Let’s face it: it’s been hard to predict anything in the last two years. I certainly don’t claim to be a prophet, but I am seeing and learning some emerging trends when it comes to ministry during Coronavirus Year Three. You might be noticing some of these things too.
Digital Ministry is the Church’s New Front Door
You’ve known for a while that people were checking out your church website before they were entering the physical front door. Now, digital ministry has become the church’s new front door. When people show up in-person for the first time, they are no longer “first time guests.” They’ve been watching online for a while. When they show up, they are ready in engage in small groups and serving.
Many pastors are frustrated that people aren’t “back” and are worshipping at home. I believe there are three reasons why people are still worshipping online. First, some are COVID Cautious. They’re just not sure if they’re ready to worship in-person, so they stay away. Second, some are COVID Convenient. (I used to call this “COVID Lazy,” but someone accused me of being judgmental.) They enjoy the convenience of worshipping at home and not having to pile everyone in the car to go to church. The third group is new attenders. They discovered your church during the pandemic. They are watching as regularly or more regularly than your in-person attenders are showing up. A church in Texas recently baptized an online attender who flew in from England. My friends at Community Bible Church, Stockbridge, Georgia, baptized a police officer from New York City who came to Christ while watching online. This is more than a novelty. Digitial Ministry is a mission field.
Insight: Make your online worship service equivalent to your in-person worship service. It’s not the same (not even close). But, expect just as much from your online attenders as you do your in-person attenders when it comes to your growth track, small groups, giving, and serving. Specifically invite them to follow next steps. Give them a digital way to respond. For more on digital ministry, go here.
The Church You Have is the Church You’ve Got
Waiting for your pre-COVID worship attenders to return is like waiting for your old Blockbuster to reopen. It’s not going to happen. The church you have is your church, so lead it. As I wrote a few months ago, “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.” To read the entire post, go here.
People are Choosier in Committing Their Time
During the pandemic your people divested themselves of every type of involvement. They wiped the slate complete clean. And, as you’ve seen, they haven’t immediately brought back everything they were doing before. They will form groups. They will serve. But, the motivation is more aligned with their personal mission than with being told they “ought” to.
When it comes to serving, help people discover their spiritual gifts and see how they align with their personal passions. Use a course like Network by Bruce Bugbee, SHAPE from Saddleback or Find Your Place by Rob Wegner and Brian Phipps. Start new ministries from your people’s passions rather than from the top down.
Give your people permission and opportunity to start small groups on their terms. Let them invite their friends. Let them meet in-person or online with any format that suits them. Small groups can grow if you let people meet anywhere at any time with anyone.
Insight: If your church parking lot is half empty, then encourage your parking team to start small groups. Everybody can find a parking place on their own.
Processes and Programs Should Give Way to Personalization
There has been a growing shift in discipleship for quite some time. Every person is different. They are at different places in their spiritual growth. They came to you from very different circumstances. A process is not the answer. After all, you’re not making widgits! (Read more here).
While there is a part of discipleship that involves content, the vast majority of disciple-making is personal. Churches in general have produced an inordinate amount of content because that’s the easy way to go in indoctrinating people. But, the reality is that just because people “know right” doesn’t mean they “do right.” You know that’s true.
Community is equally as important as content. One definition of “disciple” is the idea of “rubbing off on.” People need to be together in smaller groups to rub off on each other and practice the one anothers of Scripture. While many pastor struggle with getting online attenders to attend in-person, some will join an in-person small group even if they are worshipping online. And, some in-person attenders have discovered that online groups are more convenient for them. Regardless of how they choose to meet, encourage community.
How are your people motivated to change? How are they motivated to grow in the New Year? I’m not going to give you the answer. Ask them. How do you ask dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people? Enlist some help from your small group leaders and other mature church members. Conduct brief interviews, then make an action plan for each person.
