The Unseen Congregation

The Unseen Congregation

by John Partridge

You might have noticed that I’ve been trying something new.  It’s not totally new, but I’ve been trying to do it more consistently.  What is it?  I’m trying to remember that our entire congregation isn’t sitting in the sanctuary but is gathered, collectively, online as well as in the pews.  I read an article recently that resonated with me when it said that those of us who were livestreaming should address those online as if they were present.  The goal is for us to make those on-line feel as if they are included as participants in worship and valued members of the congregation and not just watching church on television.

For most of us, the online part of our ministry is invisible and that’s why I have sometimes given a statistical summary at the beginning of the year.  With all the busy-ness of Covid I didn’t do that last year, but I think that it’s still an important reminder that our ministry is larger, and spread wider, than just the people that we see in church on Sunday morning.  That has been true since I first started posting sermons online in 2008 or 2009, has been growing in importance ever since, and grew even more as everyone went online during this pandemic.  Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

In January of 2018, Christ Church had 172 “followers” on Facebook.  By 2021 it was 228, and this past year it grew to 248.  By internet standards this is still a small circle of influence, but it reminds us that whenever we post sermons, or announcements, news, photos, or anything else about our church, there are more people watching than we might think.

The same is true of our Sunday morning messages.  As I mentioned, I have been posting the text of those messages since 2008 or so, and tracking subscribers since 2009.  In October of 2009 a 3 (three) people downloaded a Sunday sermon, but today that number has grown to almost 700 per month.  Subscriptions to those messages have grown from 333 in December of 2019 to 411 today.

And that brings us to our YouTube livestream.  When COVID-19 started, we were dumped headfirst into the world of online worship.  We didn’t have time to prepare, and we all thought, at the time, that it would all be over in a few months.  For both of those reasons, we didn’t take the time to launch a new YouTube channel for Christ Church, but instead just used the one that I already had.  We “launched” online worship with the six (yes, 6) subscribers that my channel already had for my random rocket, railroad, and travel videos.  Since that launch, I almost never use my channel for anything other than videos for Christ Church, and our subscribers have grown from 6 to 86.  Over the course of 2021, more than 1300 computers watched videos on our channel and the people sitting at those computers watched a total of 857 hours of video. 

It’s clear that there are a great many “invisible” people behind computer screens who are increasingly connected to Christ Church.  Statistically, visitors will connect with a church online before they even consider stepping foot in the door physically, and some of those online visitors do indeed come inside.  We’ve already brought some of them into membership.  But our reach goes beyond Alliance, Ohio.  We know that some of those who watch our services on YouTube are shut-ins, medically fragile, Covid cautious, former members, family members, and others out of town, and out of state that want to stay connected.  But a measurable percentage of visitors to our YouTube channel were from India, and the people reading those sermon texts this past year were from the United States, Canada, India, Ireland, Philippines, Australia, Ghana, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Pakistan, China, Slovakia, United Kingdom, Kenya, and 37 other countries.

I have often explained that posting sermons online was entirely accidental.  I started copying, and eventually posting, sermons because I type a manuscript rather than trying to preach from a handful of bullet points on a three by five card.  I do that because I’m a better writer than I am a preacher, and because I’ve never had the confidence to preach from a handful of notes.  I have never taken credit for whatever success (however limited) we have had online.  The credit has, and should, always be given to God.  In Isaiah 55:10-11, God says:

10 As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

That is exactly what we are seeing as we continue to grow our presence online.  God is at work, through us, spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ in Alliance, Ohio, and around the world.  I hope that all of us will be mindful that there is an “unseen congregation” worshiping with us each week.  Our worship, and our ministry, reaches far beyond those of us who sit in the sanctuary.

Isn’t God awesome?

Blessings,

Pastor John


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2021, Blessing or Curse?

2021, Blessing or Curse?

December 30, 2020

by John Partridge

Will this pandemic influenced, socially distanced, Christmas, and the following New Year, be filled with “good news of great joy” or feel more like we were hit by a freight train?  And I think that my best guess is, it depends.

I was reminded this week of how we often find exactly the things for which we are looking.  We can watch same news stories and Republicans and Democrats will each hear entirely different things.  And each of those things will conform to the opinions and worldviews that they had before they watched it.  Scientifically, it’s called “confirmation bias.”  We tend to seek out views and opinions with which we agree, and even if we listen to unbiased reporting, what we hear is influenced by what we expected to hear. 

The same is true of much more mundane things.  I read a story once about an entomologist (you know, a guy who studies bugs) and his friend who were walking along a sidewalk in a big city.  Suddenly the man said, “Did you hear that?”  He stopped walking and started searching intently until he found a particular species of cricket in a crack in the sidewalk.  The friend marveled that the man had been able to hear a cricket chirp over the noise of the city, but in answer the entomologist simply pulled a coin from his pocket and dropped it.  Instantly a half dozen people turned and started looking for the dropped coin.  Smiling, the man said, my coin was no louder than the cricket, but people tend to find the things that they are thinking about. 

