By Chris Moon
As coronavirus-related social-distancing rules are eased and churches crack open the doors to their buildings, they do so knowing many things will be different—some for the worse, but possibly some for the better.
Churches will need to figure out how to make the most of the challenges and opportunities.
SAME STORM, DIFFERENT BOATS
“We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat,” said Rick Rusaw, chief executive officer of the Spire Network and former pastor of LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colo.
Spire has been surveying pastors and church members about their attitudes toward church life. A large percentage of churchgoers say they will be hesitant to come back to physical church gatherings, even when those gatherings are permitted by local health ordinances.
But, of course, many Christians are champing at the bit to return to “normal” church. It means pastors will have a difficult line to walk.
“They’re going to have a part of their church that’s not happy with what they’re doing,” Rusaw said. “We ought to just face the reality of that. Not everybody’s willing to gather.”
That’s just one obstacle moving forward that churches will need to clear, said Bart Rendel, president of Intentional Churches, a pastor-coaching firm based in Las Vegas.
“I think leaders right now have a really tough challenge,” he said.
And there are a lot of implications to the COVID-19 shutdowns that simply will take time to bear out. Will in-person church attendance ever get back to some semblance of “normal,” or will the digital church serve as a permanent church home for more people than before?
“In simple terms, I think there’s a lot to be determined,” Rendel said. “We’ve trained many, many, many people not to go to church, or to the building anyway. We don’t know what that’s going to mean.”
HERE TO STAY
Rusaw, of the Spire Network, said he believes the digital church is going to be a permanent part of the landscape. He anticipates the majority of churches will keep their online church services in place in one form or another.
“The digital church, whatever that means, is here to stay,” Rusaw said.
Still, the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic could be sobering, even with a bolstered online church.
Rusaw said he’s heard indications the nation is at risk of losing 50,000 to 100,000 churches due to the coronavirus. Those closings could be caused by difficult finances and low attendance.
They also could be caused by the logistics of not having a place for churches to meet. For example, many churches meet in schools—something that simply may not be available to them for some time.
“There’s not a school district on the planet that is going to take a risk at this point,” Rusaw said.
The fundamental job of the church hasn’t changed, he said. Churches still are trying to attract, connect, keep, grow, and multiply disciples.
Smaller churches actually may have a bit of an advantage. Churches of fewer than 150 people tend to have a closer connection to their members—and thus should be able to more easily discern and meet the needs of their congregations.
“When we’re smaller, we know people better,” he said.
CONNECTING WITH NEIGHBORS
And in the community, churches have a large opportunity to meet needs.
These are trying financial times for many people because of the economic shutdown. And these are trying emotional times for a lot of people—because of both economics and social distancing. The church, Rusaw said, can speak to all of those issues.
He said people in their 20s and 30s seem to be “feeling the most anxiety, the most disruption” to their lives.
“Maybe we ought to be checking with our 20s and 30s,” he said.
But every church has an opportunity to connect more with its community, Rusaw said.
Some of the outcomes of COVID-19 have been that people have gotten to know their neighbors better, which can help foster evangelism. There also are large community needs that must be met—such has helping with at-risk kids in schools and meeting the volunteer needs of community service organizations that serve vulnerable populations, especially in cities.
“They’re all looking for volunteers right now,” Rusaw said. “I think serving is a great way for us to have the opportunity to share our story.”
Decades from now, churches should be able to talk about what they did to meet the needs of their communities during this unique crisis, Rusaw said.
“What stories are we going to be able to tell?”
Questions of how a church serves its community can be placed alongside questions about how a church can best serve its own members.
Rendel, of Intentional Churches, said pastors are presently learning how best to communicate with their members in an era when clear communication is most certainly needed. Too many churches, he said, overcommunicate.
“We just have to be really on our game,” he said. “You don’t want to overinform. At the same time, you have to be very careful in your communication strategy.”
By trying to communicate too much information or communicating too often, churches run the risk of inundating the already-full in-boxes of their congregants. Messages could be left unread as a result, Rendel said.
Pastors need to quickly learn how to say what needs to be said succinctly—and how to do it in a way that garners a response. The COVID-19 shutdowns could be a catalyst to better communication skills among pastors.
“It’s a curse not to be together,” Rendel said. “But when you’re not, you really have to think about the message, the channel, the content, and the segment that you are talking to. To be honest, I think it’s been overwhelming for some guys.”
One key is to target certain messages to certain segments of a congregation. Longtime financial supporters of a church might need to be communicated to in a different way than a segment of churchgoers who are new to giving, Rendel said.
And pastors need to make sure they give their congregants a clear call to action. More often than not, Rendel said, the people “do what they’re asked if you ask them clearly.”
Better communication within the congregation—as a hidden benefit of the pandemic—also might be borne out in the way churches have learned to use such things as Zoom.
Church leaders are learning that communication styles that work during in-person meetings don’t necessarily work through a screen. A small group that typically spends half an hour eating snacks and engaging in small talk during its meetings has had to learn a different rhythm to its meetings.
“This is real-time learning as we speak,” Rendel said. “It’s got to be shorter. It’s got to be purposefully led.”
But, certainly, online meetings—because of their tendency toward brevity—aren’t as relational as in-person ones, Rendel said. Life-changing relationships require time and depth. “That’s my concern.”
Yet again, every downside seems to have a corresponding upside. And digital church may have plenty of upsides.
Rendel said he’s curious to see whether online church will generate a revival in the church.
“A ton of people are tuning in to churches and the message that weren’t before,” he said. “Is there not a moment now coming where we can really harvest that movement of God?”
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.