She always brought kids’ socks and stuffed animals to church. She crunched on ice cubes during the service like popcorn at the movies. She always sat in the third row of a 1,000-person auditorium, and every Sunday she piled those new packages of socks and toys around her, kindly giving them away to anyone interested.
When she wanted to greet the pastor, of courseI could manage that. But only that, so long as we make it quick.
“Hello, Rhonda!” I faithfully said. “It is so good to see you this morning!”
“Thank you, Pastor Ben!” she faithfully replied in her Texan accent. “Praise the Lord! I’m so happy to be here.” And that prompted nice smiles as I hurried past. Pastors cannot get pinned down during go-time; we have a service to provide.
Sunday-lead-pastor mode controlled my affections and thoughts every week. Who is doing announcements today? Are they even here, yet? If they no-show, where is our backup? And where are the communion elements? Who is doing projector slides today?!
Providing beautiful, inspiring Sunday services felt productive, and it gave weekly chances to briefly check in with each other and savor the flavors of artificial belonging. Ignore the pervasive stress and anxious hurry. That’s just a necessary church evil.
The staff and I had little room to bewith anyone. We barely had time to listen. I could not speak honestly with people or learn together with them. The cultural expectation for me, the pastor, was not about love or about nurturing a gracious life together in transforming community; my job was to lead, recruit, manage, and produce something noteworthy. We redefined lovingkindness as niceness.
Did you know that the Latin root word for “nice” means “ignorant”?
Loving Rhonda meant treating her nicely while tending to responsibilities that felt more important, and our frenzied hurry and worry fostered pretending. It was bitter, but we learned to stomach it every week. It’s all we knew.
Proverbs 27:7 suggests that the well-fed person is not even interested in honey, but to the one who is starving, even the bitter thing tastes sweet. We were unwittingly starved.
Then, COVID nuked everyone’s Sunday service strategies and opened an excitiing time of innovation, but reason to celebrate remained sparse in my pastoral world. Micah Dodson is a church planter’s coach serving in the Pacific Northwest. Reflecting on this moment, he said: “Right now, some pastors who are trying to ‘get gack’ are pulling their hair out, but many church planters are giddy. We can literally try anything right now.”
Without much hair left to pull, I had to finally abandon questions about “how to return to normal” and start entertaining a disturbingly attractive thought: Why go back at all?
Tell a carpenter to build houses without tools, lumber, or hardware. Why go back at all? Here’s why: Because the Sunday service is where our tools and lumber and hardware exist. That’s where we build ministry and get stuff done.
But for real – what was “getting done” in Rhonda’s church life? In other peoples’ lives? Where was the ever-healing Jesus in this “more bricks! more bricks!” way of church life? I preached Jesus’ life and transformation each weekend, but my weekly calendars and to-do lists revealed an obsession with effective, efficient, properly staffed Sunday service teams and techniques.
Fast-forward to summer, 2020, when my weekly pastor calendar is empty. Without Sunday services happening this weekend, what will I do this week? Instinctively, perhaps carried along by the Spirit, I figured I could at least hang out with folks until we got back to business (a word I choose sorrowfully).
So, I stacked the schedule with personal meetings in my backyard. We sat eight feet apart and had a campfire burning between us: take that, COVID! These times were all about processing and praying and listening – no agendas or explicit goals, just being with one another.
Feeling isolated and deeply depressed one day, not knowing what to do, I called Rhonda to ask if she wanted to hang out. When she climbed into my truck, she kindly gave me three packages of socks and a few stuffed animals for my kids.
We sat in a city park and opened up about childhood. We talked about abuse we had experienced and trauma we had survived. I learned that she had been quietly suffering from agoraphobia all those years. I never would have known, and without the disruptions and innovations of last year I still would not know.
We wept. We talked honestly about Jesus and shared things we had learned from Scripture over the years. After two hours, we decided to walk down to the store for groceries. So simple, and truly sweet – so tov.
And then came Zoom church…. Yikes! First, we “innovated” by simply trying to recreate our traditional Sunday service online. I’ve heard that some groups found this successful, but we were not one of those groups.
For us – a bunch of hurting and confused Portlanders – Zoom worked well for conversation and connection but terribly for sermons, songs, and all the other Sunday service stuff. So, we abandoned further attempts to preach on Zoom and started podcasting sermons. This removed Sunday morning time constraints and offered freedom to discuss more biblical context; my teaching morphed away from efficient proclamations and toward community conversations.
Our sermon-teaching podcast posted (and still posts) every Friday, and people could then listen before gathering on Sunday. Sunday service pressures almost evaporated. Our Zoom meetings and backyard gatherings became times of processing the Scriptures together, as a community. My friends in the education world call this the “inverted learning” model – where we engage the content beforehand and then meet to process.
At first, these changes seemed like temporary placeholders until things returned to normal. But then a new experience of transformation started happening. It was, and still is, something fresh for each of us, and some in our church have attended average American church services for more than 60 years.
Grandma Sue, one of our church’s elders, now teaches me about Jesus through her observations about life with neighbors and her grandchildren and through her prayers for our church. She teaches all of us about Jesus and the Spirit of God without planning to.
“Most events aren’t planned,” says the great pianist Page McConnell, and that has been our experience. Unplanned, unscripted, yet truly eventful gatherings rooted in Jesus’ story started changing us as a people. It is changing me.
One of the younger men, Jake C., feels his foundation shifting: “I’ve been following Jesus since I was a kid. I’ve been in Sunday services my whole life. But this past year…I’ve never thought about God or talked about Jesus and the Scriptures so much, ever.”
Jodi H., who prays with us and for us each week, now describes an expanding vision of God. Her self-understanding is evolving, too, “and that’s also changing the way I see all of my neighbors,” she said. We all agreed that the same thing is happening to us.
During Bible school and my first decade in ministry, I learned that church is a stool with three crucial legs – 1) good preaching, 2) good music, and 3) good kids ministry. Get those right, they said, and the rest falls into place. Those are the tools, lumber, and hardware necessary for building something great for Jesus.
But what if that three-legged building model is mostly bitter, even if we can stomach it and call it sweet? I wonder sometimes if we were “receiving the Gospel in vain,” or receiving Jesus’ good news without meaningful effect.
Driving across Montana, I once saw a Winnebago bumper sticker that said, “The journey is the destination.” The way we live together matters most. Before COVID, we were more destination oriented (especially me). Today, my church and I are tending to the journey itself as our primary “destination,” learning to love and learning to suffer and serve alongside Jesus. Learning feels better than winning.
No hurry. No worry. Lots of togetherness.
Every Sunday, now, Rhonda comes over for breakfast with my family, and she still brings new packages of socks and toys for my kids and the other children. She still eats ice like popcorn everywhere she goes. (Turns out she is anemic, and the ice snacking is a doctor’s order.) She continues sharing her life and asking profound questions, revealing the wisdom of God won through deep experiences of suffering and love. Rhonda changed everything for me.
Pastors and friends – we will all be innovating these next years, and we can innovate toward a sweeter, fuller life or toward a bitter yet familiar death. Our ability to mask the bitter stuff is fast waning, though. And I’ve got a hundred other thoughts swirling around about all of this, just like you, but it’s time to run.
Rhonda and I need to swing by the pharmacy and then grab some groceries.
Dr. Ben Tertin is a pastor and teacher who helps lead Tov Communion, a house church in Portland, OR. He is the author of A Kids Book About Adventure and a podcaster who loves the outdoors and his German Shorthair Pointer, Daisy. His latest project is a storytelling podcast for children called Camp Adventure.