But I want to share some of my own thoughts as we discern together the best way to organize our worship life in the reality of this moment.
First, I’m never eager to reduce the number of worship opportunities. Worship and preaching are my life and I would always prefer to do more rather than less. We restored our pre-pandemic schedule in May, 2021 with the hope that worshipers would return in roughly similar numbers and proportions to the two services. For whatever complex combination of reasons, that didn’t happen. This experience is roughly in line with what other churches have seen. Some people have moved, other regular worshipers have lost their mobility, many people are traveling more and often watching online. God continues to bless us with people arriving to hear the Word and receive the Sacrament, but not as regularly, or in sufficient numbers, to offset the losses through mobility, health, or permanently altered habits. As a result, the two-service structure has been difficult to maintain at a level of quality and enthusiasm that we would reasonably have expected in February of 2020. I have heard some anxiety that fewer services will mean fewer worshipers and less opportunity for growth, but I think the relationship actually goes the other way: strong attendance creates the possibility for more worship times. One strong, well-attended service with a sanctuary that feels relatively full and energetic has more potential to grow than two services that can at times be rather anemic.
Second, I have been deeply moved by the opportunities for connection that a single service creates. I have seen parents with young children of similar ages get to know and help each other during worship, and people make new or renewed acquaintances after previously not encountering each other. I can say from my own experience that there is a huge difference, psychologically, between being the only parent with small children in a church you visit and being one of two or three. I think it would be good for all of us to take a moment to envision the first week of a return to two services: How will the sanctuary look and sound? Who will we suddenly not see? How will it look to someone coming with any kind of trepidation about setting foot in a new church community?
Third, I want to think about any change we attempt not in terms of taking something away but in terms of permitting and empowering ourselves to try something new. Perhaps that would mean worshiping in a different format (one not so dependent on congregational hymn singing, for example) at a different time of day or week, that might reach people who will not come to church on Sunday morning for whatever reason. It could mean putting more of our time and resources into fellowship or service to enhance the feeling of welcome, hospitality, and purpose that we extend to each other and to newcomers in our building. Can we imagine a single-service Sunday morning freeing us up to seek renewal outside of our old patterns? Can we sacrifice something we are accustomed to in order to try to gain something else?
Changing something as deeply-ingrained as a worship schedule is hard work for a congregation. It is always tempting for churches to imagine that they can spark renewal without changing anything that matters to them. And in this case, we have related questions to ask about how education and fellowship will work, what the best timing for worship is, and other things we haven’t even thought of yet. But change happens whether we welcome it or not, and whether we allow our habits and patterns to catch up with it. I have no great insights or predictions into the future, for us or anyone else. But I’ve striven to be honest with you at every point since the pandemic began about where we are and what possibilities are open to us. This is what I have been considering for the stubborn reality of our world in 2022. Like everything else, it is not permanent, but like everything else, it is God’s invitation to ask ourselves what is most important and where our mission to be formed in faith and reach out to change lives will lead us next. See you in church!