Recently, I came across a post that I wrote on March 13, 2018 called The Future of Church. It struck me because things that I had written back then are exactly what we’re living right now amid the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m not saying this in the guise of “Oh, look how smart I am,” because to be honest with you, I’m just as surprised as you are that I got something this right. Here are some updated thoughts on what I wrote two years ago, but I would encourage you to go back and read the original post for yourself.
Ministry Outside of a Church Building was Coming
I started that post by saying I was reluctant to share these things, but they’d been on my heart. These were things that I’d been sensing for a while. It talks about problems with church buildings. While they’re not the exact problems that we’re having right now due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we are certainly having a problem with church buildings.
There are no mega churches meeting right now, except for one that meet last Sunday. Only 30% of churches are conducting in-person services. Most of those churches have only about 25% in attendance. For some it’s because of spacing and social distancing issues. I know of one church that’s at about 40% of their summer attendance, but they’re in North Dakota in a county that has literally three cases of Coronavirus. For the most part, buildings are not being used.
This brings us to a question that Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson raised in their book, The Externally Focused Church. If your church disappeared from your community, would you be missed? Your church, your in-person services, the things that happened in your building — your church today has disappeared from your community. Is it being missed? That’s a hard question because I know that pastors work hard. I know that they invest a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the work of the ministry, but is what we’re doing being missed?
The attractional model was a great model for the last 30 or 40 years. We saw a lot of people come to Christ. We saw a lot of great churches built. We saw a lot of great things happen because of that strategy. But, the reality is that what happened in the last 30 or 40 years is not what’s going to work in the next 30-40 years. As of four months ago, nothing that we’ve ever done before is working. The whole game has changed. I hear of a lot of pastors really struggling with discouragement right now, because if you’re holding yourself to a standard that you had a year ago, or if you’re still defining a win by what you had a year ago, you are living in a very discouraging and very depressed place. We don’t even live in that world anymore.
Pastors Need a New Measuring Stick
There are new ways to measure how effective we are. The first thing is decentralized organization. The church could not be more decentralized than we are right now. To borrow from Dave Ferguson and Warren Bird in Hero Maker, the hero in any church is the member, not the pastor. When you think of your congregation, you have to ask yourself: do you see your congregation as an audience or as an army? If they’re an audience, they have to be entertained. You have to perform for them. You have to give them something so that they’ll keep coming back. And the win is that they come back.
But if you see your congregations as an army, then you see a group of people that need to be equipped and empowered to serve. What they need from their pastors is permission and opportunity. Your church building may not be functioning in the way that it normally does, but your church is in the community. Your church is dispersed. How could you encourage your church to serve others — to check in on their neighbors, to check in on elderly people, to make calls, to send texts? People are on their phones all the time. Why not use their phones to encourage other people and see how they’re doing? You see the focus changes from gathering to scattering. And this is what I say in the article: “In the last 25 or more years, the church gathered well, but scattered poorly. It’s time for a change.” If you’re in a gathering mindset in a scattering climate, you’re living in a very frustrated place.
You have to embrace the scattering mindset. Here’s something interesting. The initial fulfillment of Acts 1:8 when Jesus told to his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” The fulfillment of Acts 1:8 is found in Acts 8:1, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” We’re not in persecution per se. (Some people would say that we are). But we’ve definitely been scattered. How can you use this scattering as an opportunity to fulfill your mission?
Flexible, Unstructured Gatherings
The second thing is flexible, unstructured gatherings. This goes back to a conversation I had about eight years ago with Josh Surratt at Seacoast Church. Josh mentioned that a family from his church had moved to the state of Maine. They had about 30 people gathering at their house to watch Seacoast service every week. I looked at Josh and said, “Well, maybe you need to redefine what a campus is.”
Around that the same time period, 8-10 years ago, people in a number of ministries around the country began to think about this notion of microsite churches. What I saw in the 2018 article were microsite campuses in smaller communities where multisite churches wouldn’t build a campus. The question I asked in the article is what if the service via streaming video was brought into homes, restaurants, or smaller meeting places to serve these areas?
