With all the upheaval we’ve all experienced over the past eight months, the most unsettled I’ve felt was the first Sunday my family and I attended a worship service inside our church’s building. I’d never seen the church so empty. I’d been worried about not having a place to sit thanks to the distancing requirements if we arrived a little late. I’d guess our main sanctuary was maybe 10-15% full when we could comfortably host 40% of our normal capacity with all the restrictions. This after two services (traditional and contemporary) customarily held during that hour were combined in one space.
I’ve heard similar stories from friends at other churches. The general consensus in our area is that attendance at worship services is around 30-40% of what it was before the pandemic. That’s consistent with these statistics from a prominent church consultant (Tony Morgan), reporting attendance nationwide of 36% of pre-pandemic levels. Obviously, lots of people will come back when the need for social distancing ends. But lots of people won’t. I’ll be taking a closer look at this podcast in a future post in which Thom Rainer (former President of LifeWay) predicts the typical church will lose 30-40% of its people as a result of the current disruption. In that same podcast, Rainer noted that 80% of 1,000+ pastors who responded to an online survey said they’re contemplating quitting. Our churches are in distress.
David Kinnamon of the Barna Group estimates 20% of churches will be closed within the next eighteen months. Fewer than 50% of regular church attenders ages 55 and under reported a preference for primarily “physical” church gatherings. While we’re likely to lose less committed people, the impact on church finances is inevitable. The larger issue for disability ministry centered around weekend worship will be the impact on the volunteer pool upon which these ministries depend.
We’ve been thrust into the most radical change in the way “church” is conducted since the Protestant Reformation. The future is very unclear. But God’s at work in the process. The statistics above suggest we haven’t exactly been successful as of late in discipling people if so many have left. A surprising number of church attendees aren’t interested in getting back to “normal” in attendance at weekend worship services.
Our team is wrestling with planning ministry for next year when nobody really knows for sure what church is going to look like twelve months from now or how much more of a hit churches will take from additional steps to control the pandemic over the next 6-9 months. It’s like the challenges a quarterback faces in throwing the ball to a spot where he anticipates his receiver will be based upon the receiver’s reaction to the defense being played.
This article from Tony Morgan was very helpful in helping me to understand how churches will operate after COVID. Here’s a photo from his post with a summary of his key points.
While we’re likely to find ourselves making stuff up on the fly again this year in response to need, these are some of our guiding principles for expanding disability ministry in a shrinking church in the years ahead.
We’re preparing for a paradigm shift in which less and less ministry will be done by paid professionals. Pastors and church staff will transition from doing ministry to resourcing volunteers to do ministry. Established disability ministries that survive are more likely to do be led by highly motivated volunteers and new disability ministries will be established by volunteers. We need to give church leaders the resources they need to keep ministries going in the absence of funding and train leaders to launch ministries in churches that have the heart but are low on resources.
We need to empower the people of the church to identify and respond to ministry opportunities without expecting leaders to start a program. When Morgan refers to “simplicity” in his model, he means churches focusing on doing a few things with excellence versus operating lots of programs that compete for shrinking pools of money or volunteers. Churches won’t be starting many new programs. That means someone who sees the need for a Christian-based mental health support group needs connections with organizations to help them start a group, support their group and promote their group.. How might the people of the church provide respite care in their neighborhoods when a church doesn’t have the facilities or volunteers to support respite events? What does disability ministry look like for “microchurches?” How might we empower individuals with disabilities to start microchurches to reach their friends and neighbors who don’t have a church?
I’d argue that doing ministry is a much-underutilized strategy for churches struggling with discipleship. The model of coming to church to be “taught” by the professionals has clearly lost favor with generations younger than mine. People grow by doing. Encountering pushback in ministry forces people to pray, to turn to Scripture and to seek wise counsel – in other words, to grow spiritually. We can support churches as they pursue outwardly-focused disability ministry. How might we point churches to opportunities to share the love of Christ with members of the disability community who would never otherwise enter their buildings?
Promoting connectedness – This may be the most important component of our ministry plan going forward. We’re experiencing a mental health crisis along with a medical crisis in large part due to the disruption in relationships caused by the pandemic. How can we encourage and support one another in ministry? How do we support pastors and church staff who are experiencing enormous disruption in their work lives? That’s how we ended up partnering with another organization to host an Online Pastors’ Retreat accessed thus far by over 180 church leaders.
How can churches across a city or a region support one another in doing ministry? That’s a hot topic in our home region at the moment. How might churches pool their resources to support one another’s disability ministry initiatives? How might local ministry leaders support one another? Pastors and church leaders need to be better connected with disability ministry leaders. The people of the church need more connection with one another. If church were more like a family, far fewer people would be leaving.
Making high quality, live disability ministry training is at the top of our “to-do” list when the pandemic is over. If we do #IFL2021, it will look different than in the past and be designed as an “in-person” event. The small “c” church is doing a pretty good job of disability ministry on Sunday. How might we help churches see what it means to be connected to families from Monday to Saturday?
That’s what the churches and families we serve and the generous people who pray for and fund our ministry can expect in the year ahead.
Speaking of the year ahead, our team would very much appreciate your prayers and financial support. Inclusion Fusion Live represented approximately a third of our ministry’s annual budget. That disappeared when everything closed down last Spring. Our team has done an incredible job in responding to needs this year, while controlling costs, but we’re currently running about $15,000 behind our expenses this year. Please consider a gift to our ministry after meeting your responsibilities to your local church.