Approximately 100 days into the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to find ourselves bewildered and confused by the upheaval to our ways of life as individuals, families and congregations. It seems as though a fog has settled over us, obscuring our vision of both the present and future church.
The disorientation brought on by current events is very real. We awaken each morning wondering what new part of the ground under our feet has shifted. When we try and peer into the future, we genuinely “see through a glass darkly” and find ourselves anxious about what we may face as we endeavor to do church in the 2020 decade.
Even with all the uncertainties around and within us, there appear to be some broad truths and trends emerging that are going to define our work in the Church for the foreseeable future. Here is a tentative list of things I expect us to see LESS of and things I believe we will see MORE of as churches venture into a hazy future:
10 things we will see less of:
1. Full-time ministry positions are going to continue to decline as fewer churches can afford the staff models of the past.
2. The days of engaging the vast majority of our parishioners in Sunday worship only are rapidly going the way of the typewriter. The virus has shown us another way, and we will need to follow it.
3. Clear boundaries between work and home/family for ministers are increasingly blurred and can lead to an unhealthy loss of life and work balance. The ensuing weariness and fatigue is a painful reality for many clergy.
4. The number of judicatory and/or denominational employees and the assistance they offer churches will continue its precipitous decline. The looming economic recession among churches will dramatically impact the amount of money passed along to denominational entities. Fewer dollars, on top of a decade of declining income for most of them, will have a devastating impact upon their staff, missionaries, agencies and institutions.
5. A significant percentage of walk-in newcomers on Sundays, which has been a primary means of contact with potential congregants, will evaporate, as fewer non-churched people feel safe in large worship events.
6. For most of the 20th century, we engaged in facility-focused ministry models. Now, with our facilities sidelined, that model has been revealed as inadequate and based upon a world that may not reappear for several years.
7. Exclusively in-person educational models, based upon popular secular education models, are in serious trouble. Just as every educational institution is rethinking its delivery system, so must we.
8. Seminary-trained program staff members will become a rarity. Many fewer people are attending seminary or divinity school, and those who specialize in a particular field (music, youth, children, etc.) are especially in decline.
9. Single-focused staff positions will become a luxury few churches will be able to afford. Most will need to wear multiple vocational hats.
10. The churches that ignore cultural context and events of the day will fade and wither as people seek a way to engage their Sunday life with the reality of the life they lead Monday through Saturday.
10 things we will see more of:
1. An explosion of part-time contract staff members will arise to meet the needs and opportunities of the 2020s. This will challenge us to provide on-the-job theological reflection and education for those unfamiliar with such things.
2. A 7-day-a-week model of engagement of stakeholders will become the new norm for thriving churches. We will count differently, as we realize that much of our most important work occurs on days other than Sunday.
3. Home offices, fatigue and boundary violations among clergy and their families will create a need for better guardrails and policies that speak to life as we live it in the 2020s.
4. The rise of networks of fee-for-service advisors/consultants/providers will accelerate as the void of assistance to churches and clergy left by judicatories and denominations becomes more widespread.
5. The initial engagement of newcomers will become even more focused upon an online or personal relationship, often taking place in the midst of a weekday ministry or mission endeavor. Congregations will realize the urgency of having at least one staff member or key volunteer focus exclusively upon their online presence.
6. Facilities will become less and less relevant to a church’s survival and ability to thrive. Those that re-envision how to utilize their property will consider a variety of ways out of the corner we have painted ourselves into. These will include multiple tenants, sharing spaces with other congregations, seeking collaborative acquisition agreements with other churches or entities, mergers, selling unneeded or necessary real estate, etc.
7. The way of doing faith formation will lean into the possibilities that virtual ministry offers. Like most educational institutions, we will quickly pivot to doing this work in a hybrid culture of virtual and in-person settings.
8. The local church will increasingly become a vital cog in the dispensing of sound theological training, perhaps in conjunction with entrepreneurial seminaries and divinity schools.
9. Laity will increasingly lead as program coordinators and ministry facilitators, while partnering for theological content with others (see #7 and #8 above).
10. Churches will continue to awaken to the pressing call to allow the Gospel to speak to the challenging issues of the day. We will recognize that our voice must be heard if we are going to be relevant to those who are part of our church and those who surround our church.
This is today’s list. I’m sure it will change as congregations and their leaders continue to find their way into a strange, new world.