Starting the new year feels like “What now? What next?” as leaders try to figure out what kind of ministry dance steps we are doing on an ever-spinning dance floor. To gather or not to gather? To increase the church’s online presence? How to be welcoming while being QR coded, masked, sanitised and socially distanced? Amongst the talk of hybrid church, I hear people trying to creatively blend both familiar and new ways of becoming and being connected. Take some of our new habits and combine them with rhythms of community with which we’re familiar. Think about how the two connect in terms of faith and friendship. Keep looking outward as well as inward. Most of all, breathe deep. There’s no need for a quick fix to anything.

Here are five things to consider.

1. Local Presence
Recent research in New Zealand and the US investigated ways in which the pandemic pushed some churches to become more locally focussed. Some of these stories mirrored our local experience in Port Phillip East. In 2022, people in Cheltenham-Mentone were encouraged to prayerfully observe their local communities. This happened with neighbourhood walks, where team members noted what was going on, at times struck up conversation, and spent time in intentional prayer for their local community. (We also did a virtual neighbourhood walk on Google maps.) The overseas researchers described this as “walking and placemaking” and “slowing down and blessing others.” Local listening led to local caring as people learned to connect differently with neighbours. Glen Waverley UC made use of its building grounds to display signs of care and signs of new life. This even spilled down the street to the local shops, where hearts were stuck on shop windows.

The turn to being present locally can continue to be a way of mission, rather than being replaced by the freedom of jumping into our cars and heading off to church gatherings. How might we as leaders cultivate people’s attentiveness to the people and places around them? Perhaps the gift of being present can remain with us and become part of our regular conversations about our discipleship.

2. Being Welcoming
As we re-enter our buildings and restart our groups, we have the chance to re-think how we extend greeting, hospitality and inclusion. Believe it or not, some churches silently shout ‘Members Only’ by their lack of signage, seating, comfortable spaces and snacks. More often there’s a bleak foyer, a closed sanctuary and a massive, cold, hall. We’re usually good at welcoming people to Sunday worship (although our family has experienced the “over-welcome” when we arrived with our precious children!)

What happens after the service? How are newcomers to any group or activity treated? Who follows them up? Invites them for a meal or a cuppa? What do you put into their hands to tell them about who you are? How do we welcome people who join us digitally?

Rev Mat Harry has been working on some videos about being welcoming. Here are the links.

Can Your Church Improve Its Welcome?

Can Your Church Improve Its Entry Points of Welcoming?

I’ll shortly post a follow-up article about being welcoming.

3. Being Invitational
How will 2022 differ from 2018? Back then NCLS Research surveyed 1200 Australians about spirituality, religion, and Christian churches. There were some startling results. While we know that a minority of people attend churches, a much greater proportion of the population is open to spirituality and belief in the divine. 26% were classified as “non-practising religious and spiritual.” These people are open to spiritual practices beyond the perceived confines of religious institutions. The Christian tradition is based on regular faith practices that may be explored outside of Sunday services – in homes. at work, even while travelling.

The research reported that when it comes to connecting with a church, people who are not regular churchgoers are most likely to attend a regular worship service, Christmas or Easter services, or a social event or dinner. People are most likely to attend a church event if invited by a close friend or family member. Those with a prior history of church attendance are more likely to accept an invitation.

Being invitational precedes being welcoming. Personal invitation by members of the congregation is a vital factor in people connecting with a congregation. Has this changed in our new hybrid environment? Let’s find out. Being invitational in a hybrid world of church gatherings requires some creativity. A “private” Zoom worship service might not pass the test. How might newcomers connect online (and not just observe)?

4. Blending Faith Formation
Physical AND digital. Hybrid or blended faith formation provides both options, or even a mixture. Because the digital world is 24/7, people can connect at times that suit their work shifts, family time, holidays or sleep patterns. Faith formation is not only worship! Growing disciples require more than weekly worship attendance. To break open the bubble of physical attendance in the building is to create opportunities for faith growth anytime, anywhere. Some of our churches simply sent devotional resources by email or post to people. Many churches went from online services and meeting to online study groups and Messy Church. People asked me to recommend mobile phone apps for daily prayer. Some churches make faith formation resources available on their websites or Youtube. Others have chat groups in WhatsApp.

What would it look like to map your church’s faith formation menu for the year in physical and digital spaces? (and yes, not just worship services)

5. Pathways into a Faith Community
Several years ago, Duncan Macleod and myself were trained in conducting a process with church leaders called “Pathways”. Designed in Australia, it is a workshop that helps churches to identify and map the stepping stones that lead people from no connection with the church into making relational connections, deepening friendship, exploring faith, growing into leadership, and so on. We identify real-life steps that people take through the formal and informal aspects of our community life.

The most striking discovery for leaders is the gaps in the pathways. Some pathways have no starting point, apart from a new person suddenly walking in the front door of the church (a rare occurrence). There are no identifiable ways in which the wider community can learn about us. Through the workshop, leaders identify how they do and don’t connect with the wider community, how they do and don’t invite people into community life, how they do and don’t help people to explore faith, and how they do and don’t encourage leadership development.

What do our pathways into faith and community life look like in the new reality of being church in 2022? Can we try to map them, reflect on them, and create stepping stones that help people to connect and to grow?

The presbytery ministers team has experience and tools for consultation in these areas. While COVID is new for all of us, we are seeking actively to listen and learn from other leaders in other places. Call us if you’d like to chat.

Dustin Benac and Steve Taylor, Pandemic restrictions can push our church practices to become more local, 8 February 2022.

Miriam Pepper and Ruth Powell, Religion, spirituality and connections with churches, NCLS Research, September 2018.