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Two stories back in 2014 had me thinking about that old children’s finger play – “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.”  Congregations certainly are “the people.”  But most are also the building and all the “stuff” they accumulate.

Lots of theologians and church critics lament the emphasis on material things, but we human beings express who we are by making things.  And we express who we collectively are by making and building and saving things together.

On Tuesday, an historic African American church in Atlanta was bulldozed to make way for a new football stadium (surely there’s at least one good sermon in that metaphor!).  Standing in southwest Atlanta since 1879, Friendship Baptist was full of history – playing a role in the establishment of Morehouse and Spellman Colleges, among other things.  It was also full of individual stories of births and deaths and baptisms and marriages. (more…)

Even as change has become ever-present in our lives and those of our churches during the pandemic, our human struggle adapting to and learning from change persists. In our work consulting with congregations at ConvergenceUS.org, we see this in the conflicts and struggles that have heightened and sometimes exploded as congregations pivot from online to hybrid to in-person worship and back again, as leaders navigate setting safety provisions for gatherings, and as all of us grapple with how this pandemic may change the future of our congregations.

All of us have habits and in congregations those habits add up to a pervasive culture that can be hard to change, even when something big comes along to disrupt them. In my research with churches experiencing transitions, I saw this firsthand. Even in the face of new experiences and new information, the majority of church members simply dismissed or rationalized the change so they could maintain their existing ideas about their church and their faith.

In my new book, Church After: Finding Transformation in Unexpected Change, I take a look at some of the science and research that can help us understand this struggle. 

In the field of neuroscience, brain imaging research has demonstrated that strongly-held beliefs are not only difficult to change, but that brain processes actively resist changing them. Parts of the brain that handle reasoning are less active when we are faced with information that challenges our strongly-held positions. We experience an emotional shock, almost as if we are a rat in a science experiment choosing the wrong path in the maze. The most active areas as we take in this challenging information are those dedicated to handling emotions and resolving conflict, followed by activity in the pleasure area when the conflict is believed to be resolved. To sum up – we feel good when we can dismiss conflicting information or make it fit our existing worldview. 

In fact, our brains are designed to protect us from danger by flagging anything that conflicts with existing understanding. Organizational consultant Hilary Scarlett has reviewed the research and explains in her book on how organizations change that this alert happens through increased emotional brain activity in the amygdala and decreased rational brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. New information is harder to process than expected experiences which can exhaust our memory and processing, and we pay more attention to negative input than positive, amplifying the disorientation and discomfort of change. 

To be clear, evaluating evidence and not changing one’s mind on a big issue is completely ok. Refusing to even engage new information, however, prevents a greater understanding of our world, our life, and our faith. 

Our congregations will face change, whether we like it or not. Without some intervention, that change will rarely lead to learning that is healthy and beneficial for the congregation and its members. 

The good news is that we can counteract natural change resistance. Researchers have shown the effectiveness of interventions such as making space for critical reflection in community and providing opportunities for rituals and centering practices. These intentional practices can promote change as an important part of any faith journey. In fact, research in the areas of transformational learning and brain science indicates that embodied communal practices have the greatest potential for increasing our capacity for flexible thinking, thus literally changing our minds. 

Time for reflection, rituals and practices, embedded and embodied in community — that all sounds a lot like church! For this reason, congregations have great potential for supporting transformation in times of change. Yet such support requires intentionality and thoughtfulness in aligning all areas of congregational life with a positive attitude toward change. It is only when we provide such intentional and thoughtful support that we can ensure that change in our churches creates transformative learning in our members. 

For more information and resources on how you can support your congregation during times of change, Church After: Finding Transformation in Unexpected Change is available to purchase on Amazon and anywhere books are sold. You can also access free bonus materials including a free pastor transition quick start and devotional journal on the book webpage: https://www.canemillpress.com/home/churchafter.

About the Author: Anna Hall is an ordained Baptist minister who has coordinated programs and conducted research in churches, nonprofits, and universities. In her work as Director of Research and Development for ConvergenceUS.org, she draws on the latest research from across the fields of religious practice, organizational development, and adult learning to inform product development and implementation that supports the needs of pastors and churches. She holds a Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, Emory University, a Master of Public Administration from Valdosta State University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, where her research focused on congregations experiencing a change in pastors.

