Sometime in the next few weeks American churches will start reopening following the weeks of quarantine from COVID-19. While no one knows just how the process will go, one thing seems clear: the churches we return to likely won’t be the same as the ones we knew before.
The shock our nation has gone through is too drastic to believe otherwise. Medical services, job security, educational calendars, recreation and personal behavior—all the things that make up life’s landscape—shifted so quickly and drastically that it was as if an earthquake struck while we slept and the next morning we woke up to a strange new world.
Churches weren’t as stable as we thought they were
That goes for churches, too, and for us in leadership the impact has been especially severe. Our unspoken presumption that the church was the most stable and predictable of all institutions has been shattered. In the space of a few days:
Public worship services were suspended.
Buildings were closed.
Outreach ministries were cut back to almost nothing.
Children’s programs were shelved.
Small groups went on hiatus.
Financial contributions declined.
Maybe the virus didn’t create a crisis so much as it accelerated one already at work
But there’s more to the story. The fact is that COVID-19 showed up at a moment when we were already aware—if only dimly—of many of the problems that now have come out of the shadows. Maybe the virus didn’t create a crisis so much as it accelerated one already at work.
Worship attendance has been declining for over twenty years. Baptisms—a key measure of spiritual health—have been going down even longer. Younger people are drifting away from churches at an alarming rate. Programs that long have been staples of church life have fallen by the wayside. Financial contributions have declined to the point where many churches and even denominations are on life support.
While many individual churches have managed to do well, the national direction is clear and nothing we’ve done has managed to reverse the trend.
COVID-19 may be more of an opportunity than a crisis.
And here’s where things get interesting. Church leaders are beginning to grasp that from the perspective of changes that the church has been putting off for too long in order to better engage our nation with the gospel, COVID-19 may be more of an opportunity than a crisis.
More creativity and innovation in church ministry have been unleashed in the last eight weeks than in any other period in memory. Who would’ve thought that discipleship could take place over ZOOM? That a packed weekly calendar wasn’t necessary in order to do effective ministry? That many of the administrative meetings we thought were essential, weren’t?
What leader would have recognized that small groups were savvy enough to figure out how to stay together without instructions from the paid staff? That mission means going out to people in the hard places of life instead of waiting for them to come to us? That congregations could make decisions quickly and nimbly instead of in the plodding, top heavy style we’re so accustomed to?
Our message never changes and the truths of God’s Word never shift, but what’s coming to light is that many of the ways churches function and engage with our community have been more about making us comfortable than impacting lost people with the gospel (here’s a previous blog on the same topic).
That’s what COVID-19 is revealing to churches and why it’s an opportunity for making needed changes. Here are a few examples:
Online ministry is here to stay. Livestream worship and other web-based ways of engaging people have been our lifeblood during the quarantine. We’ve even learned that discipleship can be done online. While people will always yearn for personal contact, online ministry needs to grow if we’re to connect with our communities.
Communication is critical to the church’s mission. During the crisis we’ve learned that while old methods of communication are still useful, they’re too cumbersome and time-limited to be effective by themselves. Email, texting, websites, Social Media—these are much more in tune with how people today receive information.
Church staffs need to include Communications and Media professionals. Not every congregation can afford separate positions in these areas but still needs to be aware of the critical need for these ministries.
Special events aren’t as important as we thought they were. Effective church ministry is built by doing the simple things well: worship, prayer, evangelism, small groups, discipleship, children and student ministries.
Trial and error is a superior leadership strategy to tried and true. Congregations willing to risk great things for the gospel stand a better chance of prospering than those that cling o traditional approaches.
COVID-19 has changed the way we do church and I don’t think any of us will be the same when we reopen. The great hope is that we’ll be better.
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