Five opportunities for churches arising from the pandemic.
Updated: Feb 10, 2022
After the initial shock of the pandemic in 2020, and its disruption to church life, leadership generally pivoted to find the bright side in the new reality. We talked about things like 'refining', 'extending our reach to the lost in new ways', 'creating a hunger for community' etc.
We are closing in on two years of this reality and now the future is more murky than ever. Pastors and staff are tired, congregations are tired, and we find any momentum we build quickly being cut off at the knees again and again. There comes a point that we start to loose hope that any plan, program, or attempt on our part can truly make a difference. When we loose hope we also lose energy, vision, and purpose.
So what opportunities for our churches can we see in this pandemic that can reinvigorate our hope?
A DEEPENING OF FAITH
While it's true, as Jesus predicted, that seasons of drought cause many to wither it is also true that the same drought causes others to press in and go deeper.
In a PEW poll taken a year into the pandemic 13% of Canadian respondents said their faith had strengthened in the pandemic. This low number confirmed my my observation. The pandemic has not necessarily brought about a spiritual awakening but is has propelled many of our believers into a stronger personal faith.
There has been, in this season, a remanent of believers who have revived the disciplines for going deep. Believers have learnt the value of private worship, of reflective prayer, of seeking out the spoken word, and of personally pressing in. I think leaders will find a greater spiritual depth in many of the believers and a greater sense of connection to Christ.
This gives a lot of hope for your church.
A spiritually mature congregation gives lots of opportunity to identify new leaders for outreach, ministry opportunities, and governance.
This has been a crucial season for understanding and maturing the depth of faith that lies in our church members. You will have been surprised by some who did not pull through but equally encouraged by those who have flourished. Suddenly you see the potential of the congregation in a different light.
Pause : How have your members weathered the storm and strengthened their 'walk with Christ'? How could you capitalize on the new potential leaders and spiritually mature believers who are appearing?
2. A STRENGTHENING OF FAMILY
This long season has exposed deep fractures in families and this has been heightened over this past year with families being divided over vaccines. In a poll by Today.com 14% of respondents have cut off a friendship or family member over the vaccine. In another poll by Leger (Canada) the divisions over the vaccine are on par with other social issues such as gay rights or gun control.
We have all heard, or personally experienced, some heartbreaking stories of families that have fractured over who is vaccinated or not, and the expectations around this. From a pastoral perspective this is very discouraging as it even affects some of our core families and our church community.
The pandemic, due to the confined living, has also brought to the surface some big family issues. Many families have had to face and deal with core relational, mental health, and historical issues that have otherwise been buried beneath busyness or avoidance. Counsellors have never been busier.
Yet on the positive side the pandemic has actually strengthened more families than it has broken!
In a pew research poll held during the pandemic 37% of Canadians said their family relationships were stronger while only 5% said it was weaker.
I am personally thankful, due to the pandemic, that I am closer with my children than every before (partly because they can't move out due to the pandemic). I know this is something many others have also experienced. Some of the best times in the pandemic were watching services together, playing games, or staying connected.
There has been a reset in the thinking for many individuals regarding the importance and priority of family. This is a fantastic opportunity as family has historically been the building block of church community.
Pause : How could your church leverage this rediscovery of the family unit in your present and future planning? i.e Does your church offer any kind of professional, semi professional, group counselling or inner healing program? How could online services be built towards family or cluster watching and participation?
3. A FRESH HUNGER FOR GOD TO INTERVENE
When we get frustrated and our human efforts produce limited results it births a hunger in us for God to intervene. Judges is a record of the cyclic pattern of the nation going through desperate times, then the righteous calling on God, and then His intervention with deliverance through some very dubious characters.
Desperate times create a longing within us for God that never happens in good times.
We are by nature apprehensive about God intervening because we know that we will loose a certain degree of control. Yet when our desperation with the present circumstances outweighs our apprehension about letting go, we are in the right place to genuinely ask God to move.
I have watched a lot of different church services over the last number of months (something I rarely did as a pastor) and I can unequivocally say that we are in desperate need of God's intervention.