If ‘congregation’ implies gathering, March 2020 created a seismic shift that has fundamentally altered congregational life. If we are able to return to pre-pandemic habits sometime soon, which of the new habits will remain? 

Thinking about that question will require the sort of careful assessment long-time congregation watcher Jack Wertheimer has offered in a recent essay, “How Will Synagogues Survive?”. He comes to his wisdom by asking good questions and gathering good data.

He conducted over 50 interviews with rabbis and denominational officials, reviewed websites, and engaged lay people in informal conversations. It’s not a random sample, but the range of people he interviewed gave him a deep picture of what has happened and a base from which to think about the future.

Most especially, the questions he asked took account of the full range of factors that shape congregational life, something this website is designed to help you do. Follow the links to learn more.

How did (and will) the essential culture of synagogues change? If Jewish gathering is about learning, prayer, singing – and eating – how were those functions present (or not) when people couldn’t gather in person? What new opportunities for learning arose when it was virtual and asynchronous, when people could study from anywhere on their own schedules? Did they sing and pray along when they were by themselves or just with family (and did they miss hearing the other voices)? And are they eager to return to kiddush?

And what have we learned about how we care for each other and the world? Are there new ways of organizing and delivering mutual care that can and should endure? What about engagement with justice and care for the earth? Wertheimer reports that many synagogues continued and expanded this work, in spite of not gathering in person.

Relationships and networks have changed, too. People with disabilities, scattered families, and former members, all have gathered on Zoom in ways that have enriched connection. As Wertheimer points out, even those who are always at the back of the sanctuary have reveled in their ability to see faces and be in the midst of the worship ‘action.’ How will congregations keep these networks alive?

How did (and will) theology shape responses? Wertheimer notes that the more liberal branches of Judaism shifted easily to the use of technology on the Sabbath, while the Orthodox resisted, and synagogues in the Conservative movement experienced this as a fraught question, often precipitating tension between lay members who wanted streaming and rabbis who wanted to model a stricter observance of Shabbat.

Beyond Shabbat, many astute rabbis took this opportunity to expand their emphasis on observance in the home. Since people were stuck there anyway, they introduced lessons in rituals that are meant to be observed in the household. Discovering and reviving neglected practices may be a lingering boon from this time.

Liturgical practice has changed, as well. Which elements of the standard service can be cut or shortened to better fit attention spans – not just when we are watching on screen, but also when we are sitting in pews?

How were (and might) resources be deployed in new ways? Not surprisingly, Wertheimer observed that the large congregations with multiple staff members had an easier time mobilizing the technology and expertise to produce high-quality on-line experiences that were viewed by thousands from around the world. But smaller ones often took advantage of volunteers in new ways.

And as Wertheimer found, time and space were resources that could be deployed in new ways. Not only could people gather from all over the world, but they could do so on their own time and without having to commute. Taking advantage of that without losing the value of gathering will be a major challenge for the future. 

For synagogues this also poses a challenge to how membership works. Will people see the value in paying membership dues when they can “get the services” for free? And on the other hand, will synagogues embrace the many Jews who participated virtually in High Holy Days observances but wouldn’t (or couldn’t) afford the traditional in-person events? Resources, culture, and theology are always intertwined.

What about the environment in which congregations exist? Will buildings return to their central role in the experience of worshiping together? How will the nature of those buildings – spacious or crowded, inspiring or boring – make a difference? 

And how has the nature of the competitive environment changed? The ecology of congregations now includes all the on-line offerings people can choose from. Will they still choose to gather in a particular time and place?

Looking to the future

Wertheimer concludes that ‘what we have seen suggests that American Judaism is far more vibrant and resilient than many might have expected.’ But he also urges synagogues to ‘contemplate the unintended consequences of policies pursued during the COVID era.’ It’s an assessment every congregation needs to make, and his good questions provide an excellent guide.

