Over two years ago, my husband, a kindergarten teacher, started providing a virtual option for parent-teacher conferences. Many of his students had young siblings with early bedtimes, and he watched parents struggle to bring their babies into his classroom in the evening for a 15-minute conversation. Soon after he started offering this virtual option, over half of his classroom families were choosing to meet over Zoom—and this was before the pandemic. Parents traveling for work were able to participate in their child’s education from across the country. Divorced parents could have a conversation without having to be in the same room. Many families were relieved and thrilled to sit at their kitchen table, their babies already in bed, chatting with their child’s teacher over video.
When my husband shared this with me, I asked if he was worried it would make conferences too easy for families. Not at all. Instead, after the pandemic shifted everything and all conferences went virtual, his kindergarten team continued working on ways to make education more family-friendly in this new environment.
The Sunday School at the congregation I serve includes children who are immunocompromised. The simplest (and most inclusive) option for Sunday School during the pandemic is holding it over Zoom every week. We lean into this format; kids see familiar faces, sing their favorite songs, and their parents can have a cup of coffee and relax for 30 minutes. While it’s not for every family, our participation has been surprisingly great, and I think many parents are watching and participating with their coffee off-screen. But once we can safely meet again in person, will we get rid of the online option because it’s not “real” Sunday School?
Are we afraid of making church too easy?
When people had to miss in-person worship in the past, they would often tell me they watched a popular televangelist, with the caveat, “but it wasn’t real church.” When I started sharing audio recordings of my sermons online years ago (which feels antiquated now), church members voiced concerns that I was giving people permission to skip attending in-person worship, as if online participation didn’t count.
This is the first year I’ve seen guidelines for including online participation in worship for our annual parochial report for my denomination. Online participation will officially count as worship attendance in our church-wide records.
This is an enormous shift for the church. We’ve been forced to make worship and programming more accessible. At the same time, we’ve rediscovered the value of in-person gatherings because they provide human connection, solace and a spiritual touchpoint—not because they prove people are committed church-goers or because they provide the only real way to worship and be together.
As we begin to learn what church life will look like post-pandemic, we need to decide what we will carry forward from this time. As you plan future congregational opportunities, I invite you to ask the following questions and wonder, “How would an early-childhood educator answer this question?”
Can we make church too family-friendly? Educators are wondering how to permanently incorporate new online tools while also learning which in-person connections are essential. This often depends on the age of the child and their individual needs. Their goal is a child’s learning and growth. What are our ultimate goals as a church, and what tools can we use to support them?
Who are we leaving out? Educators don’t only focus on one type of child; they need to assess each child’s unique needs. Many of us are anxious and excited to begin meeting in person again, yet there are some who prefer online worship and gatherings. Parents with disabled children may find online options provide needed connection while eliminating the stressors of in-person meetings. Those with chronic illness may prefer worshipping in their home. Consider who may be left out, and ask yourself the following. Are we talking about online connections as if they are less-than, which may silence those who are finding life in these new tools?
When we assume or question if we’re making something too easy, ask why. Are we concerned about a lack of depth or connection? Where do we want to provide challenges for people? How are we making connection easy for different kinds of people while also providing depth and growth?
I encourage you to explore providing programming and opportunities that feel too easy. Talk to your council and lay leadership. What happens? What kind of engagement do you experience? What would happen if our goal was to make churches as family-friendly and accessible as possible to people of all ages?
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