Thinking about the post-COVID church might seem like a little wishful thinking, but I believe we can embrace the lessons learned in the last year and apply them to what’s ahead. Since March 2020, we’ve learned what we can do without. We’ve found some things that were more effective than we ever imagined. We have also discovered that some of the things we thought were so important are simply unnecessary (I’m looking at you large gatherings with rubber chicken and a speaker).
Churches learned to “play chess without the queen of the weekend service” as Alan Hirsch told us. We also learned that the weekend service did not accomplish nearly as much as we counted on. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Once the building was closed and services were cancelled, the pressure came off of “guest services” and went to online worship services. Membership classes and growth tracks, small groups and even Sunday school classes went online.
People stayed home and fell in love with Sunday brunch. Adults had the choice of watching any church in the world at any time. Kids got the short end of the stick with no youth groups and no online children’s church. As time wore on, people became a little more lazy about watching the weekend service. Granted, the average church-goer only attended 1.6 times per month in-person. It was easier to skip church at home. No one was watching them.
The pandemic accelerated everything. Everyone suddenly went online. Things that were breaking broke rather quickly. According to the Barna Group, one in five churches will close in the next year, if they haven’t already. Most churches have lost 20% or more of their congregations. The challenge of the post-COVID church is to embrace things that were forced on us (but worked!), to part with things that are not effective, and to discover some new things for a new season of ministry.
The Front Door of Your Church is Now Digital
Prior to March 2020, online services and online small groups seemed like a novelty to most churches. Online worship was either not considered or catered to the elderly and infirmed who couldn’t attend regularly. COVID changed that. What was once a novelty became a necessity, but it became even more than that – online services, online small groups, and an online community are an opportunity.
In a recent podcast interview with Jay Kranda, Saddleback’s Online Pastor, over the last decade he has seen genuine community forming online in groups, services, membership, and discipleship. (You can catch the podcast episode here). What was once thought of as abnormal became the norm. What’s even better is that it works – not just for online worship, but for Alpha and Celebrate Recovery where their role is bigger than ever before.
Before anyone darkens the door of your church, they will watch your service online. They were already starting with the church website before COVID. Now, they’re starting with online worship. Knowing that far more people are watching online than are even attending in-person, churches need to invest in their new digital front door. Streaming video is not an online service. The need and opportunity for online worship longs for a unique online service.
The Growth Engine of Your Church is Groups
While there are many great benefits to online groups (Download the Senior Pastors Guide to Groups), churches with groups faired far better than churches without groups in 2020-2021. Churches did an excellent job producing content. In fact, at one point, Phil Cooke, a media producer, said, “Right now the church is producing more content than Hollywood.” Churches had content down, but if groups weren’t in place, they lacked community and conversation.
When the building was closed, ministries were shut down, and in-person services were cancelled, small groups thrived. For every pastor who has ever longed to see decentralized ministry, the pandemic accelerated the reach and effectiveness of groups online and in-person. Facebook friends became Facebook groups. Wherever people find community (online or offline), there is a place for groups.
What’s even better is that during the pandemic, you became a church OF small groups. All of the other competing ministries went away and only groups were left. Previously, you just had a larger crowd. Now, you are a church OF groups and not just a church WITH groups. This helps churches focus more clearly on their mission to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). Groups are a great tool to enlist more disciple-makers. If disciples aren’t making disciples, then you have missed the point.
The Greatest Impact of Your Church is Your Members
The last year has proven that the greatest impact of your church is not the weekend service, and it’s not meaningless serving roles. While most churches have lost 20% or more, many of those were consumers. While every pastor hates to lose anyone, the balance of the equation is that your committed core remains. They have found meaningful ways to serve their neighbors and their families during the pandemic. They don’t need to be coddled when they come back to church. They need to be challenged. In this moment, the churches who chose to empower and equip their members to serve will come back far stronger and make a much bigger impact than those who merely return to “normal.”
Offer your members practical ways to discover and hone their gifts like Find Your Place by Brian Phipps and Rob Wegner, SHAPE from Saddleback, or the classic, Network by Bruce Bugbee. But, this is more than a seminar, give your people permission and opportunity to use their gifts in meaningful ways. If you do this right, then the emerging ministries of your church will come from what God has placed on your peoples’ hearts. That doesn’t mean that you merely accept everything that everyone wants to do – it still has to fit in your church’s mission and vision – but it does mean embracing what your people are gifted and called to do rather than inventing roles for them to fill.
The Future of Your Church is Practical Outreach
Years ago Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson asked the question in The Externally Focused Church: “If your church vanished would anyone notice?” Well, in the last year the presence of your church did disappear in some ways. (Obviously, the Church is the Body of Christ, which while not meeting in-person for worship, did not actually disappear). When your building closed, what was missing from your community? Traffic? A positive influence? An essential service needed by your community?
During COVID did your church focus on survival or outreach? While pastors work hard and don’t deserve the heartbreak of watching their hard work evaporate, what was the focus on the last 12 months? Were you clinging to what you had 12 months ago or were you embracing the opportunity to serve and reach the community? The need is great. How is your church helping to meet that need?
In the past missionaries to other countries established hospitals, schools, orphanages, and other practical organizations to meet the needs of the people. In addition to meeting the people’s needs and building a platform to share the Gospel, the missionaries’ charitable work endeared them to governments who otherwise might not have embraced their mission. When someone opposed to the Gospel came to power, the missionaries’ good work stood out and kept their mission moving forward.
The North American church is fulfilling its mission in a culture that is increasingly hostile. Culture is changing rapidly. The Moral Majority is long gone. The church’s influence is diminishing on a broad scale, but that’s never where souls were being saved anyway. How can your church use its influence, its resources, and its gifts to meet needs in your community? What can your church become known for in your community? Rather than standing out as the church that’s against certain things, how can your church be known for the good that you’re doing? This doesn’t mean that we embrace things that are contrary to Scripture. It means that the church’s mission moves forward in loving ways despite the opposition. After all, God “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).
While you might despair the loss of an audience, you should be very excited about those who are left. Your audience is gone, but your army remains. An audience must be entertained to keep them engaged, but an army just needs their marching orders. Once you equip and empower your people to serve in meaningful ways, your church will never be the same. All your people need are permission and opportunity.
The world has changed. Ministry methods from prior to 2020 won’t work the same. Everything has opened up. The opportunities are endless.