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.
Love God and love your neighbors. In the Great Commandment, Jesus boiled 613 commands down to these two. He went on to say, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:34-40, NIV). In other words, if Jesus’ followers do anything, they should focus on these two things. The Neighboring Life focuses on the second commandment in order to follow the first one.
Who is My Neighbor?
The act of taking time to learn a neighbor’s name demonstrates obedience to Jesus’ command. Once a believer knows their neighbor’s name, then they can pray for their neighbor. Pray for their lives, their families, their jobs, and even an opportunity to get to know them better. Neighboring is also serving next door neighbors. By offering a helping hand, often the next step is offering a listening ear. “We love our neighbors because we are Christians, not because we are trying to make them Christians,” says Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, co-authors of The Neighboring Church. “We need to stop hijacking the endgame with other things. It happens so subtly. We love our neighbors so they will go to church. We love our neighbors so they will join our small group…Those motives turn people to be loved into projects to be directed…People will know when they are a project.” The Neighboring Life is the creation of Rick Rusaw, Brian Mavis, and the team at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, CO. Built on the foundation of The Externally-Focused Church, co-authored by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson (Group Publishing 2004), LifeBridge along with many other churches, has sought to transition ministry from missional, community-wide, Service Day approaches to a more granular form of ministry. Rather than donning matching t-shirts, serving for one day, and making local headlines, The Neighboring Life is a daily, personal experience with one’s neighbors. More importantly, it adds the relationship component to serving. “The bridge between being missional and incarnational is relationship,” according to Scott Campbell, The Ascent Church, Colorado Springs, CO. “You can be missional without being relational. You can’t be incarnational without relationship: ‘love neighbors as you love yourself.’” “For years [LifeBridge Church] had been getting into the stream of our community to serve. A city employee asked if we would take care of a woman’s yard for her. I said I would look at the situation and get back to her,” said Brian Mavis. “As I was driving up, I spotted the house from blocks away. They weren’t exaggerating. The grass was almost as tall as I was. I knocked on the door and a woman in her young thirties answered. Standing next to her was a little girl. I learned that this woman had recently survived stage-four cancer, and she was taking care of the nine-year-old girl, who was in foster care. This woman was tearful and embarrassed about her yard, but she said her health prevented her from trying to take care of it. “My heart broke for her, and I was happy that our church was going to help her. I gathered a dozen people and they brought their own equipment. A few hours later we had the yard looking almost as good as new. We came back the next week to put down some mulch. We prayed for the homeowner, and we felt great about what we had done. I was proud of our people, and I was glad the city knew they could call us and count on us to take care of it. “Over the next year, I called the woman a couple of times to see how she was doing. After the second call, while I was silently congratulating myself, the Holy Spirit said, ‘This is nothing to be proud of. This should never have even happened.’ I immediately knew the full meaning of this gentle rebuke by God. The woman’s grass should never have grown more than six inches tall.” What should have been done differently? “First,” said Mavis, “I wouldn’t just ask a dozen people from our church. Instead, I would look to see who lived near her. We have several families within a couple blocks of her house. I would’ve called them and asked them to help me help their neighbor. Then I thought I would go one better. I would ask them to help me, but I would also ask them to knock on their neighbors’ doors, no matter if they were Christian or not, and invite them to join in helping this woman…If the church had done a better job of helping our people learn to love their neighbors, then I never would’ve received a phone call from the city in the first place…For years our church was serving the community, but were we loving our neighbors?” A dilapidated house or an unkempt yard are easily recognizable signs of a family in crisis. But, not all needs are revealed from the curb. Needs are revealed as neighbors are known. Since neighboring is not a program and neighbors aren’t projects, the focus on neighboring is more of a spiritual discipline than a ministry initiative. Neighboring is moving life from the backyard to the front yard. It’s taking time for a neighbor when they are outside. The heart of neighboring is putting others ahead of oneself. Neighboring requires no special talent. Anyone can be a neighbor. Neighboring does require a shift in thinking for pastoral leadership. Emphasis is given on scattering equal to the emphasis on gathering. This is not to discount the value of gathering, but to balance receiving and giving.
Stay, Pray, Play, and Say
Neighboring almost seems to harken back to years gone by when neighbors knew everyone and helped each other. It was the norm. Today, the norm is cellphones, garage door openers, and quiet streets in neighborhoods. Neighboring requires intentional effort. The practices of neighboring are simple, yet significant. They can be summoned up in four words: Stay, Pray, Play, and Say. Stay means being available to get to know one’s neighbors. It’s stopping to talk to a neighbor instead of hitting the garage door button. Maybe it means sitting on the front porch instead of the back porch. Pray means praying for neighbors. Praying for both neighbors who are known and those who are unknown. Praying for opportunities to connect and serve. Play is offering hospitality to neighbors from dinner invitations to backyard barbecues to small scale events. The fourth word is say. When the opportunity arises, Christian neighbors are prepared to share Christ with their fellow neighbors. This isn’t the completion of the “project.” This is the start of a new journey.