I don’t know if that story is true or not, but I know that our biases shape our daily lives, and our enjoyment of it, in powerful ways.  Years ago, I had a coworker who saw the entire world as a terrible place that always seemed to be out to destroy her.  Every conversation with her was one in which she described all the accidents and missed opportunities of her recent past and never once included the any stories of her successes, or even stories of her young son.  Her focus on the negative entirely robbed her life of the joys that could be found in her everyday life.

And so, as we enter a new year, and as we continue to live with restrictions and precautions of this current pandemic, I urge you to be careful of your biases about how you look at the world.   If we are looking for crickets or dropped coins, we are likely to find the things for which we are paying attention.  If we look for sadness and disappointment, we will certainly find them.  But, if we look for happiness, good news, and positive influences, I am convinced that we are more likely to find those instead. 

If we look at the Christmas story with this in mind, we realize that Herod was always looking at the world to find the next person that might threaten his power and control.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees, despite being biblical scholars, were always looking out for themselves.  But the wise men were looking for signs and the shepherds were looking for hope.  And so, when the star appeared in the heavens, everyone saw exactly what their focus and biases guided them to see.  The wise men saw a sign, the shepherds found hope, Mary and Joseph found answered prayer, Herod found a threat, and the religious leaders were so focused on themselves that they almost missed it entirely.

And so, as we enter this new year, whether we find blessings or curses in 2021 is almost entirely up to us, to our attitudes, and to our biases.  Rather than enter this new year searching for threats, or looking only for our own selfish interests, let us instead enter it as pilgrims in search of hope, faith, and love.  We are, after all, the ambassadors that carry “good news of great joy, which is for all the people.”  Despite the pandemic and its economic influence, despite our current, hyper-partisan political climate, despite our separation and isolation, if we are paying attention, I am convinced that there are, and will be, nuggets of good, silver linings, and pockets of joy that can be found.  Let us keep our eyes on Jesus, who is the “good news of great joy” for all people, the hope of the world, and the Prince of Peace because whatever it is that we choose to seek…

…is almost certainly what we will find.

I choose to seek faith, hope, joy, peace, and love.

Will you?

Blessings,

Pastor John


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*Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Reframe, Restart, Re-imagine

As I write this, we are less than two weeks from Thanksgiving.  When you read this, it will likely be almost, or already, December and we will be counting down to Christmas.  We, both individually and collectively, have been trying to manage, and cope with, the constantly changing restrictions on our lives brought on by the Coronavirus since March.  And the latest resurgence and new peaks of COVID-19 are forcing change on us yet again. 

As I met with our Worship Committee and our staff, I had hoped to find a way for us to hold on to some of our Advent and Christmas traditions.  We talked about a drive through service, and even began designing a Christmas Eve service that would travel from station to station, in small groups, through the church and still light candles in the sanctuary.  But with the latest surge in virus cases, and the newest recommended restrictions, I doubt that we will even be able to do that.  Instead, we will pivot, again, and try to find a meaningful way of celebrating Christmas Eve together while we are apart. 

Few of us imagined a Christmas quite like this one in March and, if we’re honest, we’re having a hard time imagining it now.  But as we rush toward the end of what has probably been the strangest year any of us has ever seen, we also struggle to imagine what the new year will bring us.  We have hope that new vaccines will successfully conclude their clinical trials, be approved, and begin distribution but, at this point, we are told that widespread availability probably won’t happen until mid-summer.  Sigh.  That means we probably should prepare ourselves for Coronavirus to dampen our plans for yet another Easter.

But a new year still encourages us to image a new beginning.  A new year now, as always, presses us to reflect on the year we leave behind and envision a better, brighter, bolder, future.  Perhaps this year, more than ever, we look forward to leaving 2020 behind and hoping for something better.  But as we do, let us also grapple with what lessons, however difficult, that we have learned. 

I believe that this pandemic has taught us, or at least boldly reminded us, that “church” is not a building and “mission” is not what happens inside of that building.  We are learning that “community” and “family” are bigger ideas, and stronger ties, than just the people with whom we can shake hands each Sunday and we are finding ways to stay connected to the people we care about, the people in our church family, and the people in our communities in other ways.  We are learning that the “reach” of our church, and our worship, is bigger than just the people who show up in person, on Sunday morning and we are learning, I hope, how to reach out to, and to connect with, the people around us in ways that we hadn’t considered before.  We are already seeing “new faces” in our church that have joined us on the internet and haven’t yet attended a single “in-person” worship service, and despite not having what we might have, a few months ago, considered to be an essential element, they now consider themselves to be a part of our church.

And so, as we hurtle toward the end of one year and the beginning of the next, I hope that we will continue to reframe our ideas of what some of these words mean.  For some of us, words like church, mission, outreach, community, and even family will never be the same even after things return to “normal.”  As we grapple with these new meanings, and with our new knowledge, and yes, new skills, let us also continue to re-imagine what we could be, what we can be, and what God is calling us to be as individuals, as a people, and as a church.  Clearly, the situation that we have is not one that we wanted, or even one that we ever imagined, but I am certain that through it, God is trying to teach us something incredibly valuable…

if we are willing to listen… and learn.

I pray that, years from now, rather than mourn over the things that we lost during the pandemic of 2020, we would instead rejoice over the things that we learned, and what that new knowledge, and that new understanding, allowed us to achieve.

Blessings,

Pastor John

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