News & Notes

Can one person change the future of a church?

Can one person change the future of a church? Usually, we might be inclined to say no. But these haven’t been usual times.

John McKenna is someone you could meet at any congregation in the Atlantic District: a small business owner, a devoted family man, a dedicated volunteer at his church, Zion Lutheran in Schenectady. But what John…and Zion…have accomplished amid the challenges presented by Covid-19 are anything but usual.

A little background. When the word came down that churches were going to be shutting down for safety reasons in March, Zion was already dealing with some massive changes. For the first time in over 60 years, the congregation found themselves without a pastor. Anyone who has lived through a vacancy knows how stressful this can be for a congregation. Zion, with John serving as an Elder, was in the middle of going through the call process when everything suddenly came to a screeching halt.

“It was like the icing on the cake.” John said. Not only were they going to be dealing with the call process, but now they had to figure out how they were going to serve their people on a weekly basis for worship, something that every congregation had to come to grips with in a matter of days.

But it was worse for Zion. Not only did they not have a pastor, but their interim pastor, Chip Froehlich, was stuck down in Virginia due to the travel ban. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Zion didn’t have any way to produce a worship service that they could share with their people while they couldn’t meet together.

That’s where John comes in. John had been serving happily as an elder, but he had a hidden talent that was going to change everything. His small business. John runs a boutique digital marketing company.

As soon as the Zion leadership made the decision to suspend worship for a time, John jumped into action. He began to take a look at the technology that Zion did have, what he had at home, and what needed to be done to just get a service up for the next week.

“That first week wasn’t very good.” John says as he remembers. “We were just trying to get something up, anything. It was a scramble just to be able to post a service.”

But John wasn’t satisfied with just anything. He knew he could do better. So, the following week, he really dove into the problem. He began to experiment during the week. He looked at what he had at home. He searched the internet. No stone was left unturned as he began to piece together a workable solution. And week by week, one service after another, John learned. Lighting, camera placement, sound editing, video editing. Sure, he had done this for clients, but this was a totally different animal.

If you were to look at Zion’s digital services today, you would never know that one man, just one guy is responsible for what you see. In the span of just a few months, Zion Lutheran’s digital service has become a major production including multiple camera angles, multiple musicians, singers, and worship leaders. The transformation has been nothing short of miraculous.

When you ask John, he’s pretty low key about it. “I just kept asking, ‘what if?’ What if I put the camera here? What if I brought in multiple musicians? What if? I would just break down the next challenge or opportunity into smaller, doable chunks.”

But the what if’s don’t stop as we begin to look at reopening, at least not for John. “I’m always trying to look ahead, to see what we can do next.”

So what’s next? Zion has hired John to work part time on building up their entire digital ministry: streaming services, interactive bible studies, screens in worship, broadcasting the service to multiple locations inside and outside the church building. John is still asking that question. What if?

However, John wouldn’t want you to think that he did this all on his own. It was the entire Zion team, the entire congregation, raising up and starting to take hold of a ministry and making it their own. “I think sometimes churches can get a little lazy when they have a pastor. We kind of let them (pastor’s) do everything. We sit back. What Covid-19 and our vacancy did was open our eyes to the fact that we, the church, the members, we are the ones that have to get it done. And so we did.”

6 months ago, Zion was just going along, looking for their next pastor and making it from week to week. Now, they are engaged in a new way. They are looking to volunteers and members of the congregation and raising up people in every area of the ministry: worship, bible studies, Christian education, youth ministry, care ministry. If it needs to be done, the leaders at Zion are scouring the membership and looking for that right person, the person with the skills and abilities, the heart and the passion needed to lead a ministry forward. They are looking for all the other John’s who are out there, waiting to use their skills and abilities to build up the church. But more than looking, they are asking. Just like they did with John.

When talking about how to get started doing something different, John said, “Don’t try for it all at one time. Don’t overcomplicate it. Just start with the first step, a small step. Sure, you might know what you want it to look like in the end, but don’t try and get there all in one step. Just do the first thing. Learn from that. And then, ask ‘what if’ and add the next thing that will make it that little bit better.”

“Oh, and one more thing,” he said. “Always leave yourself more time than you think you need. Something is always going to not go as planned.”

So back to our original question: can one person change a church? Probably not…but it just takes one person to start the change. And then who knows? That one little change opens up new doors that open new opportunities…and that leads to change. That’s what happened at Zion. That’s what happened with John. It’s almost as if God had all the right pieces in place before hand and then said, “What if….”

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