they do come back, what will be vital is getting them connected to others. If people don’t connect to a new member class, a team, a study, a choir, or some group, if they don’t make friends, they will stop coming within eight weeks. Think about how you continue to invite and connect.
As you start to imagine a fun Christmas, start to plan more fun events for the coming year. Think about who is in your neighborhood and what they celebrate. Any excuse for a party. Any excuse to build community and bring people together. Here are some to consider. Pick a few. Think of more.
- January: Tres Reyes, New Year’s, Epiphany, MLK Day
- February: Valentine’s Day (I know, it’s not a Christian festival, but it’s on everyone’s mind and is an opportunity to talk about love, the greatest commandment)
- March: St. Patrick’s Day, Easter (some years in March)
- April: Easter!
- May: Mother’s Day (I know, also not a Christian festival, but we were all born of a woman and know a lot of people come to church on this day because it is Mother’s Day), Memorial Day
- June: Juneteenth, Father’s Day, VBS, camp-sending, Pride, blessing of the bikes
- July: VBS, camp-sending, ice cream social, the 4th of July (I know, there’s the danger of Christian nationalism, but let’s meet it head-on by acknowledging the boundaries. We can celebrate freedom and recognize that everyone is thinking about Independence Day as they walk to the door)
- August: Blessing of the backpacks, start of school
- September: Rally Day, faith formation kickoff
- October: Blessing of the Animals/St. Francis, Pastor Appreciation, Oktoberfest, Dia de Los Muertos, Trunk or Treat, fall festival
- November: Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving celebration (move past the first Thanksgiving myth and use this time to give thanks and build bridges with indigenous peoples. November 4 is Indigenous Peoples Awareness Day)
- December: Christmas!