Something interesting happened to us during the pandemic. But first, some background: Our church, The Orchard, has two characteristics that make us a little different from many other churches—not unique, but out of the ordinary. We don’t have a senior or lead pastor as most evangelical churches do. Instead, we have a team of pastoral elders who all share in the shepherding of the church. (I’ve previously written quite a bit concerning this leadership model.) We also study the Bible interactively in our church services. We elicit responses from the people and encourage them to raise their hand when they have a question. I’ve taught this way throughout my ministry, but for some reason I’ve never posted anything here about it. [I’m thinking my next blog post should be on interactive teaching.]
When everything shut down last year due to COVID, we began meeting online for our weekly church service the same as everyone else. We met via Zoom so we could continue to study interactively together. I started receiving inquiries from people who had been part of the church we served in Puerto Rico. They were looking for something more interactive than what they had available from streaming church services, and were curious if we were doing anything online. At the time, we were very focused on making sure our online church service felt as familiar as possible to the people here—felt like “us”—so I was hesitant to have large numbers of people temporarily join our service. (Like many others, we were expecting to get back to “normal” in a few weeks or maybe months.) So I started an online Bible study on Sunday afternoons for people outside our area who were desiring more of an interactive study.
This study continued throughout the year, with the repeated disclaimer that it wasn’t a church. A few months ago, a good friend from the study (and one of my former co-pastors in Puerto Rico), challenged me about this. He pointed out the close, regular fellowship we had, and the way we worshiped and studied Scripture together. He asked why this couldn’t be a church. That gave me pause. I had never been impressed with the idea of an online church before. It seemed a lot like passively watching a church service on TV, which is great if you can’t physically get to a church gathering, but really just a temporary substitute. But with this kind of challenge, I needed to have solid reasons why this kind of online gathering couldn’t be an actual church.
This began some intensive discussions. More and more we discussed the possibility of a hybrid church model with a primary gathering online that would include people from many locations. This service would be focused mostly on interactive, expositional study of Scripture. Along with this larger service would be local fellowships, meeting in person in each location during the week, that could better do things such as worshiping through music, sharing in communion, baptisms, eating together, sharing testimonies, deeper discussion of questions, encouraging one another, etc. These local fellowships would likely look very different in each location, with maybe 20 people meeting in a living room in one town, and 4 people meeting at Starbucks in another.
The more we discussed this possible hybrid model, the more excitement grew about the possibility of making this group a church. Most of these people were motivated by a love of interactive study of Scripture (It’s hard for some people to return to passively listening to sermons when they’re used to raising their hands and asking questions!) but also a shared conviction regarding church polity. Many expressed how important team pastoral leadership is to them. One obstacle, though, was the difficulty in me personally being part of planting a brand new kind of church while serving as a pastor of another. I didn’t feel I could do that and faithfully serve both.
But, in The Orchard, we were having a series of interesting discussions of our own. Other than the offices, our building had sat unused for almost a year, and we were getting close to the end of a multi-year lease. We were beginning to discuss whether we should continue leasing the building. We loved the space we met in, with couches and chairs arranged almost in a circle to make it look more like a large living room or coffeehouse. But the pandemic had helped us remember we’re not dependent on any particular space. A building can be a great resource, but the church isn’t a building. So we had been discussing alternatives such as renting some space once a week in which to meet, or buying a house and converting it into a church property. These ideas fit with our “strategically small” approach of limiting the size of our church service, but also planning for multiple services to allow further growth.
One of the things we had repeatedly discussed was how to best get the word out about who we are. We had experienced many people visiting us just because we were another church in town to check out. We wanted to let people in the community know some of the distinctive characteristics that make us who we are as a church, so those who were seeking this kind of church would know about us. In fact, last year we had planned a whole series of mailers describing different aspects of who we are that make us a bit unique in this local area, and were poised to begin sending them out (literally the following week) when everything shut down because of the pandemic. So we had been looking for people who were looking for a church like us, and now there were people from outside our area who were eager to be part of a church like us! We began discussing the possibility of The Orchard actually becoming this hybrid church.
Eventually, after discussions among the church leadership and then the congregation, we decided to take this step. We now have a primary service online on Sunday mornings (10 am Eastern and Pacific) that includes brothers and sisters from mutliple states plus Puerto Rico. We’re seeking to incorporate leaders from other areas into our church leadership team. Our most recent addition to our pastoral team is Jack Foster, a brother from Puerto Rico. We’ve given up our building here in Sacramento, and now lease a small office. Our local congregation is becoming one of the local fellowships. The online group is really melding into a cohesive church family. We recently had one lady who’s been part of the church here for some time move to Grand Junction, CO, and she’s very happy that she can still be part of our church!
This has been a real paradigm shift for me. The biblical model of one church in each town has always been compelling to me. But, then again, there was no way for them at that time to have any larger context for a church congregation. Geography was the natural and necessary division for individual churches. But when we see, for instance, how Paul longed at times to be with the Thessalonians or the Corinthians, if he had a tool such as Zoom that he could have utilized, I’m sure he would have! Especially since we were already to some extent outside of the norm due to our team leadership model and interactive teaching, a hybrid model that includes a translocal congregation actually makes sense. But we’re definitely in uncharted territory, so we are constantly aware of our dependence on God and his wisdom and leading. It’s amazing that we would never have considered any of this if it hadn’t been for the COVID shut down, but that shows how God can use times like this to slow us down and get us to consider new and possibly more effective ways to faithfully be the church. We’re excited to see where we go from here!