Randy Ahlberg has been on staff at Constance Evangelical Free Church in Andover, MN for the past 10 years. He is married to Sandy and they have 4 awesome children and 2 grandsons.
With the pandemic’s anniversary coming, let’s acknowledge the struggles and remember the opportunities
One year ago, churches across America were busy carrying out their mission. Churches like ours (Constance Free Church in Andover, Minnesota) were looking forward to the next fiscal year and the initiatives we would lean into for the fall of 2020, planning how we could accomplish our mission of “helping people connect with Jesus.” We had every reason to believe that the next year would look similar to the last, only better.
Then COVID-19 happened. As the weeks turned to months, we realized that our world was changing rapidly. I was reminded of “The Wizard of Oz” and the words of Dorothy when she arrived in the land of Oz: “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
The difference, of course, being that while she moved from a black and white Kansas into a technicolor Oz, COVID-19 transported us from a world filled with color into monochromatic wilderness.
Our mission to “Help people connect with Jesus” has not changed, but the pandemic made everything we do more complicated. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the virus, we can acknowledge some of the struggles we’ve endured this year:
1. Relational stress. The biggest challenge has been maintaining unity in the Body. Between mask mandates, racial tensions and a contentious election, it has been a grievous time where our commitments to Kingdom matters seem to be out ranked by lesser things. The first challenge of leadership has been keeping the Body of Christ focused on things of eternal value—to love God and their neighbor.
2. Leadership planning. Early on, most of us thought this would be a short-term problem, but as the weeks turned to months, it became apparent that there are some seismic shifts happening in the American church landscape. It is burdensome to see that our best planning in most areas can extend only for a week or two. An equal challenge is that it is tempting to be in a “waiting mode,” which is not conducive to good leadership.
3. COVID-19 fatigue. Having upheaval in almost every area of life is draining and it is hard to find safe places to rest. Life is exceedingly complicated, and for many, church involvement has been another casualty of COVID-19. The fatigue is real.
The past year has been challenging, but this season is not without its opportunities to take a step into the future of ministry in the 21st century.
1. Barna and other researchers have told us for years that American attitudes towards church and church attendance are shifting.
It was tempting pre-Covid to believe that if we would find the right curriculum or the right sermon series we could create better momentum. COVID-19 has forced us to see that it will take more than a face lift to our programming to impact our community for Christ. Leaders in the American Church need to think more like missionaries, finding ways to reach our culture on their turf instead of coming to our turf, a building.
At Constance, we have shifted a significant part our annual missions focus much closer to home. While we have stated that we care about those “Here, Near and Far,” there has been a temptation to think that real missionaries live very far away. We have entered into new dialogues with our community leaders to see how we can best serve our neighbors in the name of Christ.
2. COVID-19 has caused us to get more serious about our online engagement.
We have had to step into the online world in more intentional ways than merely posting the Sunday service online.
One method was hosting an online Alpha class. People who live near us invite their friends and relatives who live out-of-state to attend a class with them via Zoom. We had never thought of such a thing a year ago, but we now have small groups and Bible studies meeting with people Zooming in from at least a half dozen states across America.
Zoom has proven very effective for various kinds of meetings, but it has its limitations. For one, Zoom is better at maintaining existing relationships than it is at creating new ones. And when you hope for good relational connection, Zooming is a bit like watching a Yule Log on television at Christmas—it looks inviting and can even sound nice, but there is no warmth.
3. It affords an opportunity to assess and re-boot existing programs.
In a normal church year, the tyranny of the urgent can easily trap us into doing what we have always been doing, even if it is marginally effective. The past year allowed us to assess our current practices and introduce a process of change.
We learned we are good at ministering to those in the middle of their discipleship journey. We are not good at ministering to those at the beginning of that journey (evangelism) and we are not good at bringing people full circle into being disciplemakers.
Our senior leadership has invested considerable time into this challenge. We are in the process of positioning ourselves for greater effectiveness in discipleship and the disciple-making process. When society opens up after this season of hibernation, we have prayerfully reinvented ourselves in this season. While it is still too early to fully parse the permanent changes COVID-19 ushered in, we continue to adjust our methods to be as effective as possible to help others connect with Jesus.
In his book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, Tod Bolsinger looks at leadership through the lens of the Lewis and Clark expedition. During their journey, they planned to canoe all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In their moment of crisis when they realized that what they had been doing would no longer work, they sold their canoes and bought horses.
Their goal was not to go canoeing, but to reach the Pacific. I can’t think of a better metaphor for where we are now: some of the things we've always done in church ministry may no longer serve us in a post-COVID world. However, our mission is not to do church as we have always done. Our mission is to make disciples to the glory of God.