Social distancing and shelter-in-place ordinances that have arisen from this COVID-19 pandemic are challenging the shape of church as we know it. Not the message, not the importance, not the mission. Just the shape—the how behind the what and the why. This is temporary (prayerfully), but its impact is, and will be, further reaching than you might think. We need to start asking the right questions today, if we expect to have the right answers tomorrow.
Regarding the “temporary” reshaping of church life in this season, here are several emerging observations of which church leaders need to be aware. Each is followed by a question church leaders need to be asking.
1. Digital, online spaces for worshipping and connecting are catching on. Like it or not, your people (and the people you are hoping to reach in your community) are getting used to the ease and accessibility of distance-based church life. The church of yesterday could get by with a completely on-campus experience, but the church of tomorrow will not. The physical gathering of the covenant community is still of utmost importance. Our hearts should long for the gathered fellowship of the redeemed. But if the church of tomorrow is to thrive, it must utilize digital, online tools to keep connected with people, and to drive them to the regular gathering experience(s). The question you need to be asking now: How are we planning to continue using digital, online tools for worship and small group connection?
2. Your people are getting used to having multiple options for faithful, sacrificial, worshipful giving to/through their local church. Faithful, sacrificial giving to and through the local church is no less worshipful behind a smartphone than it is while sitting in a pew. But there are still those in your congregation who feel more connected to their worshipful giving when they tangibly release the check or cash inside the church facilities during a gathered worship setting. This season of social distancing is teaching some people that from this point forward, they can give effectively and worshipfully remotely. It is teaching others how much they long to let go of that gift in person. If your church’s funding mechanism is reliant upon only one method of collection, from this point forward, expect a serious budget shortfall this year and serious budget reductions in the years to come. The question you need to be asking now: How are we planning to continue offering and celebrating multiple giving platforms for tithes and offerings?
3. Your community is being inundated with your church’s online presence. Through the “highly-targeted advertising” and connection matrices of social media platforms, people in your community are being bombarded with your church’s online presence right now. The good news is that just about everyone your church wants to reach is online. The bad news is that just about everyone your church wants to reach is online. Yes, you read that right. Your church office is sharing more online than ever before. Your church’s staff are creating and posting digital resources and devotions. Your church members are tagging your church, each other, and your city’s page(s) in their shares and posts. This is good in that your church is getting more online exposure than ever before. Just make sure that what your community is being exposed to embodies your church’s identity and message well. Take care to produce excellent resources that represent Jesus and your church best. Make sure information is concise and standardized regarding services, ministry opportunities, etc. You don’t want competing or conflicting information from your church circulating online. Also, don’t oversaturate the market. The more unchurched people see from your church on their social feeds, the more likely they will be to ignore it. Share uniform, concise, excellent, well-thought-out information, and circulate it wisely. The question you need to be asking now: What is our plan for creating and circulating uniform, concise, excellent digital tools and information now and in the future?
4. Personal, physical interaction is being avoided, and that will not be changed overnight. The “distancing” part of social distancing will fade very slowly (if at all, for some people) in this generation. People who do end up in close proximity, for one reason or another, are becoming more comfortable with not shaking hands, bumping fists, and giving hugs. They are also becoming more comfortable resisting an outreached hand or an attempted hug, whereas previously they may have embraced such an expression even if reluctantly. Face-to-face interaction in your church gatherings will never be the same—at least not in this generation. There will be church people and guests in every gathering who resist, or at least are hesitant toward, physical expressions of greeting for the rest of their lives. I have no intention to label this as either good or bad in itself. My intent is simply to call it out as a new reality. If your church gatherings have a large group hand-shaking time or a circle-and-hold-hands time during worship gatherings, now is a really good time to reconsider those things. If it is essential to your church’s mission and vision, keep it. If not, kill it. Now’s the time. The question you need to be asking now: When we do gather together again in close proximity, how are we going to accommodate, and to what level will we accommodate, the hesitancy of worshippers’ physical interaction with one another?
5. Small groups in your church are beginning to see value in meeting as a group at less traditional times and from the comfort of their own homes. They are using a number of digital meeting platforms like ZOOM, Google Hangout, RingCentral, and more. Some of them are able to join the group more frequently because their scheduled calls are on Tuesday nights or Saturday mornings. I am not saying these digital platforms need to take the place of your regular, weekly small-group meeting times. But I am saying that if you don’t capture this moment by making plans to continue using videoconferencing platforms as supplemental meeting tools for small groups, you will miss a huge opportunity and you may miss some people, too. The question you need to be asking now: How might we continue to use videoconference platforms to keep our small groups connected in the future?
6. Families are being forced to worship and have devotions together in their own homes—and it’s about time. This is a good thing!!! Husbands and wives are reading Scripture and praying together. Fathers and mothers are leading devotions with their children. Grandchildren are sitting in the laps of their grandparents and hearing stories of God’s faithfulness and glory through the years. There’s nothing novel about this. It is the biblical model. In fact, perhaps there is grace in this whole social distancing episode in that God is forcing us back to a biblical model of prioritizing home-based discipleship. If you miss the opportunity here to cultivate and resource the regular practice of your people taking responsibility for discipleship in their homes, you will miss a timely gift from God. The question you need to be asking now: What plans do we need to make in order to continue celebrating, resourcing and equipping home-based discipleship?
7. The gospel is reaching further and stronger than ever. Through seasons of unprecedented struggle, the message of the gospel has always brought timeless hope to troubled souls. Through your church’s online tools/resources, the digital reproduction and re-sharing of the gospel message is reaching further and stronger right now than it ever has before. Challenge has forced us into this. But as always, the church has come out shining like stars. The creative and techno-savvy individuals in your church are proving their value today, that the name and fame of Jesus Christ might reach the ends of the earth. We have spent decades trying to get people out of their homes and into the church building. And in only a couple of weeks, every church in America has figured out how to get out of its building and into people’s homes. There are lost and unchurched people watching your services right now who would never have stepped foot in your church. Some of them are halfway around the world. It’s time to stop scorning the Internet as a tool of the devil, and start redeeming it as a tool for the gospel. The question you need to be asking now: How are we using, and how will we continue to use, digital follow-up processes so that those who hear the message of the gospel through our content have an opportunity to respond in faith?
The hard truth is that this pandemic is a generation-shaping crisis. Its affects will be far-reaching and long-standing. In other words, the way we “do” church will never be the same. That’s not altogether a bad thing. Neither is it new to us as God’s people. Being the church never changes, but the way we do church has changed to meet the needs and challenges of every generation. This crisis presents great opportunity for the gospel of Jesus Christ and for his church who carries that good news from generation to generation. Let’s be sure to ask the right questions now, during the crisis, so that we are prepared to effectively capture every Great Commission opportunity this challenge affords us in the days ahead.