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Our Place

I received an invitation to attend a webinar on "How is your church functioning in these trying times," or something to that effect.

I was curious to see if other churches had any good ideas, so I attended.

At the beginning of the webinar, they surveyed the people attending. About 75% of us said we were from churches with 100 or fewer regular Sunday morning attendees.

Then they introduced the people who would be speaking.

Of the five speakers, four of them were from churches that regularly have 1000+ worshipers. Only one speaker was from a church in the same worship range as the bulk of the attendees.

It was an interesting hour of contrasts.

The large churches said they already had a lot of the visual technology in place to do on-line worship, somehow complete with their praise bands, safely distancing. Once church was quite sure that when they start to worship again in person, they can reconfigure their 900-person auditorium and the classrooms on their four-acre campus, to allow sufficient space between people.

(It was a good thing the audience was muted. I can just hear 75% of us moaning "poor baby" upon hearing about the 900-person auditorium, which was mentioned more than once. They are clearly proud of it.)

The larger churches, now that they are shut-down from in-person gatherings are using their small groups to keep in touch with people. Small group focus is a strength that larger congregations have.

And they talked about being able to gather food donations and getting them distributed to their members in need.

Then there was the guy from Harlem.

Because that church has an after-school program, they have good relationships with many of the families in the neighborhood. They've been able to stay in touch with those families and know what their needs are. And they already had a small food pantry set up.

Last year someone had donated hundreds of laptop computers to the church, which they hadn't quite figured out how to utilize. When the schools were closed because of the shut-down, the computers were pulled out of the closet, recharged, and given to the children in the neighborhood so they could do their schoolwork.

He's been able to do on-line worship, but it's not fancy.

I couldn't help but notice that the large churches focused on worship and their people. The smaller church focused on service and the community.

Several years ago, members of St. Stephen's took an assessment to assist our LEAD (Living Every Day as Disciples) program.

The assessment determined that we were a Becoming church.

Becoming congregations are:

discovering their purpose and values

learning to be community-centric

have highly committed leaders

I feel we're moving beyond that.

We still have highly-committed leaders. Pastor Jason is "zoomed" out from his meetings with other church leaders, and church groups. Kanchalee is doing an incredible job guiding the food pantry through a myriad of adaptations.

I think we've moved beyond "discovering" and "learning." Like that church in Harlem, we already had connections in the community. The shut-down allowed us to make them work better.

There was never a consideration of shutting down the pantry. We needed to figure out how to make it safe for the volunteers and the clients. We needed to figure out how to serve 50% more people each month. We needed to figure out where the food was going to come from.

We may not have named it that point, but we recognized our purpose and value: to help those in the community who are in need.

Worshiping together is nice. Gathering on Sundays is great. But there are substitutes for in-person worship. There are no substitutes for hunger.

Church members continue to honor our Second Sunday food gatherings. There are congregation members who weekly bring boxes of food to the pantry.

Our presence in the community has grown incredibly. People who would typically be working during the day are now taking walks in the neighborhood. "I didn't realize you served so many people," is becoming a typical comment. And those people are themselves being drawn into the vision and bringing boxes of food to the pantry, or donating funds so that we can buy food as needed. In April, there were 75 donations of food and face masks that came into the pantry, 1/3 of them from people St. Stephen's has never had contact with before. And many of them are becoming regulars.

I know we sometimes look back wistfully at the days when our sanctuary was packed full of worshipers. These community connections may never result in another person in our pews for Sunday worship. But I don’t want to be like those big churches focused on themselves. I will gladly give up packed pews to be a little church with a huge heart and a place in the community.

- Ann Iona Warner


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