If your church is just riding out the pandemic, hoping that you can get back to normal, you are missing the opportunity of the century to reimagine the ministry of your congregation for the century ahead.
The main activity of every congregation has been upended. Sunday worship, which has been the core of church life for 2000 in most places, is suspended.
The biblical standard for all churches is to ‘meet,’ and we cannot. At least, not in normal ways. Hebrews 10:25 instructs us to ensure that we are “not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but to encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
In some places, churches have started to meet again, but they must observe strict rules about masks, size of groups, and social distance between members. These are extreme measures that we have never seen in our lifetime.
(For real help for Anglican rectors, vestries, and leaders, read The Rector & The Vestry by Canon David Roseberry.)
In record time, most every church switched immediately to an online format. Several clergy admitted to me early on that technology was not their first language. But by now, more or less, congregations seem to have figured it out. While online services are sub-optimal for most people (they’d rather gather together for ‘real church’), it is better than nothing.
But people are not enthusiastic about it. How effective are online services in meeting the needs of members of a congregation? As it turns out, not very. A recent survey by the Barna Group shows this sad news:
- 35 percent (only) of respondents are still attending their pre-COVID church.
- 32 percent are no longer attending church.
- 14 percent have switched to a new church.
- 18 percent are watching worship services from different churches each month.
- 50 percent of Millennials have stopped attending church.
- 17 percent of Generation X attend a new church.
- 40 percent of Baby Boomers stayed at the same church.
In typical stark terms, Barna has written this headline from the data gathered:
“One in Three Practicing Christians Is Still and Only Attending Their Pre-COVID Church”
In many situations, some leaders (clergy and vestry) may not even know who still considers the congregation to be their church home. If it was hard in pre-COVID days to tell when people had left or dropped out of church life, it is near impossible now. Leaders cannot ‘see’ their church en mass; they don’t know how to read a sense of momentum or community health or lack of it.
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Ordained clergy should always be thinking about the spiritual health and strength of the members of their congregation. But a lot has happened to make this a very difficult assignment. The impact of the coronavirus is widespread; we may not know the true and lasting impact for years and years to come.
Here are a few areas of concern that I believe church leaders should be thinking about:
- Habits are Broken: Churchgoing is a pattern that many individuals and families have been following for years. It is a worthwhile habit, and forming habits for worship and prayer are good. This is one way that our faith is carried from generation to generation. But many churches have not met publicly for months and may not meet for many more months. We should expect that many members or attenders are ‘out of the habit’. Regaining their involvement and commitment will be difficult, to say the least.
- Seniors at Risk: Since the virus is more virulent for the older population, many people over 65 will think long and hard about when the time has come to reenter the church building for worship. Many churches have a majority of their members in these older ages. These members do not love Jesus any less than younger people, but they may stay home longer and experience the ministry of the church online.
- Programs have Ended: Many programs and activities of the church calendar are based on groups meeting together. Most Bible studies, prayer meetings, discussion groups are all suspended until further notice or taken online. These groups are intended to help members of the church live out their faith, learn as disciples, and ‘practice’ their Christian commitment by donating their time and energy.
- Polarizing Politics: And then there is politics. We all know that meeting or not meeting; masks or no masks; school opening or delayed opening has become either a red or a blue issue in the United States. Church leaders know that whatever decision is made at the leadership or vestry level in the congregation will be filtered through red or blue lenses. Church families may not only be smaller, they may also be more polarized.
- Youth and Children: Churches care deeply about children’s ministry and youth work. These programs and gatherings are going to be severely impacted. Even though the disease does not dangerously impact young people (we think), young people are always in contact with other adults at their home. Even if schools return to ‘in person’ education, it seems it will be highly regulated and managed. We have heard reports of plexiglass shields around the desks and tables in elementary schools. This level of caution would be out of the reach of most churches and Sunday Schools from a practical point of view.
- Staff are Challenged: Larger churches have fully developed staff and volunteers to run programs for youth, children, and adults during the week. If men’s groups are suspended and women’s groups are not meeting, what becomes of the paid staff? It takes years to build and train a great staff to lead the ministries of the church. What happens to momentum when the staff are furloughed for lack of funds.
- Music and Singing: We can all imagine the impact of the pandemic on all music ministry and missions work. Choirs and singing groups engage in exactly the wrong activity to be safe. They sing. If churches begin to gather for worship, even in smaller numbers, most will require face coverings and ‘no-touch’ fellowship. (Is there such a thing?) The coffee hour is suspended. The after-church trips for brunch and lunch are called off.
- Budget and Finance: There was a strange thing that happened in a number of churches after the initial lockdown. Giving seemed to go up. Or rather, it didn’t go down as feared. And since expenses in many churches were pulled back, the net income seemed okay. That was then.