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Jack Wertheimer is the Joseph and Martha Mendelson Professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary and author of the award-winning The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today, published by Princeton University Press in 2018. Professor Wertheimer was a long-time member of the Congregational Studies Team that birthed this website.

Where does one go to find God? Quite commonly, a place of worship. Even people who aren’t sure if God exists seek divine help in churches and mosques and cathedrals because such religious buildings are understood as sacred spaces. If God does exist, surely God will be found in these holy places. 

This understanding of sacred space poses a problem in a global pandemic, however. Where does one go to find God when those religious buildings are closed? And beyond the pandemic, it challenges communities of faith to think in new ways.

Public worship: The Internet as Sacred Gathering Space

What many congregations haltingly discovered in 2020 was the possibility of creating sacred space on the internet. 

A statement from the leaders of National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today issued on March 23, 2020 declares that “canceling in-person worship services is not the same as canceling worship,” and that Christian worship is not dependent on the ability to gather in a building. For some, the idea that they could encounter God through a thirteen-inch screen with a sometimes-pixelated preacher and a lone musician fighting a bad internet connection, all while wearing their pajamas, was completely novel. But, they learned that God could still be found in online worship services, and that the internet could be, as media scholar Heidi Campbell claims, “a [sacred] space that facilitates both relational and spiritual interaction.” 

Private worship: Sacred Spaces

As I have written about in another post, I believe the Christian worship gathering is meant, in part, to equip worshipers to continue their life of worship beyond the gathering and the walls of the church, whether physical or virtual. The disorienting rhythms of the pandemic highlighted a need for churches to equip congregants with an understanding and capacity to engage in worship even apart from the corporate gathering. 

A key shift has involved expanding our notion of sacred space to recognize that all spaces may become sacred and thus be occasions to encounter God. Religious studies scholar Jeanne Halgren Kilde has written extensively about how spaces affect our experience of the divine, and she draws attention to how actions and meanings can make many spaces sacred. 

While some traditions have long encouraged home altars, that impulse has spread during the pandemic. 

Recognizing a need to help congregants find the sacred in the midst of the ordinary, Pastor Chris of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Springfield, MO encouraged his congregants to create a sacred space for worshiping at home, explaining sacred space as “any space that allows us to more easily connect with God.” Likewise, in a guide instructing congregants on how to set up a sacred space where they can meet with God while sheltering in place, Rev. Andrea Curry of West Ohio UMC encourages congregants, “You can trust that God will meet you there in your sacred space just the way God meets you in the sanctuary at your church.” Numerous similar guides abound, aimed at both adults and children, and nearly all of them invite people to include items that already hold personal meaning to them, as well as items to which they can assign meaning, such as a candle to represent the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Just as each congregation’s building – and the artifacts it contains — take on sacred meaning for those who gather there, so we can find connections to the divine in unexpected places, from computer screens to the sacred corners of our homes. 

Reflection:

While it is easy to worry about declining viewership numbers for online services and assume that those who aren’t attending are no longer committed or interested in religious engagement, think about gathering some additional information:

  • Consider doing a survey to discover what other ways your congregants are engaging spiritually on their own.
  • Think about how you are using your resources to encourage deeper spiritual engagement outside the worship service? 
  • Take a closer look at your current worship practices. Does our congregation’s shared worship prepare congregants to be a people whose worship continues even beyond and in the absence of the worship event? 
  • Think about how your worship expresses your theology. How do you help parishioners to understand the mission with which they are sent forth from the worship event into the world, no matter the limitations of the world into which they are sent forth? And how does our congregation’s worship form or fail to form in congregants the capacity to see in every place, person and ritual the possibility of sacred encounter with the living God? 

Deborah Ann Wong is a Th.D. student in Liturgical Studies at Duke Divinity School, with a minor in Christian formation. Her work focuses particularly on contemporary and charismatic expressions of Christian worship. deborahannwong.com

Worship is a central activity of congregations everywhere, but what has happened during these months when gathering hasn’t been possible? A survey conducted during the first two months of the outbreak in North America showed that pastors’ top priority was to find a way to continue their weekend worship services in the midst of the chaos. 

For those of us who believe that worship is the center of congregational life, this seems like a natural move. But in a reflection on these survey results, Heidi A. Campbell questions this premise, criticizing it as a narrow, event-based approach to religious community that she argues is out of step with the networked age in which we live. She draws an unhelpful division between these two approaches to religious community, but she rightly suggests that an exclusive focus on the worship event as an indicator of the strength of a religious community or the commitment and spirituality of its members is misguided.

Campbell, a professor of Communications who studies digital religion and new media, is certainly right that most people’s experience of community is no longer centered in a single institution or place. This reality was clear as nearly every aspect of our lives, including work, worship, classes, relationships, and exercise, transitioned to an online format, allowing us to be in community with people all over the world. 

I want to suggest, however, that this networked spread need not supplant a tighter, focused community. Christian congregational worship is in fact inherently both event and network-based. I offer here two brief thoughts and some questions for reflection:

1. The worship gathering is important. 

The very fact that congregations instinctively looked for ways to continue gathering, even if out of sheer habit, indicates the importance that the gathering holds for the community. Communities and congregations are built on shared rituals, and now that restrictions are being lifted, people are eager to return to spaces and faces they love. 

In addition, from a theological standpoint, for many groups, the gathering is crucial because it is the embodiment of the church’s confession that they are the Body of Christ and the occasion on which the congregation gathers both to offer worship to God and receive a word from God. In the gathering, individuals are drawn into a transformative communion with God and one another, ritually embodying the belief that their shared Christian identity precedes (but does not replace) all other identities.

2. The gathering implies a sending.

The worship event is part of a larger ecology of congregational life, and the congregation, in turn, is part of a wider network of relations, as Campbell suggests. However, this ecological and networked framework does not diminish the centrality of the worship event. In fact, the gathering provides the impetus and model for life in the wider network of relations. The radical one-ness symbolized by the worship gathering is crucial, but it does not end there. This unity of identity also implies a unity of mission, and the traditional pattern of Christian worship in many denominations ends with a sending, a commissioning of the congregation to go and live out their faith in the world. Thus, Christian religious community needs to attend to both the event and the wider network, held together by a shared identity and mission. 

Reflect:

Understanding how your congregation best combines gathered and networked approaches to community requires thinking about your own theology, culture, and place in a larger world. The Frames for Study on this site can help you. Instead of just focusing on how to increase viewership and attendance, consider asking questions like: 

  • What do our shared rituals say about why we gather?
  • How and where are congregants encountering God beyond the worship event?
  • How can our worship together equip congregants to recognize such encounters and discern how God is calling them to partner in mission outside the church?
  • How can our congregation use our resources to continue our worship in the world?

Deborah Ann Wong is a Th.D. student in Liturgical Studies at Duke Divinity School, with a minor in Christian formation. Her work focuses particularly on contemporary and charismatic expressions of Christian worship. deborahannwong.com

Are you teaching about congregations in an upcoming semester? Just curious about existing data on congregations? Check out the crowd-sourced teaching library assembled at the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture. It includes instructional materials developed by its researchers and participating scholars for use in the classroom. From college syllabi and instructional videos to activities and helpful blogs, these materials help educators incorporate religious topics in the classroom.

To search the teaching resource library and our other teaching sources, please go to this page.

In addition to syllabi and activities, you can also find the “Religion &” series on YouTube and content from The ARDA (Association of Religion Data Archives). Included are nine separate American religion timelines that allow educators and students to explore the most significant people, places, and events in the history of religion in the United States. The “Prominent Religious Events and People” section provides a thorough overview from the 1600s until today. There are also timelines focused on BaptistCatholicMethodist, and Presbyterian events and people. Timelines are also provided for “Social Movements and Religion,” “Religious Minorities (Non-Christians),” “Race/Ethnicity and Religion,” and “Women and Religion.” Each entry contains a description, links to additional timelines, photographs, and sources for further reading. Visit: http://www.thearda.com/timeline/

And don’t forget the resources on this website, too!