When Spring Hits, People Will be Gone
In their fourth quarter forecast for 2021, Gauge Research, a secular research firm in Washington DC, predicts that people are planning now for Spring 2022. They are booking vacation homes and cruises. What this says is that once the weather warms up, people will be gone. With Easter on April 17, 2022, your greatest ministry impact will come before Easter rather than after. Invest in a New Years’ small group launch or a Lenten series like The Crucified Life or All In (scripted to make your own videos), and then take your foot off the gas and plan for a strong fall 2022.
Think About It
Now that you’ve put your Blockbuster card away, what’s next for your church in 2022? As you look out over your congregation (in-person and online), do you see committed, motivated people who are with you? Do you see your faithful givers and servants? What future do you imagine could be achieved with these dedicated souls?
You can agree that it takes disciples to make disciples. When you think about groups, there are many parts – leaders, curriculum, group dynamics, training, coaching, and supervision. But, the most basic part of any group is someone who is willing to make themselves available to other people for the purpose of helping them to become more like Christ. While there is a definition of “disciple” that means student. There are other words translated “disciple” that mean “to follow” or “to rub off on.” Making disciples is a multidimensional enterprise. What does this have to do with getting the most new leaders next year?
Obstacles to Recruiting Leaders
Often the limitation of how many new leaders you can recruit stems from your definition of a leader. If you are looking for leaders according to the definition in Paul’s letters, then you are looking for a select group. You have a very small fishing pond in which to recruit new leaders. But, do you really need elders to lead small groups? Sometimes the word “leader” gets in your way.
If you think of disciples as students who are following a course of study, then you need very knowledgeable people to impart biblical and theological knowledge to the students in their small groups. You may have a few seminary trained folks or even a few who have spent copious hours in self-study, but you don’t have enough teachers or leaders to disciple as many people as you are responsible for.
Think about all of the people attending your in-person services, attending your online services, and listed in your church database. (To gauge the true size of your church, go here.) You have a much bigger responsibility than you realize. Yet, your methods of recruiting and developing leaders are lagging behind. (You’re probably thinking: Good grief, Allen. I thought you were trying to encourage me here. We are apparently still in a pandemic. Give us a break). Okay, I hear you, let’s talk about how you can get the most new leaders.
Every Church Attender Can Lead a Group
Every person in your church can lead somebody. If they can recommend a restaurant, they have influence. If they have influence, then they are leaders. If they know Jesus as their Savior and are filled with the Holy Spirit (according to your definition), they have the light of the world. They have hope. They have truth. They have something to offer.
Start looking at your congregation (in-person and online) as an army instead of an audience. Audiences need to be entertained. Armies need their marching orders. The people you have in your congregation right now are ready for their marching orders. The consumer Christians are gone. Don’t hesitate from challenging the people you have with bigger responsibilities. In the last two years you’ve lost just about as many as you are going to lose. If you ever wanted to change your church’s culture, now is the time.
Challenge every person in your church. Challenge every person in your worship service. Challenge every online attender to gather a group of friends and do something intentional about their spiritual growth. For the people you aren’t sure about, don’t advertise the group they gather. Start leading the church you have.
Stop Babying Your People
Your people have more to offer than you give them credit for. But, the only way you will find that out is if you stop doing things for them and encourage them to do things for themselves. I know some pastors are stuck on the “leader” or “teacher” concepts mentioned in the last section. Most of your people fall more in the category of “by now you ought to be teachers, but you still need to be taught” (Hebrews 5:12 – paraphrased).
Your people can gather a group of friends. Have they ever had a party?
Your people can follow the instructions of an easy-to-use, video-based curriculum. Have they ever watch a show on Netflix, followed a recipe, or built a piece of furniture from Ikea?
Your people are doing what you expect them to do. Or as Andy Stanley once said, “Your system is perfectly designed to achieve the result you’re getting.” (Amen or Ouch!?) Your people would do more if you expect them to do more. And, here’s the deal, your church has been through it over the last two years. The people you have right now are the survivors. They are committed. They are ready for action. If you give them permission and opportunity, they will start groups – even in a pandemic, even if they’ve never done it before, or even if you don’t think they can.