But not anymore. It is hard to find data, but some are reporting that over 80% of congregations are ‘underwater’. As the pandemic continues to grind on, this number will be solidified if not raised. It could be bleak.
All of these issues are challenges for every church. Churches thrive on activity, fellowship, mission, community, financial support, and momentum. If a church cannot meet together for long periods of time, it will be hard to gain and build momentum; it will be difficult to thrive.
Ever since Pentecost, the church has been released from any lockdown that might be imposed. In Acts 2, the church had been in a lockdown of sorts. The doors were shut. They were quarantined in one place. They were in an upper room. But when the Spirit of God came, the disciples and other followers of Christ spilled out into their community to proclaim, demonstrate, and administer the power of the Gospel of Jesus. The world has never been the same. Any student of the history of the Church knows that God will find a way to make a way for the Good News of Jesus Christ to be clearly proclaimed and freshly heard.
The question most churches should be thinking through right now is the same question that business and community leaders are asking: Are we just going to ride this out, or should we start to reimagine our mission?
Here are some areas that church leaders and vestry might consider.
- Tidy Up: Wise leadership will use this ‘lull’ in the life of a parish to rethink and evaluate how effective and necessary these programs are. Make a list of every church program or parish activity that you have on the books or have advertised in your newsletters and announcements. Some of these programs can be ‘institutions’. They can be regarded as ‘sacred cows’ in older or more established churches. In pre-COVID times it might have been too unpopular to tweak, change, or terminate any of the typical and traditional ‘offerings’. But church leaders should ask whether these kinds of programs or activities really advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Were they effective in their own day? Are they still effective? Will they move us forward?
- Gospel Clarity: Preachers and pastors know that most of their time each week is spent in the creation, development, and maintenance of the aforementioned church programs and ministry activities. Fewer and fewer clergy see their role as a primary proclaimer of the Good News. These days, church leaders can refocus their mind, heart, writing, teaching, and preaching on the clear Gospel message of the New Testament that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15-17) What a refreshing future the church and her ministers will have if this remains our core tenet.
- Helping Others: Churches should become famous for helping people get through these Coronavirus days. Your church can buy gift cards and create gift certificates to give to people in need of food, counseling, child-care, job-training, tutoring hours, school supplies, and auto repairs. All of these acts of generosity can be cashless if the church sets up pre-paid accounts with local vendors.
- Teacher Support. Regardless of how you feel about going back to school, when children go back to school, their experience of the classroom and their teacher will be dramatically different. Parents can help their children adjust, but how can your church support and love and uphold the teachers around you? They are essential workers. Can your church adopt a school?
- Another Service: Church leaders and vestries debate (for years, often) whether the time is right to add a second or third service to the Sunday schedule. The answer is obvious now. Of course. You must! Every church must have another service. Anything that your church can do to create more spaces and places for worship gatherings will strengthen your mission.
- Online Service: Speaking of spaces and places, your church should keep its online presence. Yes, I know it is sub-optimal. For some. Maybe for you. But for many, it is all they will see or know of your church. Ask this question: if you were going to keep your online service, how could you improve it right now? Do that.
- Budget Changes: Of course, there are significant financial challenges that the church must face now. It makes sense to use this time to recast the budget and priorities for your future ministry. For example:
- More money and training will be needed for staff and volunteers to sanitize and wipe down surfaces and seats.
- More money will be needed to upgrade cameras, microphones, lighting, streaming web services for the online worship event. This is a new staff position.
- Money should be allocated to provide relief for member families and individuals who are in need. Churches should become famous for their generosity and care for people during this time.
Cheer Up! He is Calling You
The story of Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 46ff) is a joy to remember in difficult times when we might feel sidelined by fast-moving events around us. Remember that the blind man was by the side of the road. He was begging. He had been forgotten by the passing crowd. But when he called out for Jesus, Jesus then called out to him. The disciples came and found the blind man. They said, “Cheer up! He is calling you!”. They brought him before Jesus. Jesus healed the man. He could see again.
Then Jesus told the healed man to go on his way. But he did not! The story tells us that he went the way of Jesus. He followed Jesus. His new way was now the Lord’s way.
The pandemic will end. We do not know when. Life will move ahead to the next normal. Churches will freely meet again. But until then, the leadership of every congregation and the pastor of every church need to recast their giving plans and priorities, rethink their program emphases, and retool any and all available staff.
Once again: If your church is just riding out the pandemic, hoping that you can get back to normal, you are missing the opportunity of the century to reimagine the ministry of your congregation for the century ahead. Don’t miss it.
Canon David has over 35 years of local congregational ministry, diocesan and national involvement, leadership, and ministry experience and is the founder of Leaderworks. He was the founding Rector/Pastor, Christ Church, Plano and currently serves as the Strategic Leader and Dean, Diocese of C4SO.