Church as we knew it before the second Sunday in March is never going to return to “normal.” Two developments from the past fourteen days illustrate the extent of disruption resulting from closures ordered to reduce spread of the virus.
The Barna Group released results of a survey conducted in late April and early May indicating one in three practicing Christians (defined as people who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month pre-COVID) has stopped attending church during COVID-19. Out of that sample, slightly more than half of the respondents had exclusively viewed online services from their own church or supplemented their church’s online worship with content from other churches. The statistic I would find most alarming as a church leader is that 46% of practicing Christians were exclusively viewing content from other churches or not engaging online at all with the church they had regularly attended.
An interesting and somewhat counterintuitive finding from the Barna study is that the demographic most likely to maintain engagement with church online were “Boomers” – (adults between the ages of 55-74 for the purpose of this survey) while 35% of “Gen Xers” (ages 37-55) and half of “Millennials” (ages 22-36) have stopped attending church altogether, despite their greater familiarity with the apps and technology necessary for online engagement.
The ranks of “committed Christians” will shrink significantly following COVID-related social distancing. I’d hypothesize a subgroup of Gen Xers and Millennials will come back when we’re able to minister effectively with kids whose primary motivation for attending is their desire for their children to have a foundation in the faith. Many who attended out of habit won’t be coming back after establishing a weekend routine that doesn’t involve church. One comment I hear with surprising regularity in my social circles is of boredom during worship services because they’ve “heard it all” already – one possible explanation for why nearly a third of survey respondents reported checking out other churches online.
Unrelated to COVID, I’d expect to see many leave the church in parts of the country where membership serves as a networking tool and indicator of social status. Being part of a church is more likely to be a hindrance than a help career-wise in the coming decade, especially for attenders working for large corporations and those in industries where support for a Biblical sexual ethic is problematic – technology, academia, social services and the legal profession, to name a few.
The second bombshell that dropped early last week was the announcement by Andy Stanley, the highly influential pastor and founder of North Point Ministries that the megachurches affiliated with their ministry decided to suspend in-person adult worship services for the remainder of 2020. Subsequent to Andy’s announcement, the Barna group’s weekly survey reported that 5% of pastors don’t expect their churches to resume adult worship this year. Here are three excerpts from an interview Andy did earlier this week for Christianity today reflecting the thinking behind the decision.
Here is where I think the church needs to think about this: As a local church, we have limited time, limited staff, and limited resources; it makes no sense to focus our staff time and resources on creating a subpar environment on Sunday morning for a nine and 11 o’clock service that only 20% of the people may attend.
What we can do for the community is to reallocate assets and resources, to serve the community, to get more involved with our community charities that we support all year long, and to raise money for organizations. This is an incredible opportunity for the church to be seen doing good. This is important. It is not enough for the church to do good. The church must be seen doing good.
The communication has been, we love you too much to open the doors on Sunday morning, let’s focus on doing stuff for the community, but at the same time we’re doing not just zoom groups. Our middle schoolers meet in driveways. We call them driveway groups. We’ve encouraged people to come to the campus, bring their chairs, circle up, have your small group in the parking lot and the grass. So the church is not closed. We’ve just suspended our Sunday morning gatherings.
Serving in the medical profession, I’ve had lots of experience with disruptive change. COVID may be the third major disruption in the field since I graduated med school 34 years ago, the first being managed care and the second the corporatization of medicine. The extent of disruption to the day to day work of ministry caused by COVID is going to take a heavy toll in terms of both physical and mental health for pastors and church staff. To compound the challenge of needing to rethink pretty much everything they do, church leaders will also be impacted by:
- Less money. Between the folks no longer contributing because they drifted away from church and the tens of millions of people who who have lost jobs or businesses, financial resources are likely to become much tighter in years ahead.
- Fewer volunteers. Volunteers are the currency of ministry to the extent that it’s impossible to run a church without them. Who teaches Sunday school? Runs the nursery? Hosts youth group? Our church (pre-COVID) did great respite nights for families of kids with disabilities. Hosting 80 kids might require 200+ volunteers. Where are they coming from?
- The challenges of doing ministry in a culture increasingly composed of hostile, secular people.
In many ways, Key Ministry offers a useful model for what ministry might look like after COVID. Huge mission. Dependent upon a relatively small staff and an even smaller budget.
Based on our experiences, here are some thoughts about the approaches of churches likely to survive and thrive after COVID and how our team is planning to navigate the months and years ahead.
Churches in a position to impact their communities when this is over will need to become very good at identifying people with gifts, talents and vision for ministry and resourcing and empowering them to do serve where God has uniquely placed them vocationally and geographically. Our team is continually on the lookout for leaders with new ideas on disability ministry and eager to provide them with opportunities to share ideas and influence a larger audience. If I’m leading a church, I’m looking for members and attendees with ideas and opportunities for doing good, offering ministry staff to come alongside them and allocating my missions budget to support them.
Thriving churches will effectively integrate “face to face” ministry and online community. Our experience has been that online relationships become more meaningful and impactful when we have opportunities for interaction in the physical presence of one another. The next time we’re able to do a live and in-person ministry conference, we’re going to be building in more opportunities for church staff and volunteers and family members to hang out with the speakers and authors whose work they follow online. For a church, this might mean hosting special events where predominantly online attendees get to spend time with pastors and staff who represent the “face” of the ministry. It might mean providing child care and supports so the parents of kids with disabilities in online small groups occasionally have the opportunity to get together in person. It might involve a roundtable discussion of that week’s sermon led by a pastor that can be joined either in person or virtually by online attendees. The more leaders you can identify to represent your church online, the less likely they are to experience interaction fatigue.
The church needs to develop more sustainable career models for ministry leaders. Burnout is likely to become ubiquitous among pastors and church staff over the next 12-24 months. If I were running a seminary, I would want every one of my graduates to have the necessary knowledge and experience to support themselves and their families outside of paid ministry work for an extended period of time. In the course of my day job I’ve come across far too many situations where leaders have given all they have to give to the point of becoming utterly ineffective who find themselves unable to step away from ministry because their families would be destitute without a paycheck. As we look to grow our ministry team going forward, our team will continue to depend upon co-vocational staff who will be able to continue to serve in ministry during times when we wouldn’t otherwise have the funds to pay them.
Where does that leave our field? The background for this discussion is that we need to understand what churches are going through to appreciate their ability to minister with families impacted by disability and how they might minister most effectively. As our team plans for the remainder of this year and a 2021 during which COVID will likely continue to cause extreme disruption to large group activities, here are some of the approaches we’re considering:
A focus on building relationships with church leaders – perhaps through providing care and support. Pastors and church staff should be thought of as “first responders” during the pandemic. The lack of resources for pastors and their family members struggling with mental health issues is a disgrace. In the same way that pastors with children or grandchildren with autism and other developmental disabilities were the original champions of special needs ministry, church leaders with firsthand experience with mental illness are most likely to appreciate the need for inclusive ministry.
We envision getting out on the road as soon as it’s safe to do so and setting aside more time for one to one conversations when we do do. COVID hasn’t changed the need for pastors and church leaders to access high quality disability and mental health ministry training within a half-day drive of where they live getting out and meeting leaders in person. We’ll also plan more opportunities for face to face interaction at big conferences.
We’re going to be spotlighting individuals, churches and organizations doing disability ministry outside the walls of the church. The church is open wherever and whenever the people of the church are sharing the love of Christ with someone in need. At a time when Christians and Christianity are viewed negatively by large segments of the population, the people of the church need to be seen doing good!
We’ll continue to seek out leaders who are developing innovative approaches to disability ministry in the midst of COVID while expanding our ability to put their ideas in front of as many pastors, church staff and volunteers as possible, while maintaining as much flexibility as possible. The ability to rapidly change direction during this time is critical. Carey Nieuwhof, the influential pastor and blogger recently said that “agility is the new superpower.” Strategies will change, but the mission remains the same.
God’s going to use this time for good. The other day, I saw these tweets as part of a thread from Beth Moore and found them to be a good description of where we’re at as a church. We’ll be OK.
Join the Key Ministry team on Wednesday, July 22 at 12:00 PM as we talk with Shannon Royce, Esq., head of the Center For Faith & Opportunity Initiatives in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Shannon will discuss “Compassion in Action,” a newly published guide designed to help churches and other faith communities care well for individuals living with mental illness. We’ll also talk about other initiatives from The Partnership Center to help churches support the mental health needs of the people within churches and the local community.Learn more or register here: