Post-Pandemic Pastors: What’s Next?

Aaron Zimmerman takes a stab at why his church has grown since reopening.

Josh Retterer / 4.11.23

A disgruntled angel, Loki, portrayed by a young Matt Damon, is in an earnest conversation with Betty Aberlin, of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood fame, who’s cast as a nun. Ben Affleck, a fellow disgruntled angel named Bartleby, is seated nearby in the same airport terminal. Kevin Smith rivals Altman in packing the stars in his 1999 film, Dogma. Just wait until you meet the 13th disciple! Loki is trying to convince the sister that Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass is actually a damning metaphor for organized religion:

The Carpenter is an obvious reference to Jesus Christ, who was purportedly raised the son of a carpenter. He represents the Western religions. And in the poem, what do they do? They dupe all the oysters into following them. Then, when the oysters collective guard is down, the Walrus and the Carpenter shuck and devour the helpless creatures, en masse. I don’t know what that says to you, but to me it says that following faiths based on these mythological figures ensures the destruction of one’s inner-being. […] Organized religion destroys who we are or who we can be by inhibiting our actions and decisions out of fear of an intangible parent-figure who shakes a finger at us from thousands of years ago and says “No, no!”

He lays it on pretty thick, and the poor sister asks in dawning horror, “What have I been doing with my life…?” Off she goes, with the church’s building fund and a bunch of extremely unhelpful suggestions from Loki on how to use it.

Loki then sits down beside Bartleby, who turns to Loki in disbelief, “Here’s what I don’t get about you: you know for a fact that there is a God. You’ve been in his presence, he’s talked to you personally. And yet I just heard you claim to be an atheist.”

There is a bit in the movie script that didn’t make it into the film.

“C’mon man,” Loki says, “ you know I don’t believe any of that sh-t I was telling her. I just like to f- with the clergy; keep ’em on their toes. When her head stops spinning, she’ll be facing the way of the Just again. But oh. Will she have a bunch to confess!”

Love that little gratuitous bit of redemption tucked in there by Kevin Smith.


Neal Brennan said something on his The Blocks Podcast last year that’s stayed lodged in my brain. Neal, co-creator of Chapelle’s Show, was interviewing David Letterman about the role of comedians in society. We’ve all watched over the last couple of decades that role grow and evolve. He starkly lays out some of the reasons why. “The government is very corrupt, the media is corrupt, the clergy is corrupt. Then who do you look for? We looked to Jon Stewart, you (Letterman) after 911. That shouldn’t really be the case.”

It’s not an uncommon attitude, held in part, or in its entirety, by most of us. This predates the pandemic, but the pandemic certainly greased the wheels. In theory pastors are like prophets, always pointing at God. Their job is to wear those ridiculously huge pointing foam fingers and aim them squarely at Jesus Christ, saying,”This is what God looks like!” Even folks who aren’t Christian can tell when the finger’s vector starts to drift. We can tell when something is off.

This often happens for pastors in a Holy Spirit inspired moment of self reflection, wondering if they’ve been going in the wrong direction, and for how long. Their flocks have been head-butty and restless, some have already fled, others are weighing their options. The world events are getting too eventful. Clergy and laity both start asking, just like Lady Aberlin, “What have I been doing with my life?” So, what do you do?

In Robert Farrar Capon’s book on church history, The Astonished Heart, he gives pastors a pretty simple answer – in the form of a description, “Any form we adopt must be such that it disposes us to shout from the housetops — both to those inside and outside it — ‘By grace you were saved through faith’ — not ‘Here is the perfect recipe for getting your act together.'”

One preacher who I would say shouts grace from the rooftops reliably is Mockingbird’s own, The Rev. Aaron Zimmerman. He and the similarly Reverend Jacob Smith have a podcast called Same Old Song where they help pastors share the Best News every week, working their way through the lectionary. The church that Aaron shepherds, St Alban’s in Waco, TX, has grown to record numbers despite the pandemic. During seemingly endless reports of decline in churches, it’s heartening to see examples of ones that are thriving. I had some questions about church growth and renewal, particularly in light of recent years. Those in the know said Rev. Zimmerman was the person to ask. Here was my question:

Folks are nervous about the future. Clergy shepherd these nervous sheep. Clergy are sheep, so they are experiencing that same anxiety. What would you say to clergy looking at a future that they have even less of a grip on than they had before. They are asking, like their flock, “what’s next, what do I do?”

Rev. Aaron responded with a characteristically thoughtful answer.

When I read your statement that clergy are “looking at a future that they have even less of a grip on than they had before,” I thought, “Who ever said pastors had a grip on anything?”

If a pastor thought she or he had a grip on their congregation, that, apparently, was an illusion. What we all actually had was a whole bunch of people caught by inertia. Remember what that zany religious philosopher and sometimes scientific polymath Sir Isaac Newton said: objects in motion tend to stay in motion, unless they are acted upon by an outside force.

We were objects in motion (going to church), and we just went along with that inertia. Until we were acted upon by a pandemic.

Before the pandemic, we were just harnessing that inertia—the massive motion of folks in the habits and rhythms of going to church, looking for churches, shopping for churches. In that world, a “fisher of people” (AKA pastor) could stick her or his net in the water and catch some fish.

So we got better nets, bigger nets, cooler nets. And we thought that it was our nets that really mattered. We thought the way we handled the nets mattered.

But maybe it didn’t.

When all the fish disappeared, your cool net didn’t matter anymore. There was nothing to catch.

What this experience revealed was that the fish didn’t really like the nets.

Or at least, they didn’t like most of them. Because when they didn’t have to go anymore, they didn’t come back.

And if they did, they were clearer about what they wanted. These were now choosy fish. They no longer wanted places where fear was the culture and power was the currency. They didn’t want a Political Jesus.

All we can do is what, I hope, we were doing before the pandemic. If you’re a church leader, create a place where there is humor, light, honesty, and space for questions. People want a church where God is talked about as if God is a real Person. And that God is interested in more than rules for dating, rules for parenting, rules for financial success, rules for holiness.

Preachers want some new tricks, schemes, and plans to reach people, what Tears For Fears call “Hot tips for the boys/Fresh news from the force.” But really, what we need to do is “Break it down again” and get back to the basics. The preacher’s job is to talk about God as one who forgives sinners, likes people, and restores broken hearts.

The fish don’t want flash, glitz, artifice, manipulation, and anything remotely cheesy.

The fish don’t want you to try to change them.

But if they hear over and over that God actually likes them and forgives them, these fishy people change. It’s the darnedest thing.

So: “What’s next? What do I do?”

The church only and ever always has one mission: proclaim Christ and him crucified.

I.e., God came as a Person and took all the Bad in the whole world into his own Person and put it all away forever.

But for the preacher, first make sure that you realize that message is for you.

Then, from that place, preach.

How do you follow that? You don’t. He is risen.

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2 responses to “Post-Pandemic Pastors: What’s Next?”

  1. Great piece Josh, love “Same Old Song.”

  2. Dan Edelen says:

    People want to experience God. Period. They want to see God work in the world, in their communities, in their churches, and in their lives. They want to go to church and know that God is there in power, doing powerful things that only God can do, and they want to experience those powerful things in their own life and in the lives of people they love.

    For too many people, Christianity in America has lost that experience of God. It has become talk about God, not interaction with God.

    Too many churches have created a dog and pony show, substituting a manufactured experience for an authentic one. People want to meet God in the assembly of God’s people. You can’t fake that, and the Church in this country is going to continue to suffer until we repent of the fakery and get back to what people need: an authentic intimacy with the Living God who works in their lives and makes a difference.

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