Well, it’s been a little over a year now since our world as church leaders was rocked to its core, as the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping the world last spring and everything everywhere began shutting down. Most of us expected that first weekend of making the last-minute pivot to online services was going to be an anomaly and we would be back to normal by the following weekend. Then the following weekend approached and cases were still rising and things were still being shut down. But we thought for sure that we would be back to normal by Easter… It was only supposed to take two weeks to be able to flatten the curve, after all, right? But a few weeks later we found ourselves trading our “bring a friend to Easter” postcards and packed buildings for Facebook ads and church on the couch.
I’m sure that last summer most of you probably saw the video floating around social media of Chris Farley stampeding down the aisle of the Ed Sullivan Theatre with all the energy of Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker all hopped up on Mountain Dew. The caption was always something like: “the day churches open back up.” We were all pretty sure that when churches began to “re-gather” in person that people were going to be so excited for things to return to normal that there would be packed rooms and dancing in the aisles. But as we approach our second Easter of the COVID era, it’s become clear to most of us that “normal” is still very much a moving target.
Some churches, especially those that meet in movie theaters or schools, are still meeting exclusively online. And for the rest of us that have been meeting in person again for the past few months, we’ve mostly found that our typical Sunday experience may not be quite what we remember it being… some of the Volunteers we used to see and rely on every week have dropped out of contact, regular faithful attenders still haven’t returned because of COVID concerns or because at some point they disagreed with something we said or did (or didn’t say or do) in response to COVID, social unrest, political issues, etc. over the past year. Or for some people, they’ve simply become comfortable attending church from their couch. Add masks, social distancing, and capacity limits into the equation, and most of our services hardly resemble the room full of Chris Farleys that we were so sure were going to show back up a year ago…
So as we approach Easter Sunday – that weekend where we’re used to packed rooms, extra services, and a general sense of extra excitement – how do we manage our expectations in light of our new reality?How do we stay encouraged in the face of another Easter with an adjusted sense of “normal”?
Here are some things I’m trying to keep in mind right now:
IT’S A BIG DEAL FOR PEOPLE TO EVEN SHOW UP
On Easter, a lot of us are used to packed rooms, additional services, maybe some overflow seating set up in another part of the building, etc. And while we may all end up being pleasantly surprised at what we end up experiencing in a few days, the reality is that this year, we don’t know what to expect! We have capacity limits to deal with, preregistration hassles, limited children’s programming, and all the things that have come along with trying to have church in the midst of a global pandemic.
We have congregation members who are at higher-risk because of their age or pre-existing conditions, ones who can’t attend because they can’t risk the time away from work if they were to get sick, ones who have crippling anxiety about germs and infection that has gone off the charts since this time last year, and people with a whole host of other reasons they’re currently uncomfortable in a crowd of people. In short, it’s a miracle for ANYONE to show up at church right now!
So on Easter Sunday, if I end up looking out into a half-capacity room full of masked faces, I need to remember that whether people sit on the front row with faces full of excitement or whether they sit tucked away in the back corner by themselves; whether they sing out or sit quietly; whether they laugh at my pastor’s jokes or not, it may be a pretty big deal for them that they even left their house, and that’s reason for us to celebrate!
And on that note:
THERE’S A WHOLE OTHER AUDIENCE WE HAVE TO REMEMBER
This new reality of the past year has meant that nearly all of us have added an audience of people who are joining us from home. We can’t see them or hear them as we lead worship or preach, but they are there. And so rather than being disappointed that our buildings may be less full than they may have been two years ago, we should rejoice in the opportunity we’ve been given to share the the miracle of the resurrection with a whole audience of people who may have never even considered actual joining us in person! And don’t forget to actually address those people joining from home!
MY JOB IS TO LEAD, NOT TO FOLLOW
I’ve been leading worship pretty much full-time for over 20 years. Most of that time has been spent leading in decidedly non-charismatic churches… which means that I spend 6 days a week immersed in worship music, along with Hillsong, Bethel, and Jesus Culture videos… with the raised hands, people dancing in the aisles, and the spontaneous applause that happens at just the right moment in the middle of a song (which isn’t real BTW…they put that in after the fact). Then on Sunday morning, I stand in front of a room consisting of parents who just spent the morning wrestling their kids out the door and dragging them to church, the kids who have just been dragged there, and that couple who has been attending our church for the last 23 years but still wishes we would sing the old hymns they sang at their last church 25 years ago… Not to mention the person who couldn’t care less about church, but who finally gave in to an invite from a friend just so they would finally shut up and stop asking already, and a whole congregation full of people who are walking in from situations I couldn’t begin to know or understand completely. And at 9am on Sunday morning, I crank up some rock and roll music and ask them to clap and sing along… And then I wonder why my service doesn’t look and feel like the room of 5,000 people on that video I watched earlier in the week.
And so for 20 years, I’ve battled the insecurity and frustration that comes from comparing the response of my congregation to the expectations that I’ve built up in my head. I’ve spent so many Sunday mornings driving home in defeat because “they just weren’t into it.” And what I’ve finally begun to realize in recent years is that, in so many of those situations, I was so immediately disappointed in the lack of immediate “response” from my congregation that I never actually put any effort into leading them. As a matter of fact, instead of taking the opportunity to actually lead my congregation, I looked into the blank faces of people who haven’t been preparing for this moment for the past six days, and I allowed them to lead me instead…
So this Easter, we may not be able to see them singing behind a mask, they may not be laughing as loudly at our jokes, and in the case of those joining us online, we may not be able to see them at all… but let’s not forget that our role is to lead. My “success” as a worship leader or a preacher is not dictated by how many people are in the room, or by how immediately they join in to sing or laugh or cry (or whatever ideal response I’ve decided is supposed to happen). My “success” is in stepping into the moment and the platform that God has given me to meet them where they are and try to help them take one step closer to Jesus.
IT’S STILL EASTER!
…and Easter isn’t defined by how many people show up to our building. It’s not defined by whether they sit in the front row or the back row or whether they watch from home as they cook breakfast. It’s not defined by a set of emotional responses to our singing or our preaching or our jokes.
Easter is defined by one thing… an empty tomb. At the end of the day, whether we have a “normal” Easter Sunday, or whether we meet online, or whether we experience something somewhere in between, death is still defeated, the tomb is still empty, and our redeemer still lives!
So this weekend, whether our services look anything like our “normal” Easter services or not, we can lead our churches with joy and excitement. After all, there’s nothing “normal” about an empty tomb either… and that story seems to have turned out all right.