Here’s the deal — if your church is not meeting in person (which is about 70% of churches right now), you have microsite churches. You have families gathered in homes. Maybe a few people are doing “watch parties” where they’ve invited some neighbors. Right now your church is gathering in microsites.
The challenge right now is that I, personally, attend a multisite campus that is a video venue. There’s a campus pastor and a team. There’s live worship and a service host, and then the messages are on streaming video. Why would I go back to my video streamed multisite campus when I can stay home and participate from my microsite campus? If I want more people to gather with me, I can invite them to my house.
Here’s the other side of it — nobody was meeting in those buildings anyway because of the pandemic. They had all been closed down. There was no reason to pay rent on the buildings. There is no reason to maintain a building for a multisite campus that nobody is meeting in because everybody is meeting at home.
These flexible unrestricted gatherings can multiply without church-owned property or paid staff. Now there needs to be some training. Where do you get trained volunteers? This goes to the next point in this 2018 article — meaningful volunteer ministry. I hate the word “volunteer” because Paul says to the Corinthians that one part of the body can’t say to another part of the body, I don’t need you (1 Corinthians 12:21. By definition, “volunteer” means that people aren’t being paid for their time. But, the dichotomy between volunteer and staff has become as great as the one between clergy and laity.
Churches have reached the point that they keep hiring all of these people to do tasks, because it seems easier to motivate them and get them to meet a deadline than it would with a volunteer. But the reality is that every one of us has spiritual gifts that God’s given us. Every one of us has a calling. The calling is not just limited to clergy. Ministry is not limited to paid staff.
What do we need volunteers for in the church? Volunteers are needed to maintain in-person worship services. Since there are no in-person services, there is no need for “volunteers.” Again, quoting from this 2018 piece, “the church burdens many of its members with meaningless ministry, parking lot attendants, greeters, coffee servers, and so forth. Potentially the worst staff position in any church is the guest services coordinator, because this person must constantly hustle to fill vacant spots every week of the year. Why? Because no one is called to this!”
Today, if you’re the guest services coordinator and your church is only meeting online only, you’re like the happiest person in the world! You’re like on vacation. Here’s the thing — believers will rise to the occasion for gift-based ministry, things that they’re called to do, things that they see a need for and could fill it. They could do something about it with their gifts and abilities. They just need to be equipped. They need to be released to do that. JD Greear said this, “Even when you can’t come to church, you can still be the church.” When you look at Ephesians 4 you see the work of pastors and teachers is to equip the saints for doing the work of the ministry. Pastors and staff should be ministry multipliers to release their congregations to serve rather than doing the work themselves. We are decentralized. People can use their gifts. They can invite people into their homes. The church can be the church.
This is a Major Shift
We can’t meet in-person for various reasons. The church doesn’t revolve around the building. This is a shift. The multiplication of microsites is easier than multiplying megachurches. What about training? What are they doing in the houses while they’re being friendly? They get people together. They’re watching the service online. You can train somebody to do a microsite much more quickly than you can train a pastor. A person doing a microsite doesn’t need a Master of Divinity, but they do need supervision.
Most churches will never have the budget for all of the paid staff or buildings they need to accomplish what God has called them to. Yet, the church already has millions and millions of dollars worth of property in the homes of the church members. The “staff” for these microsites originates from gifts-based assessments.
Now, when I wrote this original article on March 13, 2018, this might have all seemed weird to you. It may still seem weird to you right now, but if these things are put it into practice right now, it would make a huge impact in your communities.
We have a world that is hurting in so many ways. They’re afraid of a virus. They’re afraid of meeting together. They can’t see a loved one in a hospital. Some of them can’t even go to a funeral. We have political unrest to an extent that I don’t even remember in my lifetime. We have racial injustice. We have so many things that are plaguing our country, and there’s such a great spiritual need. In fact, I would say the last time we saw a spiritual need at this level was 9/11. And if you remember, after September 11, 2001, that next Sunday, our churches were packed.
People are feeling that level of anxiety, depression, and uncertainty. Some people don’t know if they’re going to have a job. How can they buy food? There’s so much uncertainty. They can’t go to church or they’re afraid to go to church, but they can go online. They could go to a friend’s house. They could go to a small group. They can watch a streaming service.
