By Grayson Hester
Throughout church history, a series of watershed events have divided the existence of the Church into “before” and “after;” examples include the Great Schism, the Reformation, Vatican II and now and COVID-19.
The churches we all knew before the pandemic, before March 15th, 2020, no longer exist. The precise character of post-COVID churches remains to be discovered.
But Kristian A. Smith, pastor of The Faith Community (TFC) in Atlanta, Ga., isn’t going to wait around to find out. “My vocation is to be disruptive and pioneering. In the past couple of years, I have realized that we are forging a way for inclusive, affirming ministry in the present age,” he said.
His church, commissioned officially as a CBF church start in the summer of 2018, is disruptive in a variety of ways. Even a brief look at its website reveals as much. Put crudely, “This ain’t your mama’s theology!”
But beyond theology, TFC stands apart because of its adaptability. Its ministry offerings—including a monthly worship service, weekly meetings which it calls the “Bible & Beyond,” and connection groups such as “Holy Smokes: Cigars & Spirituality”—were partially virtual even before the pandemic shut everything down. As such, transitioning to online community wasn’t so much a changing of routes as it was a slight shifting of gears.
“We started TFC by doing just that—allowing people to connect virtually if they wanted to,” Smith said. “Many churches didn’t take that option seriously because they might have already been winning in their physical space. Many felt as if they didn’t need to do this.”
And now, nine months into a still raging pandemic, Smith feels those churches are paying the price. Whether through declining membership or hemorrhaging of financial resources, churches, like so many other institutions nowadays, are feeling a profound sting.
That’s why he, through his eponymous personal ministry, is offering “Virtually Unstoppable.”
This is an online clinic which takes the knowledge he and his church have gained in building virtual community and makes it available to ministry leaders all over the world. “Virtually Unstoppable is about how to build virtual community on a budget, particularly in a post-pandemic world,” Smith said. “We’ll have other clinics and workshops that will be geared toward leading people: How to teach well in a virtual space; how to facilitate learning in a virtual space; and others.”
The offerings of the online clinic are marketed toward people leading faith movements, pastoring churches, building communities, curating cohorts—basically to anyone who feels called to do God’s work in a congregational setting.
And although TFC is a non-traditional church in almost every sense of the word, Smith stressed that the clinic is for the stately, established mainline church downtown as well as for his kind of church—and every kind of church in-between. Smith believes—as do the handful of people who have already registered for the clinic—that virtual community will be the single most important feature of the post-COVID-19 church.
Those churches which don’t offer it may very well cease to be churches.
“The importance of this cannot be overstated,” Smith said. “Virtual engagement in the church of the post-COVID world will prove to be as critical for churches as the lack of virtual engagement was for Blockbuster. How do you shift from the ‘Blockbuster approach’ to the ‘Netflix approach’ that this era calls for?” (And we all know what happened to Blockbuster.)
Smith points to a variety of factors influencing this shift. For one, churches are no longer only local; the pandemic has demonstrated that people can attend and feel included in any number of churches from the comfort of their couch.
Additionally, the gig economy makes people—millennials and Zoomers, in particular—busier at more varied times, thus reducing their willingness to travel great distances to a church they could just as easily attend online.
And finally, although the COVID-19 vaccine will be widely available throughout 2021, the effects of the pandemic will not disappear overnight. “When the world reopens and we can go back to church physically, not everyone will flock back immediately,” Smith said. “Some will come back initially; but then, like a New Year’s Resolution, after a few weeks they will have their fill and then perhaps come back only periodically.”
For all these reasons, virtual community is here to stay as a definitive issue for churches. But this kind of connection is not only a necessity, but a great opportunity as well. Smith maintains that the potential for growth, financial and otherwise, is great. Churches whose audiences could once be measured only by ZIP code can now claim the entire globe as their target demographic.
And that’s why Smith sees Virtually Unstoppable as essential. Registrants can expect four weeks of cohort-style training that pairs morale-boosting techniques with practical suggestions they can implement immediately. From January 12 to February 2, these faith leaders will work on self-actualization and self-identification, discovering for themselves the message they will then send to others—in short, asking what does your church uniquely have to offer.
“I want to see churches thrive. I want to see churches effectively meet the needs of the people to whom they are called to minister,” Smith said. “I know my church isn’t called to everybody. I want the church to effectively meet the needs of their particular people.”
The pastor, a college football hall-of-famer from his days at Alabama A&M University, an HBCU in Normal, Ala., employed a football metaphor to drive home the point of Virtually Unstoppable. Likening the pandemic to a “new game for people,” Smith said he’s not out to give people the playbook he used for TFC. Instead, it’s about giving people the knowledge of how to compile their own playbook, with the ability to get 11 people on the proverbial field, and then designing that playbook to meet the needs of their respective team.
And, if the past year has shown us anything, it’s that at the end of the day, we need each other more than ever.
You can register for Virtually Unstoppable ($175) at www.kristianasmith.com.