Six lessons learned about faith formation in the midst of a pandemic

Religious educator John Westerhoff invited us years ago to understand faith as a verb more than a noun. Westerhoff argued that persons do not have faith so much as they live and enact and do faith. This living, enacting and doing faith does not happen in a vacuum. Faith happens in the real world. It is shaped and informed by all that is happening. It reacts and responds to all that is happening. It engages and transforms all that is happening. So, “faithing” changed dramatically for us all when, over a matter of days, we suspended worship and ended all in-person ministry.

Educators make the bold claim that the Spirit calls us all to a life of learning and growing. So even as we look with hopeful anticipation to a time when we can gather together in person, what are some lessons we have learned thus far about faith formation in the midst of a pandemic?

Lesson 1:  Engagement is the foundation for hope.

In March when we suspended all in-person ministry, the key question we asked over and over was: How do we engage our people? We had no idea how long we were going to suspend worship, but we knew for certain that closing church buildings and halting in-person worship and ministry would leave a gap in our souls. We understood that since they could not come to us, we needed to reach out to engage them where they were. We needed to immediately find a way to connect daily.

So, within a week, we started daily video devotionals recorded by the pastors. Subscriptions quickly topped 1,000 and we discovered that folk were connecting their friends around the country to our videos. The message? We belong to God and to one another. Engagement is not just for adults. Our children’s ministry leader provided daily morning and evening videos for families. She was greeting the children in the morning and reading a brief story to say goodnight in the evening. In every way, we were determined to engage our people.

But we soon realized that engagement through viewing a video clip for a story or devotional was not enough. We had to broaden our understanding of engagement. That is when we learned lesson number two.

Lesson 2:  Imagination is a superpower.

We are a relational people created in the image of a relational God. As we gradually realized that this change was going to last for months rather than weeks, we recognized that we needed to get creative. Nearly all of our ministry was predicated on our ability to gather people in person. So, how do we form and nurture relationships if we cannot actually be together? Our ministry team made up of the pastors and ministry area directors usually met twice a month, mostly using the time to report and coordinate. That changed. We realized we needed to meet weekly and focus less on reports and more about generating new strategies. We discovered new energy and cooperation. We found some of our traditional silos began to break down just because we were desperate for ideas. We leaned into and learned from our colleagues who were our most creative and imaginative, and with them began to develop our own gifts of imagination. Driven by the adrenaline that comes from confronting a crisis, at first we thrived. Then as time continued, we realized we were growing weary and participation from our congregation began to wane. It was time for lesson three.

Lesson 3: Wisdom is a survival skill.

American philosopher and psychologist William James defines wisdom as knowing “what is worthy of one’s attention and what is not.” James says the wise person pays attention to the right things while the unwise person runs around scattered and exhausted trying to pay attention to everything. As we moved into the summer, we recognized that much of what we had started in March was no longer sustainable. With the challenge of learning new communication methods and finding new ways engage with others, energy quickly began to wane. We were tired and some of us ended up being short with ourselves and others. We realized that we needed to give ourselves and each other permission to do less. We needed to take a breath and discern how to do faith formation in a pandemic for the long haul. This meant choosing what we needed to stop doing. Some of the discernment was easy. Viewership had dropped off. Online classes came to a natural close with the beginning of summer. Other things were harder. We hated disappointing people. But we also discovered that our children, youth, young adults and adults were far more gracious with us than we were with ourselves. We needed to live the grace that we so freely proclaimed. That is what led us to lesson four.

Lesson 4: Sabbath is a balm in Kansas.

For too many of us, when the pandemic changed ministry, we just buckled down and worked harder and longer. Everything took more energy and more time. From gathering leaders for meetings to learning how to unmute on Zoom to texting or calling rather than just walking into another person’s office, our old, reliable patterns of faith formation were no longer safe or did not serve us. When we could claim some time off, we could not travel and it felt silly to just sit at home with the same people we were in the house with day after day so it just made sense to work 24/7.

But there is a reason that God created the Sabbath and then gave it to us. A friend of mine reminds me regularly that it is odd how we proudly boast about violating the commandment to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. We do not brag about lying or idolatry or stealing or adultery. So, for our survival, we began to take Sabbath more seriously. Our daily rhythms were completely changed so we agreed to be gentler with ourselves and with one another. We agreed you were not a bad person if on Sunday after worshipping online you just lay on the couch for the rest of day. We discovered that Sabbath was a balm. And as God knows, it provided a source of renewal and refreshment. We needed that especially when we as a nation watched the horrific murder of George Floyd at the end of May and entered into an incredible summer and fall of protests and division around the election. Thus, we learned lesson number five.

Lesson 5: Trust is harder to come by.

Over my years in ministry, this is the formula I have learned. In order for me to trust you, I need to be in a relationship with you. In order for me to be in a relationship with you, I need to know you. In order for me to know you, I need to spend time with you. Trust is harder to come by without relationship, which is built on knowing, which simply takes time.

Research tells us that 70% of communication is nonverbal. FaceTime and Google Meet and Microsoft Teams and Zoom help, but they do not replace sitting with someone. So as our communities struggled with protests and harsh political rhetoric, preaching and teaching got harder because relationships broke down. Words and actions that would have been considered and pondered instead became threats to our life together because there was no relationship upon which to rely.

There is a reason Jesus gathered a small group and walked with them for three years. Every moment he was teaching them and forming them into a community that would become the foundation for the church. He spent time with them to build them up so that when the threats came, even the witness of his own torture and death, their relationships with him and one another would give them the resilience to survive.

Stronger relationships that had been nurtured and built well before the pandemic have endured, although some have taken significant hits. Relationships that were already tenuous have crumbled. The trust was not there because the relationship was not there. Surely as we prepare to gather once again, to spend time with one another in person, we will recognize that every moment we are together will enable us to be more durable and more faithful for the future that will no doubt look different from what we have been. And therein is our final lesson.

Lesson 6: Faith formation is changing.

As the weeks turned to months, it did not take long to hear phrases like: “I can’t wait for this to be over” and “I will be so glad when things go back to just the way they were before.” Those sentiments frame a belief that this pandemic is nothing more than an interruption. This means that the pandemic, even a yearlong pandemic, is only a temporary break in our normal lives and when it is over, we will return to doing ministry and being church just like we did before.

Lately, though, it has become increasingly clearer that this is not an interruption, but rather a disruption. In a disruption, what was being done ceases in some ways small and in some ways grand, but the result is a change. It is clear that on the other side of this pandemic, we will not be the same. Faith formation will not be the same. We are learning new ways of knowing. We are learning new ways of being in community. We are learning new ways of worshipping.

These lessons learned, then, are not simply reflective — looking to what has been; they are also projective — looking to what will be. They are transforming us and shaping a new future. We have been turning from the “getting back to normal” language, which focuses us far too much on the way things were, to “becoming the new church” language, which calls us to an anticipatory posture of hope. We must not simply hunker down in a survival mode to wait for this interruption to end. We must be living into a disruption and expecting that we are being transformed.

Our major mid-week gathering has been a churchwide Wednesday night supper. A few months into the pandemic, our chefs came up with the idea of offering Wednesday night take-out meals. Currently, we have more people participating in our take-out meals than when we were in person.

Last week, I had an octogenarian proudly tell me that she coached her grandson on how to create a custom background in Zoom. The teenager told his friends he had the “coolest grandma ever!” Our remote classes routinely include participants from Florida, North Carolina, Colorado and California. It is clear to me that we will be offering online classes for years to come.

If we think the end of this pandemic means we will return to doing faith formation exactly like we did before, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. By the grace of God, we will never return to our old ways. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are being transformed and changed to be more truthful, more just, more righteous, more imaginative, more wise and more faithful so that in years to come our grandchildren will speak of us in the post-pandemic years as the “coolest church ever!” May it be so.

Rodger Nishioka serves as the senior associate pastor and director of adult faith formation at the Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas.