One of my favorite things to do as a child was skipping rocks across a pond. To get a good result you had to find the right rock, get low, and throw it just right. When you did these three things, the rock hit the suface tension on the water and bounced up. The better the three variables were handled, the greater number of bounces the rock would make and the greater distance it would travel. I still enjoy skipping rocks, but getting low is not as easy as it once was!
Rock skipping is how I’m picturing pastoring in the time of the pandemic.
Any well-skipped stone will have a few different types of skips. The first skips tend to be long, as more of the energy remains after the initial throw. As the energy diminishes the skips begin to shrink, but still have a noticeable distance between them. At the end of the toss the skips are rapid and the distance between them becomes next to indistinguishable. In the end the stone goes “plunk 1” and sinks into the water—leaving beind the ripples the stone made as it bounced off the surface.
Because we do have a weekly rhythm of worship and activities, churches tend to work backwards from how the stone-skipping analogy works. We start by focusing on the short skips, trying to keep them going for as long as we can, and then move toward the medium and long skips whenever we find a moment to catch our collective breath. I would argue that when our attention is focused on the short skips it drains us of the energy to make longer range plans or appreciate the full journey the stone makes before the the energy wears out and we have to search for another stone to throw. Perhaps, just like the stone, we should spend more time and energy on the longer skips and allow them to feed the short skips of our weekly rhythm.
Weekly worship remains essential, in whatever form we are able to share it, and that’s how it should be. Discipleship groups, prayer meetings, and other weekly ministries are also important to the life of the church—but these are all short skips. If we’re pouring more and more and more energy into these short skips week in and week out we’re missing the longer journey.
Medium skips are where churches tend to relational aspects of the congregation. Congregational visits 2, planning meetings, congregational management, neighborhood outreach, and crisis response are all medium skips. They require some forethought to navigate, and they express a good amount of energy as they unfold. Many churches will have a vibrant activities which would be medium skips 3, and this is not a bad thing.
But the skips which hold the most potential energy, and can have the longest impact, are the long skips. These are the skips where creativity is at its most free to roam, and visions for the community manifest. Long skips may be the most important skips of all, but they aren’t urgent and so are often neglected. It takes a long time to formulate a discipleship arc, after all, and even longer to help shepherd an arc through to it’s conclusion. In the meantime worship needs to happen, people need to be visited, and the budget needs to be set. It’s easy to see why the long skips sometimes get overlooked. It is the long skips, however, which shape the nature of the skips as the stone travels. Long skips are where people’s understanding of faith, the world, and our calling are both shaped and challenged. Long skips ask questions like “What does this mean?” “What is our goal?” And, “Who are we?”
Long skips are where I enjoy spending my time.
When this pandemic collapsed around us churches tended to have an understandable focus on the short skips. Streaming a worship gathering became necessary, for example, and obtaining both the skills and equipement to do that occupied a good amount of time. But now that we’re through the phase of “ohmygoshthisishappening” and “can we hold on until some of us can see each other in person again?” the long skips need to be first things 4. We aren’t going to have something “normal” for months, if not years, and long skips are were churches best reevaluate themselves in the light of Christ. What does it mean to be a church in the time of the pandemic? How do we be the presence of Jesus when we’re so distant from one another? How do we exemplify Jesus’ kingdom in noticeable ways when people are experiencing the effects of isolation more and more? How can we express our faith, when so many of the avenues we often utilize for that expression are closed off to us?
In this moment long skips aren’t just what I enjoy, they are where I live. I’m working out a discipleship series on creative spirituality, mulling over how to do a Bible study that isn’t people staring at each other on a zoom call, and considering how we might run a book study. For all these endeavors I’m looking to leverage a combination of streams, online comment threads, and zoom gatherings. Maybe I’ll even film an original skit or two along the way. My goal in all of this will be more than reminding us that we’re connected, it will be to open people to up to positive possibilities 5. I don’t want to have “virtual bible study” or “virtual book club” or “virtual fellowship time.” I want folks to be energized by pondering things they’ve never pondered, finding spiritual connections in practices they do every day, and by feeling like our world can expand even while our circles are shrinking. These are the long skips, which take time to develop and implement, but the benefit is often worth the effort.
It is inevitable, however, that the stone will go “plunk” and sink into the water. If that’s the case, what’s the point of spending any energy on the skips at all? It’s all going to sink.
My answer is simple, “We bother skipping the stones for the the delight to be had in skipping them.” I could plan out a year of sermons, two years of organizational meetings, and four years of unique discipleship arcs for the church to experience together. The schedule will still end and then things will have to start all over again.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? We can be delighted in the skips as they happen, and admire the evidence they leave behind. And even as the previous stone sinks there is another stone to skip. And the delight of it all can start up all over again.
Isn’t it wonderful?
- That is a technical term from the professional stone-skipping handbook. ↩
- Now done through the phone or text, for the most part. It’s an introvert’s dream come true. ↩
- For the record, I am terrible with medium skip things, I have difficulty tracking them. Central, on the other hand, has some people who excel with the medium skips. And they make the congregation a special place. ↩
- I’d say they always needed to be first things, but now more than ever. ↩
- As fun as “pandemic bingo is,” even this GenXer can only take so much dark irony before I lose it. We need positive things for which we can strive. By the way, who had “zombie cicadas” on their card? ↩