Our preaching is good but lacks a sharpness that pierces hearts, we sing well but often fail to experience the manifest presence of God that radically changes situations, and we are not seeing the lost come and follow Christ in any significant or meaningful way.
I fear that we expend too much of our frustration with these present circumstances on complaint, in-fighting, or commentary and not enough on converting the frustration into corporate prayer. If all the frustration of the believers was put into desperate cry for a move of God then 2022 would turn out to be a remarkable year for the kingdom.
Pause : At this strategic time of the year how are you doing at mobilizing your congregation to seek God and call on the only one who can make a difference in the long term? A little 'Tim Bit'... online prayer meetings, if done right, are surprisingly effective and enjoyable even for the less tech inclined members.
4. AN ACCEPTANCE OF CHANGE
One commentator said that the pandemic is the biggest change the church has undergone in 500 years. They were comparing the pandemic to the Reformation.
To be honest, this statement is a bit of a stretch (ok...its a huge stretch). What we fail to realize, however, is that a seismic shift in the western church actually started at least 70 years ago. The more significant shift is not the pandemic but the undercurrent cultural changes that have been going on for a long time.
Just think about some of the changes that have happened in the last 70 years...the uncoupling of the church from state, the secularization of education, the growth of multiculturalism because of massive migration, democratization, industrial revolution to the science and mass production revolution to the digital revolution...and the list goes on. Society has been in a massive flux for many years and it is only accelerating. For an interesting recent article on the state of the church in Canada click here
Local churches historically, however, are institutions that change slowly. Even simple things like a change to the facility, or a new hire, or changing the time of the services has often moved at a snail pace speed. The decision making process was strangling us. We couldn't react to the change happening around us let alone anticipate and prepare for it.
The pandemic has helped our congregants accept, more than ever before, that change is normative AND needed if we are going to flourish. Just think of how many service time changes you have been made in the last two years and how few, of any, were bothered!
I find it is often the leaders (pastors, boards, etc) who are now more hesitant to introduce change. We are conditioned and comfortable with being cautious, avoiding risk, and particularly avoiding upsetting people. Too many leaders are trying to get things back to the way they were rather than seeking to seize the opportunities in front.
Avoiding risk is now the most risky thing you can do! The new reality will be people leaving your church because you are not taking enough risk, and displaying enough leadership, to meet the new challenges.
Pause : What, as a leader, are you biggest fears regarding introducing change into your church? How 'risk adverse' is your church is and is it a healthy or unhealthy amount?
5. DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT : A LARGER REACH
I think the comment regarding the '500 year seismic shift' was specifically about the digital world and its implications for communication and engagement with the church and world in general.
For the last few months I have been helping a business through the process of moving from a 'brick and mortar' store to a hybrid e-commerce + physical store model. It has been an eye opener. The tools and methods that are available for an organization to grow itself digitally are remarkable.
The business world has recognized that the digital universe is core to the new reality and hopefully the pandemic has forced churches to start to think in the same way.
A digital church is way more than an online service. It is a way of rethinking church. It forces us to think through questions such as 'who is an attendee?', 'what do we expect of our believers?', 'what staffing do we really need?', 'what makes an effective sermon?'.
Honestly, the reality of engaging the congregation and world digitally makes you rethink everything (maybe that commentator was right after all - this is a 'once in every 500 years' type change).
I think it's really important to state here that it is not a choice whether you will be a digital church or not. People already go on GOOGLE to look you up before visiting; they read others reviews about you; they look at your photos to work out your churches demographic and culture; they listen to you preach and decide whether you are engaging enough in the first 3 minutes of your sermon. This is the brutal reality.
Like it or not your church has already gone digital...it is simply a question of whether you have a great digital presence and strategy or a poor one.
If we hope things will go back to being 90% orientated around the physical building and 10% digital then we are going to greatly limit the future of our ministry. If we embrace this new universal reality, invest in it and hire for it, and use it as a catalyst for change; then we will seize the day.
Pause : What, as a leader, are you biggest fears regarding introducing change into your church? How 'risk adverse' do you think your church is and is it a healthy or unhealthy amount?