The time has come to face an unpleasant reality. The congregation you have right now is your entire congregation. This is not necessarily bad news.
In talking to pastors I’ve stopped asking about their pre-COVID attendance. If the pandemic had only lasted a few weeks to a few months, then you could certainly expect your church to quickly snap back to where it was. After 20 months nothing will snap back now. The culture has changed. Habits have changed. Your church has changed. Let’s consider what happened.
Stadiums are Full, but Sanctuaries are Half Empty
If only Covid was preventing people from returning to church, you would also see this caution across the board in every auditorium or stadium of any size. As I watched the Kansas City Chiefs’ disappointing loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Arrowhead Stadium was packed. As I watch the baseball playoffs between my San Francisco Giants and Mark Howell’s LA Dodgers, Oracle Park and Dodgers Stadium are at capacity. Yet, church sanctuaries are less than half full. What’s happening?
Some people have legitimate concerns related to Covid. Out of an abundance of caution, they chose to worship online at home. They are not ready to meet and sing with a large group of people for the time being. That’s understandable considering the amount of information and misinformation out there. There are very strong feelings about vaccines and masks. Covid accounts for part of your half filled auditorium.
Others became comfortable with online worship. They don’t have to get their family dressed, fed, and out the door on Sunday morning any more. They can sip their coffee in their jammies while their children play or sleep in. While online faithfulness has certainly lessened over time, some of your people are still there. They are giving. They are on your side. They’re just staying home. But, some people have changed the channel.
Now that most churches have an online worship service, it’s easier to church shop than ever. Let’s face it. There are more interesting sermons out there. There are professionally recorded worship sets with worship teams who sing in tune. If someone’s interest is only in worship and preaching, there are tens of thousands of choices. But, you and I both know that there is far more to church than songs and sermons. Rick Warren isn’t going to call to see how they’re doing. Andy Stanley isn’t going to make a hospital visit. If you wonder where you’re people are, you should probably give them a call.
The last group is the most exciting. People are watching online who have never darkened the door of your church. They are interested in spiritual things. They long for something solid in very anxious times. They enjoy watching the service without being watched. And, when you offer a next step, they will take it. Pastors are telling me how “first time” guests show up ready for baptism, next steps, small groups, and serving. They aren’t first time guests. They’ve been participating in your online worship services for weeks to months. This is the new front door of the church! How does your front door look? Are you actively offering next steps to your online congregation? Do you look directly into the camera and lead them on what do to next? Do you have a way for them to respond? Don’t make your online worship service a lesser experience. Don’t expect less of people who worship online. They need your leadership.
Stop Looking Backward
The whole world has experienced a massive reset. Regardless of who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s to blame, or who’s orchestrating a nefarious plot, God is not surprised by any of this. Why has God allowed this to happen? Why did God intentionally shake up His church like this? What needed to fall away to reveal what was strong? What outdated strategies needed to crumble? What changes that you’ve been dreading to make needed to happen? God has uniquely positioned you and your church to serve a changed culture, if you are willing to let go of what you used to do.
Some of us remember the battle of the 1990’s when we transitioned from traditional services to contemporary services. You couldn’t alienate the older folks because they were the givers, yet if you didn’t change your approach, you couldn’t attract or keep younger people. Remember those days? Some churches attempted “blended” worship, but as Stuart Briscoe said, “If you blend traditional and contemporary, you end up with contemptible.” He wasn’t wrong.
Imagine if you and your team decided to incorporate more stained glass into your building or include more hymns in your worship set this year. What if you threw out those uncomfortable stackable chairs and replaced them with uncomfortable wooden pews? You wouldn’t go back there. In the 1990’s churches chose to no longer use 1950’s ministry strategies. Now it’s time to move forward from 1990’s ministry strategies and embrace new things in the 2020’s.
But, this isn’t just about strategy. Change produces loss. You’ve lost much since March 2020. You can wear yourself out, but the pre-Covid days for your church aren’t coming back. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t hurt. When our church in California lost two-thirds of our congregation and the entire staff in a matter of weeks, I experienced the grief as if all of those people were in a bus caravan that went over a cliff. I was overwhelmed with grief. I managed to drag myself into the office at the crack of Noon and leave around 3 pm. Every person who called or stopped by the church was also racked with pain. It was all I could take. Our church had basically died, but good things were about to grow out of it.
Lead the People You Have
You have to put your energy into leading the church you have rather than trying to lead the church you used to have. Here’s what’s great about the church you have:
Everyone gathered is united in mission with you. It’s too easy to go someplace else right now. If they are gathering with you, they are with you! They are just as shell shocked as you are, but they are there. Embrace Gideon’s army. Cast vision. Empower your people to serve. Repurpose serving in your church. “Right size” your serving teams and encourage more people to serve their neighbors, lead small groups, and make disciples. Lead the people you have.
The regular, consistent givers are there. This is a tangible expression of the last point. Rather than lamenting all of the non-givers who have left, embrace the people you have. Call them regularly to see how they’re doing. Encourage them to serve and take next steps. Lead the people you have.
Your church is reaching more new people than ever before — online. Tune up your online service, which starts by watching it yourself. Create a separate mix for your music, because the house mix doesn’t cut it online. If that doesn’t work, then only stream the sermon. Watch your online recording. You will understand my point. Along with this, interact with your online congregation. Ask a staff member or church member to host the online service and chat with your online congregation before, after, and even during the service. How can you make this an active experience? If folks are consistently watching online, they are with you. Lead the people you have.
People who show up are ready to take next steps — baptism, growth track, small groups, serving, outreach, and more. Direct your online worship host or even the senior pastor to address the online congregation and lead them into next steps. Offer serving roles and small groups. (Check out: Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future). Your online congregation needs your leadership. Lead the people you have.
A Final Challenge
The good news about this season is that the culture of your church has already shifted. You don’t have to convince people to show up for in-person worship services. They’re there if they want to be. You don’t have people fighting against online worship. They’re already there.
The question is are you trying to pastor a megachurch from the 1990’s or are you leading a hybrid church in 2021 and moving forward? Are you making your online congregation an equal experience to your in-person worship service? Do you expect as much from those gathered online as you do those gathered in-person? Are you realigning your congregations’ time, talent, and treasure to move your church forward or are you attempting to regain what you had in 2019 (or before)?
In a recent interview with Bill Willits from North Point, he shared that in-person worship and small groups are at 50 percent of their pre-Covid numbers. This is the church at the top of Outreach magazine’s Largest Churches list. But, North Point is innovating. The house analogy is out the window. Listen to what they’re doing now.
God has uniquely positioned you and your church for this season. It is different. It is way different than how you’ve done ministry before. Choose to lead forward and not backward. God is with you. Keep in step with His Spirit.
What has your church changed in the last 20 months? What results are you seeing? Reply in the comments.
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