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.
Sheltering-in-place has dragged on. Many church services have been online exclusively for a month or more. Federal and state directives seem to change daily. We don’t know when things will go back to normal (or whether they should go back to normal). In this video, I ask five questions for you to consider personally and to consider with your team.
I’m not scolding you in this video. This screen capture just made me laugh.
Most churches are organized to preserve the institution. The institution may be the church as a whole, a paradigm embraced 25 years ago, or a worship style that fit a previous generation well. I’m not just speaking of traditional churches. This also applied to churches which are contemporary to 1995 or 2005. What worked for the last 25 years will not work for the next 25 years.
Ministry is Simpler
A stark difference lies between simpler and simplistic. Simplistic means offering just a few things to easily assimilate busy people into the life of the church. That’s not bad. But, perpetuating ministries based merely on the length of their existence or on its success in other churches are insufficient reasons to continue them in your church (or even to start them). In most cases, the basis of this thinking is a system of staff-led ministries created to move people from the parking lot, through the front door, into a commitment to the church, and finally assigned to ministry. Henry Ford would be proud. But, the people who leave their cars in the parking lot to step into church for the first time are not raw materials or blank slates. They have different backgrounds, education, gifts, abilities, and spiritual experiences. If and when they complete the church’s process, they won’t be uniform products lined up neatly in rows. We aren’t manufacturing widgets. Ministry is complex when those in authority decide what the church’s ministry should be, then attempt to recruit members into ministries which are not well suited for them. The purpose of many of these ministries is to serve the institution: park cars, shake hands, take up the offering, watch the children, and so forth. The focus of ministry is centered on the weekend experience, not the gifts and passions of the members. The end result is the constant need to feed the beast, that is, the weekend service. As Rick Rusaw asks, “What if we gave as much attention to scattering as we give to gathering?” The seeker service is fading. The missional movement gets the church part way there, but lacks building relationships with those who are served. Incarnational is next. What is incarnational? Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-40 — “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus gave his followers only two things to do: Love God and Love Neighbors. An M.Div. is not necessary for either of those. (I have an M.Div.) There is merit to keeping what works and tossing what doesn’t. Every ministry has a time to thrive, and a time to die, especially when it’s not aligned to Jesus’ mission. When we give people permission and opportunity, they become very creative. Ministry is simpler by starting only the things our people currently are gifted and called to do. When there is no longer a leader carrying that vision, then the ministry ends. Then, we get behind the next group of leaders with the gifts and passion for what is next. It’s simpler.
The System is Simpler
Most people don’t need an elaborate strategy to connect with a church. They only need someone who genuinely cares about them. They need a friend. This is a function of multiplication, which I wrote about here. A simpler system is a system of multiplication. You must multiply yourself in order for your church to grow. We must realize that ministry is not something we do to people. The people are our ministry. Their development is both the future of our ministry and the future of the church. But, when does a busy pastor have time for multiplying themselves when the tasks of ministry are overwhelming already? Give some of those tasks away. Develop people to fulfill those roles. Stop doing things which are not multiplication factors. Everyone has the same amount of time – whether they are multiplying or not. Only 15 percent of Millennials and only 4 percent of GenZ are Christians. We have heard for years that the church is only one generation away from extinction. This could be the generation. You don’t need to become an expert in Millennials or GenZ. You just need to engage them. Talk to them about what Jesus said and help them discover the application for their context. Instead of approaching them as their grandfather, engage them as a missionary. This is a cross cultural experience within our own culture. I am 53 years old. I am not the future of the church. Neither are you. But, I’m not planning on quitting any time soon. I do plan to continue in relevant ways and to celebrate what the next generations come up with. What will it take to empower and encourage the next generations? How can we give them permission to serve in their cultural context?
Word of Caution
Before you go and wreck your church, remember you have a lot of people that it’s working for. You can’t afford to lose them. Love Millennials all day long, but remember, they’re broke, and you’re not ready to retire. Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth? Maybe. You can be the judge. Your current church members were brought into the current ministry of your church with a certain understanding of how things would be – a contract, if you will. If you attempt to change that contract in an autocratic, mandatory fashion, then you’re done. But, what if you could begin to make changes without threatening the base? In a recent episode of Carey Nieuwhof’s Leadership Podcast, Todd Wilson from Exponential shared the idea of churches creating R&D labs and setting aside funds for it. This would allow for pilots and “skunk works” without upsetting the apple cart. I’m not talking about creating services like we did for GenX that ended up splitting our churches. R&D is a portion of funds, staffing, energy, and creativity applied to the future without radically disrupting the status quo until new concepts are proven out. It will take a long time for our members to give up the worship style and ministry that they love for the sake of the next generation. Wasn’t this our argument to the traditional folks when we wanted to implement seeker services? But, time is short. A generation is at stake. What is your church discovering? Allen White helps Take the Guesswork Out of Groups. We offer books, online courses, coaching groups, and consulting.
[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.
By Allen White David had Jonathan. Moses had Aaron. Peter and Paul had Mary. John, Paul and George had Ringo (well, until Yoko Ono broke them up.) Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. Who is your partner in ministry? Last week, we talked about the importance of a co-leader. But, how do you find one? Here are some qualities to look for: 1. Are they breathing? A dead man will do no good. 2. Is this person a growing believer? It doesn’t really matter how long a person has been a Christian. The question is “are they growing?” Some people have repeated the same two years of their Christian experience ten times, so they’ve been a Christian for 20 years. But, are they growing? Are they actively seeking God? Do they pray and see their prayers answered? Are they allowing God to work in their lives to forsake sin and to see God’s Kingdom grow? 3. Is this person interested in the group? In selecting a co-leader, consider the folks who care the most about your group. Who is there more often than not? Who lets you know when they have to miss? These are good indicators of how important the group is to the person. 4. Who creates warmth? Are people drawn toward the person, or does he repel others? Now, that doesn’t mean that this has to be the biggest hugger in your group. That person could just be needy. You want the person who is open and accepting of others. 5. Who has shown some skills? As your group has passed around the leadership for the discussion, who has shown potential by leading the discussion well? Were they sensitive to what was going on with the group members? Did the discussion get beyond the surface of the questions? While these skills can be taught, if a person shows a natural knack for leading, you might have a winner. 6. Who gives you the most trouble? Often the opinionated and the instigators in the group have leadership gifts. While your first inclination would be to run them off, the better thing would be to redirect them. To engage their leadership ability in a positive way will help the person and help the group. These are just a few things to look for. In my time with Brett Eastman out at Saddleback Church and Lifetogether.com, I learned that rather than popping the question right away, it’s better to give a potential co-leader different responsibilities and see how they perform. Brett called this “Crawl, Walk, Run.” If they aren’t ready to lead a whole study, could they lead a section of the study? If they’re not ready to lead a section, have them lead the opening question. Take your time in choosing a co-leader. Don’t just stop with question number one. Take your time, but don’t take forever. Your co-leader will be an awesome ally in your group ministry.