I have been speculating with my friend Mike Smith (recently retired pastor at Central Baptist Church, Fountain City in Knoxville, Tennessee, and thinker extraordinaire) about what is on the horizon for congregations and parishes as the next phase of the COVID-19 shutdown unfolds. We have wondered about what comes next as we transition from the crisis of the moment to the long-term implications of this global pandemic.
Below are 10 of our partially developed thoughts and questions, plus one pressing question we all need to ponder. Undoubtedly, you will have others you could add to this list.
1. There will be no “light-switch moment” when some horn sounds and life suddenly returns to normal for churches and parishes. Instead, we will gradually and painfully emerge from this pandemic and its impact over the course of months and even years. Until there is a reliable vaccination for the virus (estimated to be 12 to 24 months away), we should assume that many people would be wary of public gatherings of any type. It will probably be well into 2021 before large-scale physical worship attendance becomes the norm.
2. The adaptive change lessons we have learned over the last five or six weeks are our new reality. Specifically, innovative methods for gathering the scattered church, engaging the de-churched and meeting the un-churched and our neighbors are going to be our primary focus for the rest of this year and probably longer. (We are also going to need new metrics for assessing the effectiveness of our mission and ministry strategies.)
3. We have learned so much so quickly. We have discovered, for example, that we can connect with a wider range of church members than we thought possible, provided we are willing to go to them on a regular basis and in multiple formats via the Internet. If we’ve learned this much in five or six weeks, what will we know six months from now? Our resilience and imagination are encouraging signs of the capacity to adapt.
4. We have discovered that we can quickly develop online content at low cost and with sufficient quality. Already, the notion that online worship must be a replica of sanctuary worship is fading. It is remarkable to watch the adaptation that is taking place as people begin to explore the possibilities and creativity of virtual worship, small-group spiritual formation and other ministries.
5. We have learned there are folks who are willing to connect with socially isolated members by phone, email, Facebook, Zoom and other means. We can have meaningful, ongoing contact even if we cannot be physically present with one another. The next generation of contact methods will be fascinating to watch as we find new ways to create deep connections with one another.
6. We should assume a surge of mental illnesses, increased addictions, depression, loneliness, marital conflict, parenting frustrations, chronic anxiety, unresolved grief, etc. How are we preparing to offer help to those who are going to suffer most as the disruption continues?
7. When we do get back to whatever passes for normal, we will have a whole culture even more addicted to the Internet than before the pandemic. How will this impact the way we engage our church and/or fellow believers? We should not expect our folks to walk away from communication technologies that have become indispensable to them.
8. Prior to the virus, most church staff members invested nearly all their time in those who showed up for worship and other church activities on a regular basis. In the future church, will ministry staff revert to such a pattern or will they reconfigure their time to include preparing and using the Internet to stay in touch with the moderately and marginally connected members and even the largely disconnected? If staff decides to reconfigure its use of time, what might that look like and how will it be received by relevant oversight groups?
9. Will church staff and other leaders be willing to try to cultivate a congregation outside the “core” membership? How will pastors and other ministers engage a significant portion of the congregation that exists primarily via individual interactions with online content and communications rather than physical presence at designated times?
10. Will ministers and congregations be willing to build on their experience with Zoom and other providers to structure, promote and resource online small groups? If so, what might be the effects on former methodologies and on a church’s reach and impact in its community and beyond?
Finally, churches are being challenged to have the same conversations as retailers, universities and hospitals around this question:
Are buildings a necessity for delivering our services and ministries?
We will probably learn to answer this as a polarity exercise. That is, the answer will simultaneously be “yes” and “no.” We will, like retailers, universities and hospitals, find ways to be the church both in a physical location AND in a virtual and scattered manner.
We knew this diversification was needed, but the pandemic has fast-forwarded us into our future at warp speed. We will not be able to un-learn what we have learned about being the church going forward. Our new normal will see us regarding our physical location as one of many expressions of our church.
In responding creatively and faithfully to this question, we will quite possibly become more of the gathered and scattered church Jesus had in mind for his followers.
Read more BNG news and opinion related to the coronavirus pandemic: