The Impossibility of Intergenerational Worship during Pandemic

This essay will likely not age well, and added to that, writing it actually breaks my heart. However, I’m convinced that it is important in this moment, as our nation begins to emerge from six weeks of varying degrees of lockdown, to consider what our re-gathered worship will look like. In essence, how will worship in a pandemic affect the groups that our churches already have a pretty lousy track record of including: the disabled community, senior citizens, and children.

I proudly consider myself a champion of intergenerational worship. Jesus included every single person in his circle and his messages, from little children to the sick and dying to rich and powerful people in society—and our churches are meant to do the same. There is no worship gathering more true to God’s intent than one where every kind of human being is present and contributing.  

So one question that I bring to every worship design meeting is, “Whom are we excluding here? How will this work for children and vulnerable adults?” In my experience, worship services are easily designed for adults—the jokes in the sermon, the lighting of the room, the songs, the service length—if we listen carefully, the intended audience are adults in their 20’s-60’s (aka, the Givers and the Doers). We design a weekly service they’ll enjoy, and they in turn serve on our committees and put $100’s in the offering plate. Sympatico.

With the rise of intergenerational worship, we’re making progress in valuing our children, adults and seniors equally in worship, a growing trend that will save our church as an institution if we keep it up. This effort is now in direct conflict with resuming church life during a pandemic, because right now, the only demographic that can safely return to the sanctuary and practice physically distanced gathering are able, healthy adults. And this is a major problem. The church is by nature an inclusive place, yet inclusivity right now is truly dangerous.

The Disabled Community

Individuals with disabilities are unique and cannot be discussed as a monolith, so I cannot give any one reason why a disabled person may have difficulty coming to worship during a pandemic. Some disabilities carry other diseases with them, which can make the bearer immunocompromised. Some may affect the person’s ability to move, sit, stand, or otherwise participate in a socially distanced manner. Whatever the specifics are, people with disabilities are generally less likely to assimilate to all the requirements of the social gathering of worship as we know it, pandemic or not—but the pandemic brings these needed accommodations into even greater contrast. The exclusion of the disabled community in our ecumenical re-opening will be unintentional but real.

Senior Citizens

All the stats and medical experts consistently report that people over the age of 65 generally experience worse side effects of COVID-19 than younger people. For this reason, while the rest of the population begins to head back out into the world, the elderly are still cautioned to stay put. I imagine that many brave souls over 65 will still venture out to church when it opens—some because they trust their own health and immune system, others because they’d rather be exposed to the germs than miss church. I’ve started to see pastors announcing return plans that specifically disinvite older people, for their own safety, and I get that. At the same time, I want us to think long and hard about the message that limited invitation sends.

Children

Fortunately, children do not seem to be especially affected by COVID-19. While some children certainly have suffered and even died from the virus, most recover well. My concern about inviting children back into church is less about their safety and more about the well-being of the whole group.

Most children are not capable of physical distancing.

This is one of the biggest lessons that the pandemic has drilled into me—that young children are incapable of staying apart. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but after attempting some socially distanced conversations with families, I am 100% certain that if a gathering includes children, the children will at some point break physical distancing barriers. If there is an expectation that worshipers will remain at least 6 feet apart (or even 1 foot apart!), then young children cannot be included in that expectation. It is the responsibility of pastors and church leaders to do all in their power to ensure the safety of those in worship, which means that a person coming to worship must be able to assume that they can determine their level of exposure.

When children’s natural proclivities for noise, movement, distraction, and obstacles arise in worship service design, they can usually be remedied by offering a set-apart time for children. We provide the nursery and high-quality children’s ministry options that fit into our overall family discipleship plan. But the pandemic has removed that option from our arsenal, since children grouped together will still spread COVID-19 germs to one another and their adult leaders.

The Necessary Questions

Are we okay with limiting our invitation to worship?

Is it better to invite some back into worship and not others, or wait until everyone can come?

Can we survive financially without a physical reopening? Does financial survival outweigh the dangers of exclusivity?

Is it still the church if only one group is welcome?

I don’t have answers to all of those asks, but I do know the answer to the last question: No.

Gatherings of only the healthy, middle-aged, and able-bodied do not constitute the church. That’s not to say we cannot or should not have them—personally, I really don’t know whether we should offer any sort of worship gathering during this reopening phase. But whatever we do offer, we cannot call the church. Without the youngest, the oldest, the most imaginative, the freest, the most prayerful among us, we are not the church. Any gatherings for worship and discipleship during the pandemic are now small groups, and it matters that we name them as such. To say that the church is open while knowing that it is not a safe or welcome place for people with disabilities or illnesses, for seniors and for children, is to say that those groups are less important.

As we start to talk through our reopening procedures, let’s be sure to ask the necessary questions. Ask, but not necessarily find all the answers. Anyone who works closely with children will tell you that it is more important to ask the question than to answer it. Allow space to experience the discomfort of opening up the building for some but not all. Resist the temptation to gloss over the absences in the room. Wrestle with the competing priorities of remaining open financially and remaining open liturgically. And when we do gather, let’s name the members of the church family who are not present in body but who are very much a part of our community.

Note: as social distancing guidelines change, creative gatherings such as meeting outdoors, joining 2-3 households together, or meeting in cars may be viable and safe options for intergenerational inclusion. These thoughts are offered up for more traditional church meeting scenarios that involve public church buildings and gatherings of more than 10 people.

How did I get published?

This is one of the most common questions I hear when I talk about my books. I am not unique in having a lot of things I want to say, right? But I do have the distinct and rare privilege of getting to say them in writing, backed by an established publisher. Thousands of other ministry leaders could write wonderful books, but getting published is a whole other matter. So how did that happen?

Honestly… I didn’t make this happen. Getting to write for the United Methodist Publishing House must have been God’s idea, because I clearly cannot take credit for it. What I can do is tell you the story.

Years ago (maybe in 2014?), my church sent me, the Director of Children’s Ministries, and my colleague Karen, the Director of Youth Ministries, to a conference for Christian educators. We mostly split up and went to different sessions throughout the weekend, but Karen insisted on dragging me with her to one particular session on ministry to tweens, since that age group overlapped both our ministry areas. I remember playing some tween-friendly group games and listening to Nathan, an editor with the United Methodist Publishing House, as he walked us through a PowerPoint presentation.

Back at church, Karen pitched me a grand idea for an event we should develop together for parents of tweens, which we would call BeTween. She wanted to invite Nathan to the church to lead training and conversation with parents, and she said we could use this as a chance both to empower parents of preteens and to recruit them as volunteers (because we were sneaky). Honestly, I was indifferent about the idea. Maybe even resistant to it. Event planning is not my thing, and this wasn’t my idea, and I only went along with it because I didn’t have a good reason not to. Karen persisted, and we set up the event. To her great delight, Nathan agreed to come speak.

The event was actually a great success. Afterward, Nathan engaged me in conversation about ministry, working with parents, and church work. To my absolute surprise, we hit it off and talked for probably 30 minutes. He shared about his work at the Publishing House, and I shared my philosophy of ministry, which resonated with both of us.

This one conversation changed everything.

Fast forward several years… John and I moved our family back home to Lexington, KY, and I took a part-time position at a church. People asked what I planned to do with my extra time now that I wasn’t working full-time, and I really didn’t have a great answer. Wear more yoga pants? Get involved in the community? Read more books? Change the world? As ashamed as I am to speak this next bit of Christian-ese, I can’t help myself: God had a plan.

About a month after moving and changing jobs, Nathan from the Publishing House called me out of the blue. We hadn’t talked much beyond that workshop event he led for Karen and me, so I was surprised to hear from him–and even more surprised to hear his reason for calling. He said that they were looking for someone to update and re-write a book on preteen ministry and wondered if I was interested? I’m just shaking my head as I write this, because that just doesn’t happen, right? Suddenly it made sense why this was the right time to move to part-time work in the town that felt like home to us. I was perfectly positioned to take on this big, life-changing project.