Here’s the crazy thing. These things that I’m talking about — a year ago, they were a novelty. Four months ago, this became a necessity. Today, this is an opportunity. Let’s make the most of this opportunity.
When the topic of online groups comes up, people typically think of video-based platforms like Zoom. While this format is popular for some, it’s not the only way to meet online. When my first online group met in 1994 on CompuServe, there was no option for audio or video. You could only do so much with a dial-up modem. Yet friendships were formed, members were encouraged, and one guy came to Christ as a result of that group.
When you think about types of online groups, you actually need to consider two questions: Why is the group meeting? and How will the group meet? Let’s look at both.
What is the Purpose of the Group?
Groups meet for a variety of reasons. Some gather for connection, encouragement, and/or Bible study. Other groups meet for support. While in the season of Coronavirus, every group needs an element of support. Even in the groups of pastors that I coach, we start the meetings with a check-in on how everybody is doing. These are crazy times, and everybody is not doing great. Every group should allow time for members to check-in and process what they’re dealing with. While content should be the center of the meeting, people also need conversation.
Support groups, even those who were once reluctant to meet online, are finding amazing results online. They never imagined that online groups like Celebrate Recovery or the Alpha Course would work, but these ministries are seeing numbers like they’ve never seen. In a recent interview, Nicky Gumbel, founder of the Alpha Course, said one pastor in New York is starting a new Alpha group every day. DivorceCare and GriefShare have gone online. These online groups are meeting the needs of a record number of people including those who might never darken the door of your church.
How Can Groups Meet Online?
Online groups can choose from a variety of meeting formats. Groups can meet on video, audio only, or asynchronously. As with any type of small groups, one size does not fit all for online groups either.
Video groups offer a multidimensional online group experience. Members can see each other, hear each other’s voices, text chat during the meeting, and share a teaching video. While Zoom is very popular, there are a number of other paid or free services including: GotoMeeting, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangout, Google Meets, and Facebook Groups among others. For a comparison on some of these video services, see Jason DeGraaf’s post here.
Now, in the world of working at home and schooling at home, people have begun to complain about Zoom fatigue. At first I took Zoom fatigue as the new excuse for “I don’t have time for a small group.” While I still believe there is some of that, there is something strange about seeing your own image throughout the day, or even sitting in a meeting with everyone looking directly at you. When you’re in a meeting room, you don’t have direct eye contact with every person in the room. And, when you’re meeting in person, you don’t have to look at yourself. In fact, unless you pass a mirror, you’re probably not even aware of your physical appearance after you get ready in the morning (at least that was true for me). Fortunately, if people struggle with Zoom fatigue or are technologically challenged, there are other options.
Audio Only Groups
Audio only groups meet on a conference line. They don’t have to look at anyone. They’re just talking on the phone. Most people are capable of that. Free services like freeconferencecall.com are available to anyone who would like to set up a conference line. Typically, these services offer a long distance number, but long distance charges are not a real thing for most people these days anyway.
The only downside of an audio only group is that you can’t see when others are about to speak. Sometimes you get into that stalemate like when you’re at a four-way stop: “You go, no you go.” But, you can learn to yield to others. The leader can ask who has a comment, and then encourage members to start with a short answer like “I do.” Then you can call on them and avoid the traffic jam.
Asynchronous groups are simply groups that don’t meet at the same time. They leave a post in a private Facebook group. They send a group text. They post a short video on the Marco Polo app. Or, they could share a Youversion reading plan together. You use asynchronous groups all of the time: text message, email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media. We could even go back to letter writing, but it would take a while for a group to get through a lesson that way.
Asynchronous groups are like my group on CompuServe in 1994. Someone posts a question, then the group responds, when they can respond. These groups are great for people who travel or who have odd schedules. They can participate in the group when it’s convenient for them. The group leaders post the questions and moderate the group. Asynchronous groups are also great for people who are new to online groups and maybe join through your online worship service.
