With over three months of pandemic life behind us, the world has changed. With a vaccine months away at best, increasing financial turmoil alongside the global response to the killing of George Floyd, it would be unwise to prognosticate about the world to come. But the fact is that many organizations, businesses, and yes, churches, will not survive the pandemic.

Many churches have made heroic pivots to reimagine themselves in this time. Worship services have moved to parking lots. Churches who had been dragged kicking and screaming into the internet now have weekly streaming services. However, it’s important to remember that the pandemic, much like the virus itself, is not just dangerous because it creates problems, but because it exasperates the issues that were already there.

Across North America, churches have already been declining for decades. Financially, it has become increasingly difficult to fund church models that require full time staff and well-maintained buildings. Research has shown that many Americans now categorize themselves as “nones,” or those with no religious affiliation. Of those nones, many could actually be considered “dones,” those individuals who have walked away from both the church institutions and their own sense of identity as a Christian.

The pandemic throws fuel on the fire. If your church was struggling financially, then the pandemic could make it dangerous. If your church members were on the way to being “dones” themselves, the disconnection of quarantine makes it easy to finally break away.

Jesus’ followers believe that his Church is here to stay. Models of Church, and even great church institutions, will come and go. Those who don’t survive the pandemic were likely on their way out already. Those who find a way to thrive in this pandemic season and continue into whatever season comes next, will have three things in common.

Models of Church, and even great church institutions, will come and go. Those who don't survive the pandemic were likely on their way out already.

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Invest in Distributed Leadership

In the pre-pandemic world, it was normal for the bulk of church leadership to be handled by a single individual. In small churches, a pastor might be responsible for preaching on Sunday, leading the choir, teaching a Bible class, visiting shut-ins, managing a youth program, and much, much more. In a larger church, responsibilities might seem more spread out to additional paid staff, but all meaningful decisions were likely made by a few people.

Now, the Pastor used to doing it all can’t do much. Everyone is dealing with a drop in productivity. “Working from home,” at it’s best, is still limited by what you can squeeze in between cooking at home, schooling at home, etc. But pastoring, at least, as has been taught in our seminaries and practiced for decades, is hands-on work. Of course, large church gatherings, where most churches discipleship disciple-making takes place, are out. 

This “economy of scale” that most churches are built on, is suffering. A single paid pastor and a few volunteers can pull off an in-person worship gathering. It might seem easy to assume that the same thing will immediately translate online. But even the savviest churches will admit that “pivoting to digital” just isn’t the same. New data shows that about one-in-three people who were regular church attendees before the pandemic aren’t dialing in for their church’s online opportunities. While the teaching elements may translate online, it seems that the intangibles of singing together, praying over each other and just catching up, were vital for getting people to show up.

The fact is that pastoring this way has always been limited. Outside of the large programmed events, an individual pastor can’t provide the discipleship, counseling, and friendship that Christians need. There are only so many one-on-one meetings an individual can squeeze in. Not to mention, the skills required for managing an organization or institution with events and budgets and buildings are not necessarily the skills needed to build a thriving Christian community, catechize that community and lead that community in mission. Thriving churches have always had a plurality of leaders—officially or unofficially—who teach, shepherd, gather, care for and disciple the body.

Now, most states are limiting gatherings to 25 or even 10 people. Even where restrictions have eased, many people are still hesitant to gather. Vaccines are likely months away, but even then, it is unknown who will come back. Churches who thrive during and after the pandemic must let go of their individual pastor-centric model and distribute the church’s work to capable leaders.

These distributed leaders can do much of the work that the individual pastor did, and possibly more personably and thoroughly. A mature follower of Christ should be able to do things like:

  • Patiently listen to the others
  • Pray for peace and healing
  • Read scripture and guide basic conversations around the text
  • Bring a few people together to serve the needs of their neighbors
  • Gather small groups of people in safe settings

Churches who thrive during and after the pandemic must let go of their individual pastor-centric model and distribute the church's work to capable leaders.

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Most churches should have at least a few people who have been doing these things officially or unofficially for decades. But not all churches have systems in place to commission and celebrate these leaders, much less the systems to identify and train future leaders. 

If this sounds familiar, it’s precisely what the early church had to do. Acts 6 tells of how the Apostles commissioned others to manage the day-to-day tasks so they could focus on teaching. Many churches have avoided this dispersal of power, choosing instead to allow paid professionals to do this work. Churches that will thrive in the pandemic and beyond will focus on distributing the church’s work away from single individuals managing large gatherings to a multiplicity of leaders empowered to lead smaller segments in initiatives befitting the needs and limitations of the moment.

Five Ways to Start Distributing Your Church

  1. Teach about the shift towards de-professionalization and empowerment, focusing on texts such as Acts 6.
  2. Celebrate publicly the work of individuals who are already gathering people safely, loving and serving their neighbors, discipling new believers and caring for the needy. 
  3. Identify pioneering leaders who can experiment with fresh expressions initiatives that safely gather church members as well as non-Christians.
  4. Encourage people to gather in safe ways by geography or affinity. Provide tools for simple liturgies or service projects.
  5. Commission those who have a proven capacity for roles such as teachers, counselors, and organizers of tasks to pursue these opportunities officially. In turn, paid leaders should focus on empowering these newly commissioned leaders to grow in their roles.

Learn how to become a Distributed Church at Resilient Church Academy with tracks like House Church:
From One Congregation to a Network of House Churches and Dinner Church: Re-Imagining Your (Larger) Congregation as Movement of (Smaller) Dinner Churches.

Expand Digital Presence into Digital Ministry & Discipleship

In the first few weeks of the pandemic, many churches scrambled to create online versions of their Sunday gatherings. Even leaders who had forsworn social media were suddenly preaching to Facebook live and counseling on Zoom. In those early days of lockdown, these opportunities to see a familiar face filled Christians’ hungry hearts suddenly overwhelmed by isolation and the unknown. As time has gone on, these digital connections have grown tenuous.

Online interactions drive so much of life, but churches have not always been quick to establish a presence there. Moreover, churches seldom have a clearly thought out understanding of what it means to minister to people within the digital space. What ends up happening is that the church (or more likely, the pastor) finds a way to broadcast the tasks they feel most comfortable or competent on to social media. Churches that focus on community or relationships reworked their gatherings for Zoom, while churches known for highly-produced gatherings have highly produced online streaming services.

Seriously reckoning with the local churches presence in the digital world will require three areas of focus.

First, churches need to “show up” on the internet. A church’s digital presence is the 21st century equivalent of having a legible sign and your name in the phone book. Churches who show up on the internet need a:

  • Simple website with the basic information (who, what, where, why and when) and basic SEO so that it can be found when searched for on Google. 
  • Pages on Yelp & Google Map
  • Facebook Page and other social media accounts

Of course, there is much more that the church needs to do in order to take advantage of online tools. However attractive and accurate webpage and accounts are, the first step is to show up where people are looking.

Second, churches need to incorporate digital strategy into all levels of ministry. Sermon series should be planned with awareness of how they will be seen (in person or streaming) and listened to (in person or podcast). Fellowship events can be promoted via online event platforms. Recognizing key volunteers, and thus encouraging others to do likewise, can be done on social media. In the past, churches published sermon notes and bulletins to extend the Sunday experience. Today, this should include podcasts, YouTube videos, and Instagram Stories that continue the  teaching and encouragement throughout the week.

Just posting an engaging Instagram Story is a tactic, it’s not a strategy. Digital ministry means understanding how people engage digitally, thoughtfully incorporating digital into a church’s strategies for attracting and discipling Christians looking for a church and a church’s strategy for evangelizing those who are not Christians. Christians looking for a church will search on Google, read Yelp reviews and peruse social media accounts. Those whom your church hopes to evangelize will engage first with social media accounts of their believing friends. Later, they’ll look at pages and websites related to events and eventually, the church or fresh expression of church they encounter.

Third, churches must understand that, as they make disciples, they are teaching people how to live out Jesus’ teachings in the real places where their lives take place. This means asking the question, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus on Twitter? And, yes, what would Jesus do with TikTok? Much has been said about Christian’s gullibility and eagerness to accept conspiracy theories. Christians seem just as likely to make inflammatory social media posts or argue in hurtful ways online. For years, Christians have struggled with how to navigate the constant presence of online porn. These questions will only get more complicated with the growth of augmented reality and the realisticness of virtual reality. Churches are in the disciple-making business, and disciples live, in part, online.

In today's digital era, churches need to know how to 'show up' online, incorporate digital media into all levels of strategy and disciple people to live like Jesus online.

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Five Ways to Integrate Your Church into the Digital Era

  1. Ensure your church “shows up online” with a good website, SEO and basic social media.
  2. Develop two digital pathways for introducing people to your church, one for Christians looking for a church home and one for those exploring the Christian faith.
  3. Explore how you can tell stories about who your church is and what you do on social media.
  4. Follow your church members online, and, when interacting in person, mention things they posted.
  5. Teach about how to act like Jesus on line.