Leaders Go First
As with any focus, leaders go first. Pastors and church staff can prepare to lead neighboring in their churches by starting to neighbor themselves. Resources such as The Neighboring Church by Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, and Becoming a Neighboring Church, a six session study by the LifeBridge team with its companion video are a couple of ways to get ideas on leading a community-wide movement in neighboring. Other resources include The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, Neighborhood Initiativeand theLove of God by Lynn Cory, and Neighborhood Mapping by Dr. John Fuder among others. Once pastors and staff have some experience with neighboring, the entire church can be engaged with The Neighboring Life study and companion video used as a church-wide campaign, group study, or individual study. These resources are available at TheNeighboringLife.com.
Jacob & Mary Alice: An Unlikely Pair
Ever since his wife’s death, 80-year-old Jacob called his neighbor, Mary Alice, regularly. Somehow Mary Alice had broken the ice with this self-proclaimed “crotchety old Jewish man who doesn’t make friends easily.” The two were quite a pair in the neighborhood: a mom of two teenagers chatting the ear off the grumpy old man. When Jacob’s number came up on caller ID, she answered it, but on this evening, when she picked up the phone Jacob wasn’t talking but she could hear difficulty in his breathing. Rushing over to his house, she found Jacob at the bottom of the stairs and quickly called 911. The paramedic in the ambulance, the emergency room receptionist, the technicians drawing blood, and the doctor all asked her, “Are you his daughter?” “No, I am just his neighbor” she answered every time, as she kept Jacob calm and answered their questions about his past medical history. As Mary Alice left the emergency room after Jacob was fully stabilized, the doctor asked her with a smile, “Will you be MY neighbor?”
Neighboring requires no special talent. There are no scripts or methods to follow. The heart of neighboring is taking an interest in one’s neighbors. Pastors can start their own neighboring movements by encouraging their members to take a few minutes to talk to their neighbors when they see them outside. This might be an introduction to a new neighbor or a bit of an apology for living next door for so long and having never met. This shouldn’t be embarrassing. It should be a start. As churches embrace neighboring, any step toward a neighbor: a conversation, a meal, a prayer, or an act of service should be celebrated. What pastors tell stories about will cast vision to their congregations. If pastors are ready to get serious about neighboring, then some tough questions must be answered – How can you be the best church for your community rather than just the best church in your community? What if you got better at the two things Jesus said mattered the most – loving God and loving your neighbor? How can the church put equal energy into scattering into the community as they do gathering for weekend worship services? If your members move out of their neighborhoods, would they be missed?
[Dear Readers – Do you ever have thoughts that you can’t get away from? For a few years now, I have almost resisted writing about some things that have been stirring deep inside me. Also, over that time period, a number of events as well as ministry startups in various sectors have confirmed many of the things I’ve been sensing. Over the next month or so, I will post some of these thoughts. What I am writing should not be taken as an indictment of any ministry or methodology. I am sincerely inviting you to wrestle with some things I’ve been wrestling with. I would appreciate having you join the conversation.] Megachurch, as we know it, is not the future. In an increasingly secularized society, the tolerance for more “big box” churches will decrease. Churches are already viewed by municipalities as heavily reliant on city resources, yet do not pay taxes. In fact, some of their prime locations could generate more revenue as a Costco. I foresee zoning as a continual obstacle. Speaking of taxes, while I don’t see tax deductions for charitable contributions disappearing, the new tax law makes most people’s charitable contributions irrelevant in regard to their taxes. Since the standard deduction has increased to $24,000, for many households their mortgage interest, charitable giving, and medical expenses aren’t going to top that amount. Now, I’m not a CPA, but the math is pretty simple to pencil in. If giving no longer offers a tax advantage, then how will giving be impacted? If giving decreases, then what happens to capital campaigns and building projects? Then, we could go back and ponder the question asked by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson in The Externally-Focused Church (Group Publishing 2004): If your church disappeared from your community would you be missed? Does your community rely on your church? Do you pick up the slack where government services lack? Can you serve the under-served in your community? Or, does your building provide a meeting place for weekend gatherings, then sit empty the rest of the week? The climate is changing. I haven’t even mentioned those churches who are fighting a culture war that’s already been lost. I also didn’t bring up a moral majority that’s become an oxymoron. The strategies that served us well over the last 25 years are not going to do the same in the next 25 years. It’s time for a shift. Decentralized Organization The “hero” in any church is the member, not the pastor. The best representation of the impact and ministry of the church is the individual member. Members will determine the effectiveness of the church’s outreach. While churches can have a great location, in the churches I’ve served, we found that less than 2 percent found their way into our church from merely passing by. About the same went for paid advertising, social media, or other forms of advertising. How well does your church make disciples? There is nothing more attractive than a believer whose life has been transformed inviting a friend who’s noticed their life change. When you look out at your