In a post-pandemic world, the church, in the words of Mark Twain, may need to declare, “The rumors of my death are grossly exaggerated.”
While it is true that many struggling churches may close, merge or re-purpose in the near future, this process already was under way and will only be accelerated by factors related to COVID-19.
But make no mistake, to be effective in the next chapter of ministry, churches must navigate many cultural changes. A few weeks into the current health pandemic, I was jolted into reality when I heard Bill Wilson, executive director of the Center for Healthy Churches, suggest, “We should prepare for COVID-19 to change the way we do church more than anything in our lifetime.”
We are now six months into dealing with coronavirus concerns, and we are still discerning the impact the health pandemic will have on the church in the short term and the long term.
As we search for best practices that promote health and vibrancy in the next chapter of ministry, here are 12 trends I see emerging for being church in a post-pandemic world:
Being the church will become more important than going to church. Gathering with those in your spiritual community will continue to be an important spiritual practice, but not necessarily perceived as the most important thing. The next chapter of church life will be much more incarnational and much less institutional.
New metrics of effectiveness will emerge. The old six-point envelope system from my childhood, which included being present, on time, studying your lesson, bringing your offering, staying for worship and reading your Bible daily will become completely obsolete as a way of measuring spiritual fidelity. Future metrics for effectiveness may focus on life transformation, community connections, ministry touch points, mentoring relationships and funds invested in missional causes.
Congregations will be better stewards of campus space. Church campuses will be smaller, more energy efficient and will maximize smart technology. Spaces will be multi-purpose and shared by multiple groups.
“The next chapter of church life will be much more incarnational and much less institutional.”
Churches will be more community oriented. Inward-focused churches that exist primarily for the benefit and use of their members will diminish. Outward-focused churches that embrace their communities will be more likely to flourish.
Ministry staffs will likely be composed of more generalists and fewer specialists. Staffs will be smaller, and ministers will work more as a team with each minister expressing leadership in multiple areas. Ministers will take on a more biblical model of a coaching/discipling role of being “encouragers and equippers” of the congregation for their work of ministry.
Healthy post-pandemic churches will welcome honest inquiry and dialogue. While it is important for churches to live out foundational convictions, most people are not looking for a litany of legalistic dogma. Effective churches will adopt a new apologetic, taking on more of a Mars Hill flavor, where seekers and believers meet near the altar of the “unknown god” to discuss the meaning of life.
A hybrid model of participation will continue to emerge. Both in-person and virtual gatherings are around to stay. Worship services, small groups gatherings and committee meetings will offer in-person and virtual options for participation. Many churches will have online members from different communities who connect with worship and mission virtually.
Church programming will be less Sunday-centric and will focus on opportunities throughout the week. The majority churches will continue to have a Sunday worship service, but effective churches will create multiple options to connect on days other than Sunday.
“The post-COVID church will focus more on spiritual muscle than physical mass.”
There will be more emphasis on small-group gatherings and less emphasis on large-group gatherings. The strength of a church will be manifest in small group connections, rather than crowd size. The post-COVID church will focus more on spiritual muscle than physical mass.
Surprising partnerships will be formed. As local churches will become more collaborative and less competitive, many churches will discover they do not need to “go at it alone.” Formal and informal partnerships between churches may evolve as networks between groups of churches that will share ideas, resources, assignments and in some cases even staff members or campus space.
The gospel will be presented positively as good news. As we slowly emerge from coronavirus concerns, people will be even more hungry for good news. Guilt-ridden, judgment-infused, condescending approaches to evangelism will give way to Jesus-centered conversations about deliverance, healing, forgiveness and life transformation.
Effective evangelism will become more relational and less transactional. Rather than conversion being thought of merely as an introduction to Jesus, salvation language will employ multiple expressions that describe a re-orientation to following Jesus and holistically adopting the Jesus way of life.
These are only a few examples of the trends I see emerging for effective ministry in a post-pandemic world.
In any season, becoming a healthier and more effective church is an ongoing journey. In his book, Becoming a Contagious Church, Mark Middleburg writes the following: “One thing is for sure: without intentional planning, prioritization, decision making and leadership, and a whole lot of course corrections along the way, a church will never experience sustained evangelistic fruitfulness. This is not something churches drift into naturally or on their own. No, becoming a contagious church only happens on purpose!”
These adaptations will not emerge quickly. This is a major sea change, an ecclesial paradigm shift, so let us be faithful and flexible as we navigate uncharted waters.
Barry Howard serves as pastor of Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta, and he serves as a columnist and leadership coach with the Center for Healthy Churches.