Jay Kranda, Online Campus Pastor at Saddleback Church, says, “Private small groups will start off primarily via text-based interactions, move to audio calls after a few weeks, and hopefully turn into regular Zoom or Facebook video calls as trust is built within the group.” Every asynchronous group doesn’t need to transition to an audio or video group, but they certainly could move in that direction.
Digitally Interactive Curriculum.
This is another form of asynchronous groups, but the format is unique. I was introduced to this technology about five years ago. On this platform, the video and questions are hosted on the platform. Groups and their members logon and interact with the video (They can leave comments during the video), after the questions, and for each other).
This platform can be used with individual groups interacting with a study like Jennie Allen’s Get Out of Your Head on Zondervan’s Studygateway.com. Individuals can participate with the thousands of others doing the study or leaders can form their own groups. Other studies are coming.
Churches can host their own digitally interactive curriculum through the parent technology from a company called Rali. Rali is principally a business platform, but the company has a heart for the church. Rali can be used for small group studies, Bible studies, recorded worship services, membership classes, Growth Track, or any other content you could host online. Members can interact with the content in general (like an online worship service) or in an online group. Pastors can view metrics for who is using the platform, where they live, what they’re interested in, how long they engage with the video, etc. I believe Rali is the solution for what 300,000 churches are dealing with right now. (I do not have any affiliation with Rali. I’m just a big fan.)
During the Coronavirus pandemic, every church in every state is facing different pressures. Only about 30% of churches are meeting in-person and are seeing less than 40% attendance. (If you’re the exception, let me know. I’d like to hear what you’re doing). That means that the way the Church fulfills our mission in the coming months will be different from anything we’ve ever done. If you are relying on the metrics that gauged your success a year ago, you are probably very depressed right now. Fear of catching COVID-19, fear of spreading it, and fear of being blamed for spreading it at church are keeping most churches closed and keeping people away. That’s your reality. But, COVID-19 isn’t even close to being the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18).
This is an era of opportunity. People are tuning into online services that wouldn’t darken the door of your church. Millennials are attracted to online worship services because they can watch the service and no one is watching them. Like I said before, support groups like Celebrate Recovery, are posting bigger numbers than when they met in-person. The Alpha Course is doing the same. Pastors and churches are great at developing content, but people also need conversation and community even when they can’t meet for in-person services.
Online small groups – in whatever form – are a strong solution to this current situation. But, it’s bigger than this. There are so many benefits to online small groups that go beyond social distancing.
In a recent conversation, a pastor told me that this season of ministry is not unlike the invention of the printing press that fueled the Reformation. The church is no longer limited to an hour on Sunday, but can now offer worship services 168 hours per week. The same goes for groups, Bible studies, classes, and growth tracks. Could Zoom, Youtube, or Rali be your church’s new printing press?
While some people may feel forced into their groups meeting online, there are some definite benefits of online small groups. Online small groups aren’t new. After all, I started my first online group on CompuServe in 1994. They aren’t new, but online small groups are next.
Apart from the technology, there are many commonalities between online small groups and offline small groups, yet they are not exactly the same. In both types of groups, the members want to become more Christlike, seek spiritual answers, or find support and recovery. Most small groups are formed around a Bible study with a focus on applying the truth of God’s Word to their lives. The members are there to deepen their relationships with each other, serve together, and reach others for Christ. Online or offline these group purposes are very similar.
There are some distinct difference, however. In an offline group, there are usually side conversations before or after the meeting, where in an online group, everyone is all in one video conference, conference call, or other format. All of the conversation involves everyone. Of course, group members can discuss things offline as well.
Online small groups are portable. Group members can gather regardless of their geographical location. They can become a group even if they live in different cities, states, or countries. And, if the group members move or have to travel, the group is still available to them wherever they go.
Online small groups can keep snowbirds connected. A snowbird in the U.S. is someone who spends the summers in a northern state and the winters in a southern state. Having worked with churches both north and south over the years, often the arrival or departure of their snowbirds factors into their small group launches. With online groups, snowbirds can stay connected to their northern or southern group regardless of their location.
Online small groups are a great way for people to dip their toe into small groups. They might start with an online asynchronous group, like a private Facebook group, where they communicate with the group through a message board. Eventually they may warm to the idea of meeting via audio or video. But, initially the anonymity helps them get started.
Online small group meets are typically shorter than offline groups. There is no travel time to the group meeting or back home afterward. Groups can meet at various times of day. Group members may want to meet a little later in the evening after their children have gone to bed. That takes care of the childcare issue. The only downside is that members will have to bake their own brownies.
Online small groups shouldn’t be limited to meeting online only. Groups can meet offline for socials, service projects, or open houses to invite new members, if they live in the same geographic area. If group members have only known each other online, then the first offline meeting could be a little awkward, but they will get over that awkwardness quickly. They know each other!
Some people complain of Zoom fatigue. We’ve heard this a lot during the Coronavirus pandemic. Part of me wonders if Zoom fatigue is the replacement for the old “I don’t have time for a small group” excuse. The good news is that online groups can meet on video platforms, audio platforms, or asynchronous message boards. If members just can’t look at another computer, they could talk on the phone. If they are tired of video conference, then they could write back and forth in a private Facebook group. Most people are on Facebook anyway, why not use it for their spiritual growth.
The Coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying quarantine showed churches that there is a whole world they can reach online. An online group can provide community to people who participate in the church’s online worship services. Several ministries like Celebrate Recovery at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California and the Alpha Course at Holy Trinity Brompton in London, England have reported increased participation from a more diverse group of people once they put their groups online.
Whether an online small group is a necessity or an opportunity for you, you will discover a new way to serve others and to grow with your online group. Online small groups are not perfect, but then again, no small group is perfect – online or offline.
About 90 days ago the church made a pivot to online services. Regular worship services were prohibited in most areas of the country due to COVID-19 and efforts to flatten the curve. Suddenly, worship services appeared online. Churches who had never recorded or live streamed their services scrambled to get online. But, some other things began to happen.
Many churches discovered that just streaming the weekend service was not sufficient to engage participation at home. It was open season for experimentation in worship. Worship teams went from social distancing on stage to leading from their homes and looking like the Brady Bunch online.
The biggest learning in all of this was that people actually showed up. Some churches quickly saw twice the number of people online as they typically had on the weekend. One church with a normal weekend attendance of 10,000 had 200,000 people tune in at Easter. People from out-of-town, out-of-state, and even out of the country began to join in. This presented a new challenge — when things got back to normal, nothing would be normal. How could you abandon your new online congregation? You can’t and you shouldn’t.
Digital ministry is significant. It’s a moment not unlike the printing press 500 years ago. While we might not call it a digital reformation, online ministry is showing signs of creating a new category of ministry for the church going forward. The message hasn’t changed, but the method certainly has. How do you lead a digital congregation?
Interactive Online Services
The churches that are making it without an on-campus weekend service are offering a direct-to-camera, interactive worship service. It’s not merely streaming a typical weekend service. That’s passive. They are connecting with an online audience.
The method has shifted from standing on a stage behind a pulpit and preaching to the crowd to sitting in the living room talking to your members and many others through their televisions. In some cases, pastors are actually taking questions through Facebook Live or some other means and providing answers during their messages or Bible studies. The world is tuning in. What are you giving them?
When this is over, online services shouldn’t be gone. In fact, in churches that are regathering for worship, pastors should remember to speak to the cameras, because there is far more of the congregation “out there,” than there is “in here.” While pastors don’t want to feel like they’re ignoring those in the building, they must either speak directly to the camera (otherwise you creative a passive experience for your online audience), or record an entirely different format for the online folks. Same message, but different method.
Meaningful Connections and Online Groups
When the pandemic began, I broke down all of the “one anothers” and showed how the church could still practice all of them except greeting with a holy kiss. We’ve always said that the church is not the building, and the church is not the worship service, but were we telling the truth? I agree with those who said that the church isn’t reopening because it never closed. The church — the ekklesia, the assembly – is the people of God. The gates of hell cannot defeat us, let alone Coronavirus.
The churches who are succeeding right now are meeting their members’ needs in personal ways. Whether people are required or choose to social distance, the pastors that are getting it right are forming new online small groups, sending personal notes in the mail, and making personal phone calls. That may seem a bit daunting, but start somewhere. One church immediately upon the shutdown tasked their staff with calling the top 20% of givers in their church – not to ask for money, but to see how they were doing. Again, go back to the digital one anothers: text encouragement, send a note of appreciation, recruit new online group leaders. We are 100+ days in, but it’s not too late to get started.
Meeting Practical Needs in the Community
Government stimulus checks went pretty fast. Now what? Folks are looking for jobs. In many places states of emergency have ended, so foreclosures have begun. People are trying to keep a roof over their heads and feed their families. For some, these are desperate times. How can your church help?
Food producers are throwing food away, yet people are going without food. How can your church redirect discarded food and get it to the people who need it? Can you assist a local food bank? My wife and son support a local free pantry down the street in front of the fire station. Someone built it. I’m not sure who. But, neighbors provide some food and necessities, then post a picture on their Facebook group. Those in need are informed of what’s available. Those who help can see when supplies need to be restocked. How can your church help the least of these?
How would you guide these folks if they came to church on Sunday? You would probably have them fill out a communication card. Are you getting their information? Maybe you would offer a meeting with the pastor or some sort of “Welcome to the Church” class. You can do this online.
Some churches have a membership class, a Growth Track, CLASS 101-401, or something else. If you put these online, they could help in two ways. First, you can offer next steps to your online congregation who may never darken the door of the church. Second, you can provide a way for people who do attend locally, but have never taken the next steps classes. Instead of offering these classes once a month, they could be available 168 hours a week. You could gain new members in the middle of the night!
Whether people are quarantined by themselves or with their families, there is a sense of isolation. We need each other! Digital ministry involves getting people connected into groups and creating intentional opportunities for people to meet online at first.
Giving is almost 100% online in these days. And, giving should be tied to meeting practical needs in the community. By linking generosity with reaching people and helping them in a crisis, members will be more generous than ever.
Digital ministry is not going away, nor should it. Many churches are attempting to hire a digital ministries pastor at this point. (I say “attempting” because there aren’t a lot of people with the technical, pastoral, and creative skills to fit the bill.) You might need several staff (paid or volunteer) for this role. How will your church engage the community in this digital reformation?
I don’t think “When Should Churches Reopen?” is the correct title. After all, the church is a body of believers, not merely a building or a worship service. The church never closed, but the building and the gatherings did. But, when and how should the church start gathering again?
This is THE big question. Trying to plan during a continually ambiguous crisis with conflicting information and political agendas is nearly impossible. While churches in some parts of the U.S. have begun meeting on-campus with certain guidelines in place, churches in other states cannot open their doors for the foreseeable future. Some are hesitant even when restrictions are lifted. And, a few churches never actually closed. The best that any pastor and church can do is to make the best decision based on the available information. That might not seem very reassuring.
What Will State Governments Allow?
It would be easy to launch into a standup comedy routine about all of the conflicting regulations and guidelines across the great U.S. of A. It would be TOO easy (not to mention unhelpful). But, here is what I am seeing. Churches in states that are currently allowing worship services are proceeding with caution. Even in states that are wide open to shopping, dining, recreation, and worship, not every church is meeting onsite and in-person. Some states limit gatherings of more than 100. Other states restrict gatherings of more than 10. The decision is easy if the state says “No” — you don’t meet. But, when the decision is up to the church’s leadership, there are many factors to consider.
What Precautions Will Your Church Take?
Most churches anticipate using social distancing in their seating and common areas or what Life.Church calls a Touchless Service. Other precautions mentioned in a recent survey conducted by this blog include requiring congregants to wear face masks, not offering nursery care, encouraging older members to stay home, and waiting to reopen their children’s ministries. A handful is planning drive-in or outdoor worship services.
Several churches will start offering additional worship services in order to provide more space for social distancing. Additional cleaning can also add to preparation. One pastor mentioned moving the singing to end of the service, so those who didn’t wish to participate and broadcast germs could leave. There are many factors to consider in fighting the spread of disease. Read the post listed below by Erin Bromage, an immunologist, for a scientific explanation.