I’m not sure I even let him finish the question. YES. Sign me up. Put me in. I’m here for this. I’ll do you proud, Nathan. I hung up, ordered the book I was supposed to update, and started dreaming, planning and writing. By the time I started the actual writing process, Nathan had moved to another opportunity, and he left me in the hands of an amazing person who became my editor, mentor and friend.

In short, I owe my role as a published author to other people’s care for me. To Karen, who pulled me in to that conference workshop and then recruited me into co-leading a church event that I never, ever would have touched before. To Nathan, who traveled from Nashville to Louisville, for free, to lead an event on a Sunday afternoon, and still had the brain cells and heart left over to engage me in conversation and listen to all my soapbox positions. And really, to my husband, who earned a promotion that allowed me to move from full-time to part-time compensation and then absolutely whooped and cheered and said he would sacrifice literally anything to enable me to write this book.

All my opportunity has come through people who lifted me up. I hope to be that kind of person in many more lives.

Waiting and Waiting

“What are you waiting for?”

We are all waiting for something. How many times have we asked, or been asked that question–“What are you waiting for?”

the start of school…
career…
an acceptance letter…
a grade…
romance…
marriage…
a pregnancy…
health…
validation…
death…
justice…
reconciliation…

Life is a series of waits. When I was growing up, my mom rotated through about ten wise sayings, and we kids really did not appreciate any of them. But one of the least favorites was, “God’s timing is always perfect,” usually expressed with a demeanor of utter calm while she careened our van toward whatever appointment we were late for. As usual, she was right, unfortunately.

She knew that there is a right way and a wrong way to wait. And that spiritually speaking, waiting is a good thing.  

I want to be careful here not to imply that God withholds blessings from us as a test of character or a proof of our fitness to enter heaven–God does not use waiting as a management training tool or a punishment. I don’t even think that God chooses to make us wait; I think maybe having to wait for things is just a part of life. But I do think that when we find ourselves longing for our next step and feeling like it just isn’t coming, our loving God thinks in those moments, “This could be good for our relationship.”

We Christ-followers are notoriously terrible at waiting well even for minor conveniences. Like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, we “hate waiting.” People who design our favorite projects have caught on to this. Have you all experienced the wondrous invention of the Skip Intro button on Netflix? They made that because we are so lousy at waiting. (And I am so grateful.)  Because we hate waiting so much, we develop unhealthy tendencies all intended to force the thing that we’re waiting for into our present moment. I have two default strategies when my way isn’t coming fast enough – I agonize, or I create my own solution.

Because God lives to meet with us, and God is able to meet with us in a special way in our waiting. In our waiting, we seek God more. In our waiting, we recognize that we don’t have control. When waiting, we just might approach God in a whole new way.

Agonizing

We all know what it feels like to agonize over something that is out of our control. This approach to waiting involves hang-wringing, watching the clock, checking the phone over and over, refreshing the webpage and a lot of sighing. Instead of letting go or choosing to trust, we fill the waiting time with as much anxious movement as possible.

Have you seen that commercial where Cookie Monster has cookies baking in the oven and struggles to wait for them to finish? It would be funnier if it weren’t so relatable. Agonizing over waiting is particularly common for the perfectionists among us. But have you noticed that one of the problems with leaning in to anxiety and complaining is that once the thing we’ve anticipated finally comes, it’s a letdown? Our desires can’t live up to the life we’ve given them in our heads. We fill our seasons of waiting so full of nerves that we can’t hear God’s voice or feel God’s presence. God can only be “the Lord with us” if we acknowledge the presence and comfort of God’s Spirit.

David from the Old Testament was the anti-Cookie Monster. We may know more about David than about any other character in Scripture because his life was chronicled from his childhood to his death – including his personal journal and songbook! This is a guy who was willing to wait as long as it took for God’s promises to take effect. And in his waiting he was neither anxious nor passive. He did not receive God’s promise and then spend the next 20 years complaining to anyone who would listen that the throne was rightfully his. Never once do we hear that David complained about Saul’s continued reign – in fact, over and over David honors Saul as the king more than any of his companions is willing to do.