How did you get your children to move out of your house and become productive members of society? (I’ll be careful here. I’m still trying to launch one.) If you pay their bills, guide their every move, and let them stay, they will live in your basement for a very long time. If you expect them to pursue a career, start a family, and find a life on their own, they’ll do it. It’s natural. It’s normal. So, why do pastors create an abnormal relationship with their congregations? You will gain far more from sending people out than you ever will by keeping them. Who’s the next group leader? Who’s the next coach? Who’s the next small group pastor? Who’s the next church planter? Who’s the next senior pastor? They are sitting in your congregation just like you were at one time.
Think About This
God has given you a calling and a mission. God has also given you the ability to fulfill your calling and mission. You cannot possibly care for and disciple every person in your church in a personal and profound way. But, that is not your calling. You are called to “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12). That doesn’t mean you need to stop teaching and making disciples. But, it does narrow the focus of who you teach and what you teach them. You must be a ministry multiplier to effectively disciple everyone who is truly part of your church. To disciple every online attender you must multiply yourself. Sure you can dispense content, but content only does half the job of development and discipleship. It takes a disciple to make a disciple.
How will you activate your people to make disciples this next year?
Now, before you take all of this and create a mess for yourself, you need to have a system in place to manage and develop this new crop of “leaders.” You need coaches. You need training. You need next steps. Don’t get stuck here. Because your success only requires developing the minimal amount of structure necessary to support this. For a glimpse of what this looks like, follow the 5-part video series called the Small Group Restart. It provides a road map of how to build this. If you start right now, you can launch the most new group leaders in just a few weeks.
“We want to connect 80 percent of our people into groups in 2021,” announced Pastor Kevin Berry. That seemed like a loaded statement. To start, the church only had 19 percent of their adult worship attendance in groups. Next, small groups had never been a high priority at the church. Lastly, did you catch the date? 2021 was just more of the chaos and uncertainty of 2020, but God gave Pastor Kevin a vision. Here’s what happened.
Mount Hope is an Assemblies of God church in Lansing, Michigan. They have an in-person worship attendance of 1,000 adults and an online worship attendance of 500 (2021). The church was founded in 1925 but became what it is today under the leadership of Pastor Dave Williams (1981-2012) and is currently led by Pastor Kevin Berry. Mount Hope is known for global missions and supports works in over 150 countries. They are also known for serving their local community. Mount Hope has a goal to reach everyone within a 50 miles radius of Lansing, which they call the “Soul Zone.” But, small groups have never been a high priority for the church until this year.
Mount Hope began 2021 without a Life Group Pastor and only 29 groups. After a conversation with Pastor Kevin in early 2021, the Mount Hope Executive Team decided to hire me (Allen White) as their outsourced Life Group Pastor for 12 months. Our goal is to connect 80 percent of the average adult worship attendance into groups, connect every leader with a coach, and develop leaders for longer term service.
The Senior Pastor Led the Charge
The vision caster for every church is the senior pastor. It just makes sense. The senior pastor hears from God and shares the vision with the people. In this case, Pastor Kevin became the spokesman for small groups. He announced the series. He invited people to gather their friends, open their homes, and host online groups. He asked them to text “Host” to the church’s text line, then asked them to meet him after the service for a host briefing, which he introduced then handed off to other staff.
This is the influence of the senior pastor. I have served in full-time ministry since 1990. Most of that time I served as the Associate Pastor, Discipleship Pastor, Vice President, and now outsourced Life Group Pastor. What I’ve learned is that even if I said the very same words as the senior pastor, I would only get 30 percent of the result. How do I know? I cast vision for groups in my church in California for seven years and connected 30 percent of our adults into groups. That number was no coincidence. The day my senior pastor invited people to host a group, we doubled our groups in one day.
In the two alignment series at Mount Hope this year, groups grew from 29 at the start to 53 groups in the first series. Then in Fall 2021, groups went from 53 to 83. When student ministry groups under Pastor Peter Reeves as well as support groups under Pastor Josh Goodman were added in, Mount Hope peaked so far at 99 groups and 59 percent of the congregation connected into groups.