Can you kill every germ? Can you prevent every asymptomatic carrier from spreading the disease? How much preparation and prevention is sufficient? This are big questions to weigh.
Should You Just Wait to Open Everything All at Once?
A third set of churches don’t see in-person services happening for a while still. Similar to North Point Ministries in Atlanta, these churches want to wait until they can offer everything to everyone, so in the meantime they will stay with online services only.
I just found out that this is also the case for our church in South Carolina, NewSpring, who plans to open all campuses and all ministries on Sunday, July 12, 2020. NewSpring is going with a strategy of opening up everything — Worship Services, nursery, Kidspring, and Fuse (student ministry) all at once. Notice the timing here. The state of South Carolina has gradually been opening up week by week for the last six weeks or so: Retail stores, then Outdoor Dining, then Indoor Dining, and this past week: personal contact (haircuts, nails salons, etc). But, NewSpring won’t open for another two months. This is not a criticism, but a case in point.
Rick Warren says that Saddleback will reopen when Disneyland reopens. If your church opens with missing pieces like no nursery or children’s ministry, then your young families will stay at home. If your church discourages those who are vulnerable from attending, then your older people and others will stay home. Who will attend if you partially reopen? What will you have accomplished?
Create a Hybrid Small Group – Online Service
Awaken Church, San Diego is combining their small groups with their online services to create watch parties for their weekend worship services. If you think about this, most people only connect with a handful of other people on Sunday anyway. They don’t have to meet in a large worship center to participate in the service and engage in personal interaction with other members. For more information on what Awaken Church is doing, click here.
Now, to pull this off, you need more small groups ASAP. If you’ve ever wanted to experiment with a new group’s strategy, this is the time for experimentation. The Leading an Exponential Groups Launch course can help you quickly create new small groups, recruit the leaders you need, supervise the new leaders, and train them for success.
The Biggest Fear in Reopening
Some people bristle when fear is addressed. After all, we are a people of faith, not a people of fear. But, we feel fear. Maybe we shouldn’t be afraid of the Coronavirus, because if that’s what might take us from this life to the next, then we receive our reward in Heaven. But, there are other fears to consider.
The fear of reopening in the extreme is exposure to liability. What if someone gets sick at your church? Could your church be sued? Will your church be held liable? Granted people were invited and were never forced to attend. They may not have a case. But, this is not the true fear.
The underlying fear for most churches is the fear of blame and losing trust. If the church opens too early, even if their state allows, but they are unprepared and people get sick, how do you live that down? This is already happening. How soon will that congregation return? How likely will a new family visit that church where a bunch of people got sick? If a church executes a careful plan of cleaning, social distancing, mask wearing with no touching whatsoever, can they say they took every precaution? Can they say they did everything humanly possible? Will that response be good enough?
I hate to disappoint you. I’m not saying whether or not your church should reopen its building, but this has been on my mind like it’s been on yours. I have four children at home. I am weighing out when to take them back. (Our family has lived in quarantine for 73 days. We haven’t been outside of the house except for trips to the grocery store and a very few other places. One of our children especially would be drastically impacted by COVID-19, so we’re staying in). Going out and going back to church services is not an easy decision.
Overall, the country still has more questions than answers. Good answers are harder to come by especially now that things are so politically entrenched. But, reopening the church building is not the most important mission today. It’s time to rethink how the church is doing church. There are things to start doing and keep doing digitally. There are things to stop doing and leave behind. How has this season helped to redefine the ministry of your church?
The decision to open for worship services is met with overwhelming uncertainty. Once churches reopen their buildings for worship will they have to close them again in 2020? A church in South Carolina has already re-closed. What can you do now to prepare for the next crisis? What does your church need to know before you reopen your worship services? What can you do without a worship service to serve your people in the meantime?
For further insights on preventing the spread of the disease from surfaces or singing, please consult these posts by an immunologist, the CDC, and a DJ/Pastor from Minneapolis:
During the Coronavirus pandemic, pastors have become online content machines. Pastors have always been content machines, we’re just seeing more of it. Phil Cooke said that the church is currently producing more media than Hollywood. How about that?