So when he writes in the book of Psalms about waiting on God, we know that he knew what he was talking about.

This guy who knows a thing or two about waiting says to wait “on the Lord” and not “to fret.” We should listen to him. When Scripture says “be still,” we all are expected to obey that command. Trust is not easy, especially for certain Myers-Briggs types and Enneagram numbers, but it is required of all of us. Without complaining, without agonizing, wait on the Lord. It’s an active waiting, but not a nervous one.

Solving the problem

The Old Testament writer gave us a literary foil for David. His name was Abner. Abner was the general in the story, the cousin and right-hand man of King Saul. Abner was no slouch – he got things done. But they were usually Abner’s things, not God’s. When it comes to making up my own solution rather than waiting for God’s timing, I am much more of an Abner than a David.

We don’t have a ton of information about Abner in Scripture, but the few times when his name does pop up are telling. One of the first times we hear about him is in the story of David and Goliath, and I love this moment. Scripture says,

If this conversation happened today, I think it would sound like, “Hey Abner, who on earth is this kid?” “Dude, I have no idea.” After David succeeded in killing Goliath, it was Abner who escorted him to King Saul for their first full introduction.

We hear brief mentions of Abner over the next few chapters, and the only thing of note is that Abner is always, always by Saul’s side. He clearly occupies a place of importance. If Abner is one of those people who gets their personal fulfillment from meeting the needs of others, then I suspect that he is fairly happy during these years. Who needs God’s presence when you have a co-dependent relationship, amirite?

Abner then steals the entire show in 2 Samuel chapters 2-3. Saul has just died, and Abner has therefore lost his liege, friend and partner in power. In this time of crisis, Abner does not seek God as David did. Instead, he takes matters into his own hands like I probably would. He installs Ish-bosheth, Saul’s progeny, as king and then rides out with the king’s army to pick a fight with David. Same old story. Alongside Saul, Abner had only practiced doing things his own way, so when the crisis came and he needed to make a choice that affected an entire nation, he did not wait, he did not seek God’s direction – he fell upon his habits of control and mistrust, and that decision resulted in violent deaths for many of his soldiers. The thing is, it didn’t matter what a great warrior and general Abner was – those skills meant nothing when they were matched up against God’s presence with David. David remained in God’s presence and experienced God’s pleasure, while Abner avoided God’s presence and experienced God’s displeasure. Abner serves as a literary foil for David. Scripture says that David’s rule grew stronger and stronger while Abner’s power grew weaker and weaker.

David = the good example of waiting

Another one of my mom’s awful sayings during my childhood, one which I believe Kristen Bell co-opted from her in Frozen II, was “Just do the next right thing.” Don’t skip ten steps forward or worry over what you can’t do yet—figure out the best step you can take right now, and do that. David mastered this practice.

Over the 20 or so years between his calling to be king and the crowning moment we read about today, David literally had multiple opportunities to take the situation into his own hands and make himself king. Twice he spared King Saul’s life, even when his advisors urged him to take it. Even after Saul died, David did not elbow his way to Saul’s castle in Jerusalem. He took the much smaller seat of authority where it was vacant in Judah. For seven whole years, David ruled over a sub-section of the territory he had been promised, perhaps wondering if God ever intended to give him the whole kingdom.

I think he must have known that if he had seized this moment prematurely and forced it to happen on his own timing, he would have lost the peaceful knowledge that he was exactly where God wanted him to be.

Not until Saul’s last heir was assassinated and his murderers were punished did David assume rule over the whole kingdom.

Everyone knew. Everyone around David knew that he was destined to be their leader. His calling and anointing were no secret—do you think David might have encountered some advice along the way to be a little more selfish than he was? Do you think, perhaps, his companions encouraged him to do what was good for him?  