The Church Created Their Own Curriculum
In order to get more people into groups and raise the value of small groups at Mount Hope, the church launched two alignment series based on the sermon series. One series ran in the spring of 2021 (May-June). A second series ran in fall 2021 (September-October). A third series is being produced now for new year 2022. This seems like a lot to create, but several important factors drove all of this forward.
First, Pastor Kevin recognized that if the groups were aligned with where the teaching team taught on the weekend, the people would follow along. For most people who aren’t connected to groups, the reason they attend worship services is because of the senior pastor’s teaching. When you connect the small group study with the senior pastor’s teaching, you are giving your people more of what they already want.
Second, Pastor Kevin shares the pulpit with a qualified team of men and women who serve alongside him. Rather than creating every lesson for every aligned small group study, the teaching pastors created the video teaching for each week they preached. This created both continuity between the pulpit and the group study as well as shared responsibility for creating the resource.
Third, the church enlisted the help of Executive Pastor Joe Mead, Communications Director Roger Ackerman, and their outsourced Life Group Pastor to create either a downloadable resource (Spring 2021) or a full study guide (Fall 2021 and New Year 2022) to accompany the video teaching. Again, with a team approach, the church has produced three high quality small group studies in just nine months along with regular sermon discussion questions for the weeks between alignment series.
Lastly, the church made a consistent effort for groups with a sequence of small group alignments. Since they did not have a strong track record with groups, the consistency of offering three alignment series in one 12 month period showed the congregation that Mount Hope is serious about groups. Also, the people who might have been reluctant when the first series was announced joined the second series. And, those who were skeptical haven’t joined yet, but should warm up to the third series in New Year 2022.
Leadership Requirements Were Delayed
Prior to 2021, Life Group Leaders had to meet some stringent leadership requirements in order to start a group. Candidates needed to complete Growth Track and become church members in addition to completing a 12-part online or in-person leadership course called Accelerate. To maximize the number of new hosts, the church leadership chose to delay the requirements. This gave folks a chance to test drive a group before they decided to move forward. Now that many groups have completed one to two alignment series, these requirements are being gently reintroduced by invitation for those who have found their niche in leading a Life Group.
Every New Leader Connected to a Coach
There is a risk to starting groups with unproven group leaders. There I said it. It’s a calculated risk, in that, only about 2 percent of the people recruited in over 1,500 churches in the last 17 years have been any kind of a problem. And, by problem, I simply mean having a warm pastoral conversation about an issue they might be struggling with. To reduce the risk and to help more groups get started, each new leader was given an experienced leader to walk alongside them from when they first attended the briefing through the end of the alignment series. This experienced leader made a phone call to the new leader once a week to answer their questions, encourage them, and see how they were doing. This was also a great format for identifying and recruiting new on-going coaches. (Here’s more on why coaching matters).
The Rest of the Story
Mount Hope has accomplished a lot in building their Life Groups through a very difficult year. But, rather than waiting for everything to get back to normal (which it’s not so start leading the church you have), the pastors at Mount Hope are moving forward in leading the church they have into community, care, and growth through their Life Groups.
Mount Hope’s journey toward reaching 80 percent in Life Groups is still being written. Check back for updates. In the meantime, for more complete details of what’s working right now with small groups, join the Small Group Restart.
At the beginning of 2021, I started talking about the Small Group Boom. As COVID numbers were descending, a pattern began to emerge in several disciplines reminiscent of the aftermath of the Spanish Influenza in 1918-1919. After that period, people began to travel extensively both domestically and internationally. Then, of course, came the Roaring 20’s. The Spanish Influenza was never mentioned again even though it didn’t entirely disappear until the 1950s when it was overcome by Bird Flu (see this 1997 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell). Sorry for that bit of bad news.