Our faith is multifaceted. God gave us a book and a brain, so there is no coincidence there. We are people of the Book, the Bible. After all, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. But, that transformation involves a few other things like our experiences and our relationships, our attitudes and our actions. While nothing supersedes what the Bible gives us, transformation is not merely a knowledge-based enterprise. As pastors continue to pump out content, we must also realize that people don’t grow by content alone.
People are Inundated with Content.
From newsfeeds to blogs to everyone starting a podcast right now, there is content for days. For a society that was already on information overload, quarantine has caused the overload to level up several times over. In addition to content, people need a place to process all of this content and do life together, even while they’re apart.
New Facebook devotionals and midweek services are great, but how can your people talk back? Actually they can. People can join in Watch Parties and message each other. People can communicate with the presenter. Give people time to interact with you and with the content. Offer a question time, or give a question for the group to discuss. Using these simple tools you can turn your content into a conversation. I watched one group of pastors online last Sunday night reading and answering their congregations questions from the chat. Your people need conversation, not just content.
Smaller Churches have the Advantage.
If you pastor a smaller church, you can actually call every one of your members on a regular basis. You can have an actual conversation with them. While you still have the deadline of the Sunday sermon and Zoom meetings, the schedule has shifted. A pastor serving a regular sized church of 90 people could actually have a personal conversation with every member over a 30 day period by just calling three people per day. Pastors with 1,000 or 10,000 can’t do that. While online services are a necessity these days, personal touches count more than ever.
In larger churches, staff and church leaders should be enlisted to make similar contacts. Call all of your leaders. Call all of your regular givers, if you aren’t already. While you should have started this 60 days ago, you can still start now. There are lots of ways to reach out to folks and even practice the “one anothers” amid social distancing.
Small Group Churches have an Advantage.
Online worship services only go so far. While worship and the Word is vitally important during these days of isolation and fear, the reality is that once people go online, they will find a better online worship service out there. That’s okay. These are unusual times.
Small groups, however, are the glue that holds the church together. Many churches are starting significant numbers of new online groups. Remember, people need conversation and not just content. The format of groups is changing. I’ve done online coaching groups with pastors from across North America for years. My online coaching has changed. Rather than just diving into the topic, we take a little time to debrief our current situation. The pastor in Washington talks about quarantine life and ministry over the last two months. The pastor in Nebraska is just now getting into the thick of it. There is a need to talk about what we’re going through.
There is also much to learn as churches are innovating ministry right now. One church developed an online small group study called Cabin Fever to help people deal with living, working, and schooling in quarantine. Another church developed an online resource for members of their community to post practical needs. They are then matched up with a church member or a group who can meet that need. Another very large church has tasked their staff to call 160 church members per week. They are also making N95 masks for medical personnel. If pastors ever wanted to experiment, this is the time. No one is looking for perfection these days.
New Online Groups are Adding up to 50% More Groups in Some Churches.
Sure there are excuses about Zoom fatigue, but there used to be excuses about not having enough time for a group. Some people will always have reasons why they can’t join a group or just don’t want to. That’s okay. Move with the movers. If you make the offer, there are folks who would love to connect with others. Read more on starting online groups.
What is not working right now is assigning people to groups. Let’s face it this has never worked very well. When starting new groups online or offline, the leaders should start by making a list of people they know. They can invite a couple of people, then ask their new members to invite a few people they know. Before they know it, they have a group.
Now, there may be people who want to be in a group but aren’t invited. Normally, I would recommend creating an environment where prospective members can meet group leaders in person, then decide whose group to join. While you can’t do this at a physical location, you could do this online. Host an online meeting where leaders can introduce themselves and talk a little about their groups. Prospective members can listen, then indicate which group they want to become a part of. Everyone knows what they’re getting into.
Content is great. The Word of God is powerful. But, the reality is that people need each other in addition to needing your teaching. Try different ways to help them connect online and offline during this time. Get on the phone and give your people a call. Send them a handwritten note in the mail. Create new online groups. We don’t know when restrictions will end. Every state has a different opinion. We also don’t know if and when another outbreak may occur. If you learn what to do during this crisis, you will be better prepared for the next one.