congregation on Sunday morning, do you see an audience or an army? If it’s an audience, then they need to be entertained. The concern is over comfort and convenience. If you perform well and offer a good experience, then the hope is they will return. But, if you see them as an army, that’s a different story. Your army needs to be equipped and empowered to serve. They don’t need to be catered to. They don’t need to be fretted over. They need marching orders. They need permission and opportunity to live out what God has called them to do. The focus changes from gathering to scattering. For the last 25 or more years, we have gathered well, but scattered poorly. It’s time for a change. Flexible, Unrestricted Gatherings About six years ago, in a conversation with Josh Surratt, Lead Pastor at Seacoast Church, he mentioned a family from their church who had moved to Maine. Every Sunday morning, they gathered with about 40 friends and neighbors in their living room to watch the service at Seacoast together. My immediate reaction, “Well, maybe it’s time to redefine a ‘campus.’” Conversations like this led to the idea of microsite churches. In my initial brainstorming with my friend, Brett Eastman, we imagined smaller communities or places where multisite churches wouldn’t build a campus. What if the service via steaming video was brought into homes, restaurants, or smaller meeting places to serve these areas? The microsites would rely on unpaid staff to manage them, but with connection and support from larger organization. One of the first places we saw develop these microsites was NewSpring Church in South Carolina. They took a little different spin on the idea by using “houses campuses” as a trial balloon to determine whether a community could support a viable multisite campus eventually. It was essentially planting a multisite campus with a less expensive, less risky trial run. We also interacted with the folks at The Rock Church in San Diego, who had heard from people who were not comfortable walking onto their main campus on Sunday morning. So, they multiplied 50 microsites in venues where these folks felt more comfortable gathering. This included bars, night clubs, and other locations. Read more about the early days of microsites. By developing a microsite strategy with online video and support, there is no limit to a church’s potential to reach any community that can provide someone to pioneer the work. Once the strategy has created a unit of one, then the sky’s the limit. Locations can easily be rolled out in same language communities or translated into other languages and cultures. Potentially, these flexible, unrestricted gatherings can multiply without church-owned property or paid staff. As long as their kept small and taught to multiply, securing larger gathering spaces is unnecessary. Meaningful, “Volunteer” Ministry I hate the word “volunteer,” but it’s the word everyone uses, so here we go. With the congregation as an army, the key to deploying the army is gifts-based ministry. God has gifted and called every believer to fulfill his or her mission on the earth. Calling is not limited to clergy. Ministry is not limited to paid staff. For all intents and purposes, the only difference between “volunteers” and paid staff is the source of their income and possibly their availability. If the church fully embraces the concept of the priesthood of believers, then it can accomplish far more than what it’s currently doing. The key is to champion the member, help them discover their spiritual gifts with a tool like Network, and to support and deploy them as they do the work of the ministry. When believers are operating in their gifts and abilities, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and supported by their pastors and churches, they are unstoppable. They find meaning and purpose beyond what anything else can provide. And, the church functions as it should. I led the gifts discovery and deployment process at a church I served for 15 years. Every member who attended a discover your ministry type class met with me for a post-class interview. I was always amazed at what people aspired to do and how God had equipped them. In fact, I even identified my future wife this way! Our church reached a point where we only started new ministries out of these conversations following the gifts discovery class. Some of these ministries, we heard about from sources in the community because our people were serving based on their gifts and hadn’t told us what they were doing. That thought just makes me smile. 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 weekend of the year! Why? Because no one is called to this. (Feel free to argue in the comments, but read on). Yet, believers rise to the occasion in gifts-based ministry. Pastors – do you want your members dragging themselves out of bed to serve or jumping out of bed to serve? The difference is organizing ministry around spiritual gifts rather than filling slots. Multiplication Microsites are easier to multiply than megachurches. Microsites don’t require church-owned property, elaborate budgets, or guest services. As someone is welcomed into a member’s home, isn’t that the only guest services needed? What about training? Who can be trained more quickly – a pastor or a location host? No location host to date has been required to earn a Master of Divinity first. Most churches will never have the budget, paid staff, or buildings to accomplish what God has called them to do. Well, that’s if we look at the church as an institution. But, in viewing the church as the body of Christ, there is millions of dollars worth of property in the homes of the church’s members. The “staff” originates from gifts-based assessments. There might be a few expenses, but really no budget. As it becomes harder to fill and maintain the big box church, there are viable options. Examples like the Tampa Underground (tampaunderground.com) are worth considering. After 10 years of developing their model, they are now sharing their learnings with others. The future of the church is bright, but it is different. While previous models of ministry have served us well, it’s time to reconsider our strategies and redefine our ministries.