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.
Some people think that small groups are about the last thing that people need right now. With so much going on in people’s lives and so much turmoil in the world, forming groups for some seems like an uphill battle. But, when you look at the needs in people’s lives, it seems like a time to lean into groups rather than pull away.
Today is Election Day in the U.S. This will be regarded as a historic election in many ways. Chances are no one will know the result of the election at the end of the day or the wee hours of tomorrow morning. There are a lot of absentee ballots to count. If you haven’t voted, then stop reading and go vote!
Tomorrow life will be very similar to what it is today. As over 100 countries of the world have issued mask mandates, many European countries are locking down and implementing tighter restrictions to address the Coronavirus pandemic. For most people this all feels enormous – economic uncertainty, political unrest, racial injustice, and a health crisis. On top of all of this, the things in people’s lives that were already breaking – marriages, finances, jobs, parenting, etc. – are closer to broken than they’ve ever been. I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom, but real or imagined, people are facing a level of anxiety unlike most have experienced in their lifetimes. What can you do?
People Need Connection
What does your screentime look like on your iPhone? You will probably immediately go to “I use it for work.” I know that you do, but let’s face it that handy little device is a friend and a foe. The “friend” part keeps us distracted from what’s going on. (I’ll admit that I’m playing a lot of Boggle with Friends these days). It’s also a foe, because your connected device is disconnecting you. A wise person once said (my wife), “People have more means of connecting than they’ve ever had, yet they are more disconnected than they’ve ever been.” And, that was said before the pandemic.
You’re well aware of Zoom fatigue, but there are many other ways for people to have conversations online. Ideally people will meet in groups on a familiar online platform to discuss the sermon topic from Sunday or something else they are interested in. If they don’t, your people need some way to process what they’re dealing with and talk to another person. Cable news is not a comfort. And, they need more than teaching videos. They need more talking.
You Have an Opportunity
In many ways the world has been turned upside down in 2020. More than a few of you have posted memes about foregoing the time change to avoid an extra hour of 2020. I’m not a fan of the time change anyway. But, what does God intend for the Church in 2020?
If you believe that God is Sovereign, then you have to admit that 2020 was not a surprise to God. The Church has faced much more dire circumstances throughout history, yet the Church has moved forward. This is the time to rethink what your church is doing. This is the time to reach people whose lives have been disrupted. This is the time to reach people who are far from God with a message of hope.
Last week, I gave you the “because of COVID” excuse for making changes. It’s not a bad one. While it’s easy to starting thinking about all of the negative things that happened to your church “because of COVID,” have you thought about the opportunities? The effectiveness in the Church during this season is not the status quo, which one author defines as “the mess we are in.”
But, in 2020, I’m hearing pastors talk about great things that are happening “because of COVID:”
“The size of our groups were limited by COVID restrictions, so every group became two groups.” Who wouldn’t want to double their groups?
“I connected with some old high school friends including one who was far from God to form a multi-state online group.”
“Our groups increased by 211% over last year.”
“Our church formed book clubs by asking any willing person to gather a group of friends.”
What is happening in your church “because of COVID?” Let us know in the Comments below.
If you’ve been waiting to start something new, 2020 is a great year to experiment. Some might say that 2020 is an experiment gone wrong, but with life so some completely disrupted, you should embrace this as an opportunity to launch new things or end things that need to go away. Blame it on the pandemic! As difficult as this year has been, the healthy crisis, economic crisis, racial crisis, and political crisis are breaking up some very hard ground in the world, in the church, and in the hearts of individuals. There couldn’t be a better time to innovate. What needs to change in your church? Here are a few things that I’m seeing right now.
In my recent Small Group Network huddle, Bill Cleminson from the Church at the Mill (a.k.a. The Mill) in Moore, SC shared an experiment their senior pastor, Dr. D.J. Horton, launched this fall – they launched egroups. An egroup is five people or fewer who commit to meet together for 13 weeks. The group views a 15-minute teaching video from the pastor, then uses a sermon discussion guide for their meetings. In addition, the egroups journal daily based on a reading plan provided by the church or something else they choose. For accountability, the egroup members are asked to share a picture of their journal with their group with the words blurred out. This increases participation.