The churches I coached anticipated a great reduction in COVID cases and prepared for the Small Group Boom, then the Delta variant appeared. No one was prepared for that. The Small Group Boom of 2021 ended up being more of a Small Group Bump, but it was a significant bump. These churches ended up with more small groups than they ever had and more people in groups than ever. And, more of their groups continued. In places where we might have launched hundreds of new groups in more normal times, we launched dozens of new groups instead. They were “COVID successful.”
The church I am serving as Life Group Pastor in Lansing, Michigan saw a group increase of 176% in 2021. The senior pastor led the church in two alignment series which we self-produced. We started the year with 20% of their 1,500 adults in small groups and ended the year with 60% in groups. We are launching a third alignment series in February to reach our goal of 80% of adults in groups. This is both the in-person worship attendance (1,000) and the online worship attendance (500).
While everyone has been forced to adapt to the changing culture produced by the pandemic, many of the best practices taught in Exponential Groups are working very well. Inviting people to start their own groups is working. Gathering a group of friends is working. Coaching every new leader is working. Offering a next step series for groups to continue is working. And the Holy Spirit is working to transform lives and make disciples in groups. With a dose of flexibility regarding when, where, and how a group meets, these strategies have proven successful.
Here’s what’s different:
People have re-evaluated their priorities.
During the pandemic, most people divested themselves of everything – social activities, church activities, commuting to work, hobbies, and pretty much everything else. Once people had a “blank slate” on their calendar, they’ve been choosier about what to bring back. For many people, their calendars are not nearly as full now as they were at the beginning of 2020. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Uncertainty produces a lack of commitment.
Preach what is certain. With so much uncertainty in politics, economics, supply chain (when have you ever worried about the supply chain), race relations, local schools, and many other things, you can give them what is certain. As Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35, NIV).
Online worshippers are willing to meet in groups (online groups AND in-person groups).
Online services are great in delivering programming. Small groups are great in creating community. If you lead your online congregation to start groups, they will. Some are only uncomfortable meeting in-person in large groups, but they will meet in-person for a small group. Don’t overlook your online congregation. They will follow where you lead them. Online ministry is both an opportunity and a responsibility.
Now is the time to realign the priorities in your ministry.
If you ever wanted to change things, this is your moment. During the pandemic, you had a church of small groups (not just a church with small groups). Now is the time to emphasize small groups in the uncertain days ahead.
I want to help you prepare for what’s ahead for your church in forming groups in 2022. According to Gauge Research, a secular research firm in Washington DC, right now in the fourth quarter of 2021, people are planning for spring 2022 already. That means two significant things for groups (barring another Coronavirus surge):
The New Year of 2022 is a crucial window to launch groups. Hit the New Year hard in recruiting leaders and launching groups. According to Gauge, people will be gone after Easter.
Your next big opportunity for a major group launch is fall 2022. While this is typically the biggest group launch of the year, post-Covid this could be huge.
People are ready to move forward. You hear it. You can feel it. Let’s talk about what it means to move forward in 2022. Join me for the Small Group Restart. This is a 5-day challenge to think through your small group strategies for 2022. Watch a daily video. Interact in our private Facebook group. Join a community of like-minded small group folks who are figuring things out just like you are. Click here to join.
Covid forced every church online. This was both a great inconvenience and a great opportunity. To be honest, some churches have done better than others with their online services. Much of the result depends on the effort the church makes with their online services. For those who merely stream their in-person service, quality is spotty at best. (Take a few minutes to watch your church’s recent online service. You’ll see what I mean.)
Others put in the effort to pre-record their online service, like Pinnacle Church in Canton, NC. They provide a higher quality, direct-to-camera approach for their growing online congregation. Even this smaller congregation with limited equipment is doing a lot of the right things. Regardless of the quality of your online worship service, how are you discipling your online congregation?
Some churches are satisfied with using a multiplier to calculate their online audience based on the number of views. Certainly you want to know that your online service is effectively reaching others. But, your effectiveness online is far more than the number of eyeballs. Jay Kranda, the online campus pastor at Saddleback Church, had much to say about this in our interview earlier this year. Listen here.
Here’s what you know – people are watching online. Some are staying home out of an abundance of caution. Some are watching online because it’s just more convenient for them. Others are participating with your church online for the first time. This is the group I mentioned in last week’s post, Start Leading the Church You Have. Where are you leading them?
The Same Expectations
Prior to 2020, online ministry was a novelty. Then around March 2020, online ministry became a necessity. Today, online ministry is an opportunity.
While almost every church saw online ministry as a necessity during the pandemic, some still treat it like a novelty. They see the real congregation as the in-person audience and view the online congregation as a bit of a play thing. That may seem harsh, but let me ask you this: what do you expect from your online congregation? What are you leading them to do?
Typically, churches will ask their in-person congregation for contact information on their first visit in exchange for a welcome gift. They offer next steps, small groups, and serving opportunities. They expect participation, giving, community, and serving. Your online congregation is not any less than your in-person congregation. They are with you. And, they will take next steps when you offer them.
Engage Your Online Congregation
Online worship services can become passive unless you intentionally engage your online congregation. Some of this is accomplished by speaking direct-to-camera, which usually involves recording a separate online experience. Mere streaming video is not church online. Whether you stream live or pre-record, how you communicate with the online congregation is important.
If you direct your announcements and opportunities only to your in-person attendance, then your online folks won’t pay attention. You’re not talking to them. Make simple adjustments like referring to both your in-person and online congregations when you invite them to take next steps. Or during the announcements for your in-person service, have someone speak direct-to-camera to your online congregation. People will take a next step if you invite them.
Instead of asking them to respond with a card in the pew, ask them to text a word to your dedicated text line (check out Zipwhip) or send them to a dedicated landing page on your website for first time guests, giving, small groups, serving, etc. And, when they reach out, be prepared with a response. This could be a signed letter in the mail or an email sequence. When people contact you, reach out to them ASAP. In fact, you should have your response in place before you make the invitation.
Connecting into Community
Your online congregation might be around the corner, across the country, or on the other side of the world. Community Bible Church, Stockbridge, Georgia, recently baptized a member of their online congregation who flew to Atlanta from her home in New York City. She now has friends in NYC watching Community Bible Church online each week. Whether your church is large or small, by putting your worship service online, you can potentially see a global impact. But, don’t stop there.
While online worship services are a starting point for your online congregation, they are only part of the experience of making disciples. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Worship services can catalyze a commitment to aspire to godly character, grow in faith, or improve their marriage or parenting skills, but the working out comes in biblical community or hesed. Without other believers encouraging, supporting, and holding each other accountable, lasting growth doesn’t happen. God designed us for community.
With an online congregation, community happens in various forms. Some people will join you in online small groups. These groups can meet by video, audio only, or asynchronously. Use the platforms that are the most familiar to your people. Different platforms will work equally as well for different people. But, don’t stop there.
Give your online congregation permission and opportunity to start their own groups – in-person or online. If people don’t live near the church, they can gather a group of friend just like Community Bible Church’s online member in New York. Whether the group meets in-person or online depends on the comfort level of the person starting the group. The church can support these group leaders by providing easy-to-use curriculum, offering a new leader briefing, and giving the support of a coach. Imagine if every member of your online congregation started his or her own group. Think of the impact.
Thoughts to Ponder
As I mentioned in last week’s post (Stop Leading the Church You Lost), the church you have today is your church. Too much has transpired since March 2020 for your church to just snap back to pre-Covid numbers. And, that’s okay.
For many church as many as 30 percent to 50 percent or more of their regular congregation worship online. You wouldn’t ignore a third of your congregation if they were in your church’s sanctuary, would you? Imagine turning toward the right side of your congregation, but ignoring those seated on the left side. That’s ridiculous. Don’t let this happen with the 30-50 percent who are gathering for worship online.
How will you engage your online congregation? How will you help your online congregation leverage their relationships to form groups either locally or online? Who needs a message of hope? Who needs encouragement? Think about it – the possibilities are endless.
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.