Learn how to become a Distributed Church at Resilient Church Academy with tracks like Social Media: Go from Simple to Savvy in Four Sessions and Digital Ministry: How to Use Websites, Email, Social Media & Live-streaming to Build Community, Make Disciples and Glorify God

Listen to, Love and Serve Your Neighborhood

In a commuter culture, churches, like schools and grocery stores, are less rooted in their neighborhoods and more “service provider” for those with a particular taste. While some people want a church they can walk to, many look for a church based on their children’s ministry, worship style, or theological leanings. The pandemic has increased consumerist tendency exponentially, yet it may also create the opportunity to undermine it.

After almost every Sunday of the pandemic, you hear stories of Church live streams with people tuning in, not just from the pre-pandemic congregation, but from other cities and states. Many churches are happy to have the views, while others are exploring means of distance-membership. Serious ecclesiological work needs to be done here as to “what is the nature of the Church and can it be a translocal body?” However, it is hard to fault the individual Christian seeking connection and hope during the pandemic.

But there is another, much more local opportunity here that churches risk missing out on. The pandemic limitations forced on commuting, consumerist Americans are fertile soil for a renaissance of neighborhood. Adults working from home find themselves waving at neighbors as they walk their dog for the fourth time that day. Children schooling from home are creating jungle gyms in their front yards. Athletes unable to access their gym are running and biking through their neighborhood. Every day, these people will pass the empty parking lots of churches.

On top of the devastation of the virus itself, there is also social and economic fallout. Historically, Christians have led the way in healthcare. Throughout centuries of pandemics, Jesus’ disciples have rescued abandoned babies, cared for lepers and built hospitals, often at their own risk. The pandemic will cause many to be sick and die. Many have and will continue to lose their jobs. Others will go hungry.

Churches that thrive during and after the pandemic will listen to their neighborhoods. They’ll discover the needs of those in pain. They’ll discover the hopes of those who want to connect, want to help and don’t know how. They’ll uncover ways to love and serve their neighbors.

Churches that thrive during and after the pandemic will love and serve their literal neighbors. This includes those who live next door to a church building and those who live next door to the members of your pre-pandemic congregation. This may mean simply connecting for a socially distant conversation. This may mean opening up a dinner church for those who suddenly can’t afford groceries. This may mean Christians risking their own health by providing care for the sick and dying.

Churches who love and serve now will be recognized for being a Jesus-like presence at a time when hope was desperately needed. People, inside and outside your church, will want to know what you are doing and why. Neighbors may even want to buy groceries for dinner church or help visit the sick.

However, it’s doubtful that churches who turn inward during the pandemic will be able to turn outward afterward. When vaccines are readily available and a new normal develops, some churches will be remembered for loving their neighbors. Other churches won’t be remembered at all.

The pandemic has pushed many churches online, but it should also push them deeper into listening, loving and serving their immediate neighbors.

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Five Ways to Listen to, Love and Serve Your Neighborhood

  1. Meet your neighbors. Knock on doors. Leave notes. Chat from a safe social distance.
  2. Ask questions. Find out what people need and don’t need during the pandemic.
  3. Serve those who serve. Identify essential workers who need childcare. Throw drive-by parties celebrating doctors and nurses.
  4. Use your parking lot. Throw a socially-distant party. Become a drive-in theater. Offer outdoor karaoke. Just don’t be invisible.
  5. Start a dinner church. Feed the hungry people in your neighborhood or find a neighborhood with hungry people.

Will Your Church Survive the Pandemic?

There are a lot of things that won’t make it through the pandemic. The number of restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses that rely on gathering people who permanently re-open will be thinned. Likewise, many churches that have been limping along, slowly dying of attrition, will close their doors a few years earlier than they would have otherwise.

But there are also those who will pivot. Churches that redistribute power in order to reorganize as a network, will grow deeper and wider than they ever could in their centralized models. Churches that develop a clear theology, methodology and strategy for their digital presence will be able to stay connected, reach new people and disciple them in ways relevant for their digitized life. Churches that recommit to their neighbors will find others joining in, both now and after the pandemic.

Which will your church be?

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Chris Morton
About the Author

Chris Morton

Chris works across the organization to help get new projects off the ground and into the world. He also helps to manage our email, social media and other digital communications. He helped plant Austin Mustard Seed, where he served for five years as Community Developer. He also works with several other non-profits and businesses to tell their story with content and social media. In 2012, he graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with a M.A. in Global Leadership. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Laura.