The Mill intentionally chose a new name for these groups to avoid confusion with their other small groups and discipleship groups. eGroups are a short-term trial run at groups, but more importantly, they give their members an opportunity to connect and process life together. It’s a great combination of both communication and content. After the first 13 weeks, eGroups may have served their purpose at The Mill, but depending on how 2021 looks, they could certainly serve an extended purpose. As with most churches, planning is in pencil and prayer.
Find Your Loopholes.
Some churches have rather rigid leadership requirements for small groups. While the bar for leadership should be high, the issue comes down to two things: (1) How many years will it take for you to connect people into groups? and (2) Do you really need a “leader” to make disciples?
Recently I talked to a pastor whose church leadership was leery of inviting people they didn’t know into small group leadership. I understand that feeling. That’s how my church got stuck at 30% in groups years ago. I understand that every church has an acceptable level of risk. There is a line they are reluctant to cross for a variety of reasons. I can’t force anyone to cross that line, but I can work to convince them.
I asked this pastor, “What’s too small to be a group in your church?” He said that three people was too small to be a group. Then, I challenged him to form some non-groups of three people. He just needed to ask people to invite two friends to discuss the weekly sermon questions. These non-groups won’t be advertised or acknowledged anywhere, but they will do two things for the church: (1) It will prove to the pastor there isn’t as much to worry about as he once thought, and (2) the non-groups will give people confidence to expand their group and eventually become a recognized group in this church.
Level Up Your Online Services.
Most churches did better with online services before anyone regathered in the building for worship. When the house was empty, pastors looked directly at the camera. Pastors got up close and personal with the online audience. Some even created interactive experiences to field questions during the message. But, then people started coming back into the building, things got weird.
When people are in the room, most pastors want to talk to the people in the room. I do! But, there are more people “out there” than there are “in here.” Yet, you can’t look over people’s heads and only look at the cameras. The churches who understand this are producing separate online services and in-person services to meet both needs. It’s more work, but it’s certainly worthwhile since so many unchurched people are looking in on online services. After all, streaming video is NOT church online.
Put Everything Online.
Some aspects of life have permanently changed amid the pandemic. I don’t know that I’m ever going to pile items into a grocery cart again, when we can order everything online for pickup or delivery. Going to the bank has been replaced by an app. I’m reconsidering whether I still need two cars in my driveway. Online group leader training has gone so well, I’m not sure I need to fly to you to train your leaders (but after the pandemic I might consider it).
In a world where people can do a doctor’s appointment online, they could take your membership class online. They could go through your Growth Track online. You no longer have to limit these to a Sunday afternoon. People can participate anytime over 168 hours per week. Potentially, they could become a member of your church at 2 am!
Practice these phrases with me:
We stopped doing [Insert Ministry Name] because of COVID.
We started doing [Insert Ministry Name] because of the pandemic.
Allen White gave us that idea, but now we realize it’s really stupid. LOL
This is a great year to experiment. Don’t waste your time waiting for things to get back to normal. Normal is gone. To quote Jason Caston, “The church was moving slow because they thought the world would stay the same.” Nothing is the same. Get moving!
Tell me how your church is innovating in 2020 in the comments below.
Church online is direct-to-camera. Church online is interactive. Church online is an intentional effort to disciple a growing online congregation. Streaming video is passive. With streaming video (live or recorded), the viewer is an observer, not a participant.
The church has got to get this right, because according to some estimates getting back to “normal” could take up to three to four years (if it ever does). From recent conversations with pastors, the average church has about 30% of their people attending in-person. But, there are far more people joining for worship online. In fact, most churches are seeing larger online attendance than their normal worship numbers. One pastor I spoke to yesterday said that a year ago, they had 550 in worship. Today, there are 200 worshipping in-person and over 1,600 worshipping online. How are churches discipling their online congregations?
Church Online is NOT Merely Streaming an In-person Worship Service.
Online worship services require a tighter shot. The services are shorter. Sermons are more like 20-30 minutes than 45 minutes. The pastor needs to speak direct-to-camera because the sermon is going to the living room. There’s a big difference between speaking to a big room and speaking to a small screen. The church, in general, did a better job at church online before people started regathering for in-person services.
But, as people are coming back, even just a small percentage of the congregation, the temptation is to speak to the few that are gathered and ignore the online worshippers. This is both rightly and wrongly so. A pastor cannot ignore the people gathered in the room, but a pastor also cannot create a passive experience for the larger group who are watching at home.