Instead, David asked for God’s direction for each move that he faced, and then he did whatever God said to do. He waited, but he was active in his waiting. Reading the chapters from 1 Samuel 17 where David fights Goliath to 2 Samuel 5 where David is crowned king is way more entertaining than any soap opera. Conspiracies, forbidden love, displays of valor, betrayals, escapes, lies–it’s the original Game of Thrones in there. But if you read closely, you’ll see that the one common thread that ties together each daring escapade is an ongoing conversation between David and God. David asks God whom to attack, whether to retreat, where to live, and how to fight. And God answers. He justifies his unpopular decisions by explaining to his men that he cannot defy God’s orders. David doesn’t look for legal loopholes; he obeys a moral law.

Waiting on God

You know, David’s life foreshadows Jesus’ life in so many ways… minus the area of sexual decision-making. Jesus discerned his calling from a very young age, but like David, he didn’t begin to fulfill it until he was 30 years old. While there aren’t many details about how Jesus spent his time during those years of waiting, we do know that by the time he started living out his call, he had perfected two important practices: memorizing Scripture and taking every care to God in prayer. I believe that all those years of waiting for his time in ministry were essential practice in spiritual disciplines.

So we start waiting upon God—not agonizing over things that don’t matter, not looking the other way, not taking matters into our own hands—but actively waiting upon God. Doing the next right thing. Seeking God’s direction honestly, and then following it. Relinquishing control over our own lives, as painful as that is.

6 Secrets of this Blog

Its goal is a little pretentious

This is a place where I want to offer nuanced instruction and perspectives on church ministry for staff and volunteers. New children’s Sunday school teachers and pastors juggling 2-point charges can read what I have to say and come away, if not informed, at least inspired to carry on.

My audacity to position myself as a leader worth listening to emerges from a personal quality my closest friends can vouch for in me: I think I have great thoughts. Most of the folks I hold dearest in my life consistently downplay their importance or value to the team, and in doing so I believe they shortchange the rest of us from the impactful ideas they could share. Not here – ideas will fly freely here, whether they are merited or not.

It will be imperfect

Putting my own written words up on a screen has been on my weekly to-do list for five months now. Finally, I would rather flop than face that daily torture of looking at a difficult task and then looking away, so in the interest of getting started, I have committed to throw onto the Internet whatever first-draft words appear here.

There will be mistakes and half-baked opinions for sure, and I will do my best to own those. But in the interest of taking action on a previously dormant dream, this is happening.

It will promote my books

In just about two months, my second book will bounce off the printing press and into the world to be read by my friends and family, and hopefully by a stranger or two. My first was called 6 Secrets of Preteen Ministry, and the next is Children & Family Ministry Handbook. I get fidgety in anticipation of the moment I’ll hold a copy in my own hands. I’ve already preordered one, just to see what that feels like. And I paid full price.

Anyone who clicks over here in the next few months will be treated to significant amounts of gushing over this first work of mine.

It is unplanned

Doing this “right” has haunted my paralysis. Building a brand, scheduling the first 10 posts, designing a website, learning to write in Markdown, and everything else that goes into a well-planned launch have intimidated and overwhelmed me. This imperfect, unplanned start seems to be more my speed – and often, it’s how ministry comes together, so I’m really just setting a good example here.

It is my passion

As a kid, I wrote the most awful short stories – all character descriptions, no plot – but the writing of them felt like something I was supposed to do.

In college, I majored in English because I loved words, grammar and stories.

Last year, I started writing in earnest, and I discovered it was my great joy. When I write from my experience in ministry, I get that feeling we all have after finishing a good workout, without actually having to exercise. It is glorious! It’s what I am made for.

It will help you find what you are made for

God calls everyone. God has called you. I believe God calls everyone to some sort of ministry within God’s church as well. I hope to speak clarity into what that calling discernment process can look like and to inspire those who sense a call to pursue it wholeheartedly.

Now you know all the big secrets! Come back later, and I’ll make sure to have some more obvious truths to tell.