If you are re-evaluating your relationship with church, you are not alone.
As we move from online worship and distanced activities to in-person church life, many decision moments come our way. This return to in-person church activities is a major transition for those of us connected to our congregations.
Did you notice the competing thoughts and feelings rising in you when the opportunity to return to in-person activities presented itself: Am I going back? What are we going back to? What’s this excitement about? What’s this boredom or discouragement about? Do we have to put on nice clothes to participate?
If that’s you, welcome to the great re-evaluation experience of 2021. Since the pandemic was so pervasive, affecting everyone in our world, it introduced uncertainty into so much of our lives. Perhaps it’s natural then, at least for those interested in growth, to re-evaluate most everything, church included.
When perceived in this way, we understand the sorting and sifting in the aftermath of a pandemic as normal and expected.
If you are there, you are in good company. So many of us are giving attention to our relationships with our churches, resulting in four broad approaches to church life.
Before describing them, I’ll note one experience shared by at least three of the four — relief. So many are breathing a deep sigh of relief, simply glad to be back in-person. Even while writing this, I’m aware of the variance across this USA where some churches are still online or heavily masked. Others have been in-person for months. Regardless, with the vaccine widely available, many are relieved that restrictions are less necessary, opening doors to in-person interaction again.
Beyond relief, here are four common approaches:
The Accepters. Just beyond relief is the abode of the Accepters. Certainly, they are glad to see people in-person, yet they are not very happy about higher engagement with their church.
Their view of their church is that participation is largely an unsatisfying experience. They believe their church is a boring, low-energy culture, without much promise in the present or future. But something prevents the Accepters from leaving — deep roots, significant relationships, fear of life disruption, need for normalcy, benefit to a specific family member, traditionalism, or duty, among other dynamics.
“They don’t expect others to join their church, but they are not leaving their church.”
They aren’t very optimistic about the future, and they don’t expect others to join their church, but they are not leaving their church. They accept what is, experiencing church life as unsatisfying, yet they tell themselves this is as good as it gets given all the dynamics of their lives. They accept what is, with low-level disappointment.
The Affirmers. Beyond their relief, the Affirmers are largely appreciative of the way their churches are functioning. They are those whose attitude toward church is mostly uncritical affirmation. They find their churches satisfying, living into an expression of church which resonates with them, resulting in contentment.
The Affirmers relate to their churches with varying degrees of health and functionality. Healthy Affirmers are genuinely convinced their churches are mostly moving along in the right direction. These Affirmers can look at their churches critically, noticing the problems and obstacles to missional progress, avoiding naivety. Less healthy Affirmers lack the critical eye, unable or unwilling to notice the downsides of their church. For them, loyalty means always affirming nearly everything, whether missionally congruent or not.
The Affirmers are generally positive church participants, with varying degrees of helpfulness when it comes to missional progress.
The Reshapers. These are the disciples of Jesus for whom going back to church-as-we-have-known-it is not much of a viable option. Their pandemic experience included stripping away layers of perspectives, beliefs, habits and patterns.
Through the “unlayering,” they discovered faith and relationship with God in new ways. In addition, they discovered new ways of engaging and being church. All this combined to heighten their passion for God and God’s church. They believe in the mission of God as expressed through church more than ever, seeing the blatant need for communities gathered around the way of Jesus.
“Don’t expect the Reshapers to sit quietly, accepting the status quo.”
The Reshapers, then, are not content to go back to church-as-we-have-known-it given their inspiring aspirations toward what church can become. They are returning to in-person church with their engines revved for missional progress, becoming more adaptive expressions of the body of Christ.
Don’t expect the Reshapers to sit quietly, accepting the status quo. They believe the body of Christ is in motion, shaping and reshaping into something greater.
The Leavers. I’m reading predictions by those who can read the tea leaves better than I about the percentages of people who are not returning to their churches. My view is that it’s really too soon to tell how many Leavers there are, but we already were familiar with the “Done”s way before the pandemic came along.
These disciples mirrored the Reshapers’ experience of the layers falling away, with a very different outcome. The Leavers no longer see the way of Jesus reflected enough in their churches to stay — or are leaving for a myriad of other reasons.
Please note, there are future Leavers still engaged with their church, teetering on the brink. Their church experience in the coming months will directly influence their leaving or staying. The Leavers are done with church, not returning to in-person or online activities.
I hope this is a realistic and accurate view of how people are sorting themselves in relation to their churches. Of course, we could identify additional approaches. And most of us are a mix of approaches, identifying with more than one.
My hope is that raising our awareness about these four approaches will help us assess the vitality and trajectory of our churches, positioning us to become greater expressions of the body of Christ.
Mark Tidsworth is founder and team leader for Pinnacle Leadership Associates. He has served as a pastor, new church developer, interim pastor, renewal pastor, therapist, nonprofit director, business owner, leadership coach, congregational consultant, leadership trainer and author. Ordained in the Baptist tradition, Mark is an ecumenical Christian minister based in Chapin, S.C.
Re-forming a post-COVID church in a post-churchly nation | Opinion by Bill Leonard
Regathering for worship, processing our pain and remembering our baptism | Opinion by Carol McEntyre
Can these bones live? The pandemic as portal | Opinion by Stephen Shoemaker
12 trends for being church in a post-pandemic world | Opinion by Barry Howard
Your church after COVID: Restart, refresh or relaunch? | Opinion by Bill Leonard