By Eric Johnson
In the early days of the pandemic, it was all I could do to figure out how to put a worship service together.
As the fog of creating a digital strategy from scratch wore off, congregational leaders and I began to see that, at least for our congregation, this was not going to be enough. It was clear to us that we would not be in-person for quite some time, and if there is one aspect of discipleship our congregation values, it is the Christ-centered relationships we have with one another.
This was confirmed at our May leadership team meeting, when the reality of a summer, and potentially fall, of online worship had set in. I asked our leaders to share what they really missed about not being in person.
It wasn’t the liturgy. It wasn’t communion. It wasn’t even seeing me preach live.
It was seeing each other. It was the hugs. It was the weekly checking in and sharing the everyday stuff of life.
We began to imagine how we could provide some kind of outlet for those connections in a way that was appropriate to where our community was with the pandemic. As a suburb of Metro Detroit, our area has been hit especially hard and our congregation was one who had committed to standing in solidarity with the inner-city congregations who had been hit the hardest and would not be able to resume worship the longest.
Our discernment led to different experiments. Around the time of these conversations, we had successfully moved about 60% of our congregation into “BreakOuts,” which were small groups of 8-10 that met on Zoom to share life, discuss Scripture, engage in discipleship content, and pray for one another.
Many of those groups took a break in July and August as our state began to open up, people resumed summer activities, and families prepared for whatever school would look like. Then, in September, we launched house churches that met on Sundays in both in person and digital formats.
Those who participated did so in place of our pre-recorded streaming worship and gathered either in homes or on Zoom. Together, they would share “God Sightings,” read the Scripture, watch my sermon and answer discussion questions, share communion, and offer one another a blessing.
Since beginning this, we have had upwards of 40% of our average worship attendance participating in a house church!
As case counts have spiked in our county (and just about everywhere), we have asked our in person house churches to reassess the wisdom of meeting and to consider gathering on Zoom. This Sunday, I will be leading worship on Zoom (that will also stream to YouTube) to offer a taste of what a house church experience is like for those who have not yet experimented with it.
What I have been so impressed by during this season is how our people have responded positively to the innovations necessitated by the pandemic. A lot of this can be attributed to the work we’ve done as congregation that was formerly under redevelopment. We emerged from our grant cycle with a clarity of vision, mission, and direction that made the conversations about life together in light of COVID-19 so much healthier than they might otherwise have been.
For those looking to innovate their worship or other aspects of their congregation’s life together, here is what I would encourage:
1. Seek clarity about who you are in your best version as a congregation. You’ll know what to do when you know who you are.
2. Be honest about what people miss and what they actually value most. For us, it was relationships.
3. Focus on building opportunities that connect who you are with what people value. Our people valued Sunday as much as a chance to connect with one another as they valued worship. House churches have provided a place for both to happen.
I do not imagine that house churches will be our last innovation, but for a church that prides itself on being “a family of faith on a mission for good,” I am confident that whatever the pandemic brings, the Spirit will lead us in finding effective ways to grow thriving faith.
About the Author
Eric Johnson serves as pastor of King of Kings Lutheran Church in Lake Orion, MI and is the founder and principal of Thrive Solutions, where he helps churches and nonprofits build strategic plans that work. He is a graduate of Luther Seminary and resides in Lake Orion with his wife Laura and daughters Emma and Leah. You can connect with Eric on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ejthrive.