This reminds me of a moment about 30-40 years ago when churches were transitioning from traditional worship services to contemporary worship services. Many churches could not immediately make the jump. After all, if you alienate the base, then the giving goes down, and the pastor gets fired. So, churches offered separate services for traditional worship and for contemporary worship. A few tried “blended” worship, but was Stuart Briscoe once said, “If you blend contemporary and traditional, you end up with contemptible!”
By streaming in-person worship services, you end up with contemptible. If you speak direct-to-camera and ignore those gathered in-person, your people will think that they’re watching a TV preacher. But, if you speak only to the room and ignore the online congregation, you’ll lose them. I believe it’s time for churches to adopt two worship styles: an in-person service and an online service. The in-person service isn’t streamed. It’s created specifically for the people in the room. The online service is created specifically for the online congregation. It’s direct-to-camera. It’s shorter. It’s more interactive. The online service moves people from observing to participating. Why do this? There are more people “out there” than there are “in here.” This will be the case for a long while.
Church Online Needs Next Steps
A year ago online ministry was just a novelty, but in 2020 online ministry became a necessity. For a few months, the church regarded online services as a band-aid until things returned to normal. Today, no one knows when normal will return or what normal even is. And, that’s okay, because there is a larger opportunity online. Just look at your metrics.
How are you connecting with your online congregation? What next steps are you offering them? Do you even know who they are? Every weekend, you need to welcome visitors. Every weekend you need to collect their information by email or text. Then, you need to challenge them in their next steps just like you would an in-person guest.
Put your membership class online. There are no more excuses for not being able to attend. When your membership class goes online, people have 168 hours per week to participate. Put your growth track online. Saddleback Church just put CLASS 101-401 online after doing it live and in-person for 40 years! (and as of 8/30/2020, Saddleback added 600 new members through online CLASS 101).
How are you capturing information? How are you offering next steps? Church online is no longer just a stop gap, it’s church.
Churches with online small groups in place are faring far better than churches without online groups. There is a lot to process. There is a lot of fear and confusion in the world. People need to gather with others who will listen, care for them, and point them back to God in a personal, individual way. Online groups can accomplish this for those who are not ready to meet in-person yet.
Church Online Needs Opportunities to Care and Serve
People need an outlet for ministry. The Coronavirus pandemic has forced people to mostly stay home and to venture out very little. This isolation is taking a toll on people’s mental health. It’s not good to be alone thinking only about yourself.
Years ago a prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Karl Menninger, was asked a question by an audience member at a conference, “If you knew someone was suicidal, what would you recommend for that person to do?”
They audience expected Dr. Menninger to recommend immediate and intense psycho-therapy. Instead, Dr. Menninger replied, “I would tell them to go over to the other side of the tracks and help someone in need.” It’s healthy to help others. It’s unhealthy to be overly focused on oneself. (If you or someone you know is suicidal: 1-800-273-8255).
There are many needs in our communities. People need food. Parents need childcare. People need to know that someone cares. Encourage your online audience to participate with the church in serving your community or to just find a need a fill it.
In a recent interview with NPR, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, said, “I think also it’s really going to change the way people think about their donation relationship with local churches as well. There’ll have to be an even greater demonstration of the value that a church brings not just to those who attend but also those who are part of this community.”
While all of the things listed above will certainly add value to your online congregation, churches must show how they are helping the community. Where are these dollars going? After all, those who are worshipping at home aren’t receiving the benefit of the building or the staff. But, beyond this, people need teaching about giving. Generosity is a spiritual discipline. It’s a sign of spiritual maturity. As your people grow, they will also grow in giving.
The American church is in a precarious moment. “As many as one in five churches could permanently close as a result of shutdowns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic,” according to Kinnaman. “Obviously, there will be a lot more online attendance than ever before, even after all churches reopen. I think this digital church is here to stay.”
I see two camps in the church right now. There are those who’ve been hunkering down and waiting for Coronavirus to blow over so things can get back to normal. These are the churches that are in the most danger right now. Then, there are those churches who are embracing this disruption as an opportunity to meet the practical needs of people, re-evaluate their current ministries, reposition themselves for digital ministry, and embrace the opportunity of reaching a lost, hurting, and broken world online.
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.