By Dave Ferguson
On March 12, 2020, I made two different versions of a video, knowing only one of them would be sent to our entire church. In the first video, I said we would stick to our normal schedule with 26 services at 11 locations across Chicagoland. In the second video, I introduced a new reality by telling everyone our church facilities were closing and we were moving everything online.
After I finished recording the videos, my wife and I headed to O’Hare International Airport to fly to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We were planning to see our youngest son, Caleb, compete in the NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field Championships. We were very excited about the possibility he might become an All-American.
About halfway to the airport, Sue got a call from our oldest son, Josh, who lives in Cincinnati; Josh told us that, according to Twitter, the championships had been canceled because of COVID-19. We immediately called Caleb, already in North Carolina with his team, to tell him we were so sorry to hear about the cancellation. It turned out, he hadn’t heard the news. Twitter knew before the athletes. We turned the car around and headed home.
Within a day, the church sent out the second version of the video and said goodbye to normal. We closed all of our physical locations and transitioned everything to online.
As someone who provides leadership for Community Christian Church (a large multisite church in Chicago), NewThing (an international church-planting network), and Exponential (a church-planting conference in the United States and Europe), I thought and prayed a lot leading into what we now call the new normal. God and a mentor steered me to a verse and a motto, respectively, that I want to share with you. The verse is, in essence, a challenge: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7, English Standard Version). And this is the motto: “Where fear sees a crisis, faith sees opportunities.”
Over the last several months, I’ve tried to view the many crises we’ve faced with faith in search of the opportunity. Here are four opportunities I believe are ahead for each of our churches in the new normal.
1. Opportunity for Innovation
In working on this article, I reread On the Verge, which Alan Hirsch and I wrote a decade ago. I rediscovered these words:
If you really want to see innovation happen, find a crisis. It is in the middle of a crisis that we come to the realization that an end is near or a new future is being born. On the verge of a crisis, we are also on the verge of our greatest moment. It’s at that moment that we must decide: innovate or die.
We definitely have found a crisis. Several of them! A health crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus. A civil rights crisis that erupted with the killing of George Floyd. An economic crisis that has seen record unemployment. Those all must be factored into what makes up the new normal.
Additionally, here are some brutal facts as we entered this new normal. These come from a 2018-2019 National Congregations Study about U.S. churches:
- About one-third of all churches had no savings.
- Only one in five streamed their worship services.
- Less than half of all churches were receiving donations electronically.
Because of this, some churches simply will not survive. (See “The Financial Impact of COVID-19 on Christian Churches,” by Kent E. Fillinger.)
Those that do survive will refuse to get stuck in the past. Instead, these churches will innovate by anticipating these four new realities:
- a challenging economic environment
- a culture that is hyperconscious about safety
- a society that moves seamlessly between online and offline
- a society that will no longer wait to resolve racism
The quote from On the Verge is something I wrote as we were exiting the economic crisis of 2008-09. I’m not prone to quoting myself. (Candidly, I don’t remember writing it.) However, as I read those words, it was like I was hearing from a braver, more daring version of myself challenging me to not miss the opportunity to innovate.
The organizations I lead are leaning into innovation. For example, Community Christian no longer has a “blueprint” for how to do church; we now have a “playbook.” It’s normal for a large, multisite church to have a blueprint—one specific set of plans—for how to teach, worship, lead small groups, and do kids and student ministry; the leaders typically seek to build the church according to that blueprint.
I believe the new normal will require more adaptability and flexibility from churches.
We now have a playbook that includes three new “plays” we can run as a church. Play 1 is church online if we have to “shelter in place.” Play 2 includes a micro church expression we call “3C Communities,” for if the church can meet only in groups of 50 or fewer. Play 3 is a “touchless service” that can be used for large gatherings in our facilities when health precautions and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines must be obeyed.
If you ever wanted to try something new, now is the opportune time for innovation! We aren’t going back to normal. The new normal will require innovation.
2. Opportunity for Digitalization
Any church of more than 50 people has no chance of thriving in the new normal without taking advantage of this second great opportunity: digitalization.
Google searches for words such as God, prayer, and church are at record highs. People are going to their computers hoping to find spiritual guidance. The good news is that many churches are moving toward digital. According to Barna, before COVID-19, just 2 percent of practicing Christians said they attended a church that used only a video or livestream sermon. By May 2020, 9 out of 10 pastors (93 percent) reported they were streaming worship services online. At that time, 56 percent of pastors said their churches would “definitely” continue to provide digital worship services after social distancing guidelines ended. Only 1 percent would “definitely not” continue digital services.
I believe all of our churches must seize on the opportunity to move from analog to digital in two important areas:
Online Worship Services: As we entered into the new normal at Community Christian, we went from having only a few hundred to many thousands joining us for online worship. At the time of this writing (early July), our church had not met in person for almost four months and yet we continue to see record engagement online that far surpasses our normal attendance. This is part of the new normal. From this point forward, some of the people in your church will exclusively engage with your church online. And most of your people will float back-and-forth from your online platform to physical locations.
Online Small Groups: Within two weeks of this new normal, our church shifted all of our small groups from in-person to online (mostly via a Zoom platform). During that time of change, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of people meeting in small groups! All online!
Nicky Gumbel, the pioneer behind the Alpha Course (a basic introduction to Christianity), told me he once was totally opposed to Alpha small groups meeting online. When the pandemic hit and Alpha groups were forced to meet online, the number of people in these groups tripled at his home church, Holy Trinity Brompton.
Gumbel now says, “Online groups may be better!” Why? Because you don’t have to drive to and from a church building. You don’t have to arrange for childcare. You can make coffee exactly the way you like it and drink it from your favorite mug. It all happens from the comfort of your home.
Digital is not optional. Resources must be reallocated. It’s not expensive and most of it can be accomplished for free. If you don’t personally know how to do this, ask a high school student to do it or have them teach you. Your church is either a dot.com or dot.dead! Welcome to the new normal.
3. Opportunity for Mobilization
Not long after I got back from my trip to the airport, all of Chicago and the whole state of Illinois were issued “stay at home” orders. I called my friend, mentor, and missiologist Alan Hirsch to discuss how I should lead my church into the new normal (minus buildings and programs).
“Dave, I used to have church leaders play a simulation game in order to help them imagine how to mobilize their entire church for the mission of Jesus,” Alan said. “The simulation game would go like this: I want you to pretend that you are the Archbishop of Canterbury and you oversee all of the Church of England. There are 44 dioceses and 12,500 churches. But suddenly one thing has changed—you do not have any church buildings. What would you do?’’
Alan said, “Dave, we are living out that simulation game. . . . What will you do?”
Many churches will naively assume the pivot from analog to digital is the only shift that’s needed. To gather our church folks in large and small groups on the World Wide Web is not the mission. Rather, the mission is to take our church to the whole wide world. We must take advantage of the opportunity! Here are two ways we can mobilize our people for this mission like never before:
Watch Parties: Every church with an online presence has a great opportunity to mobilize their people for “watch parties,” which simply means a group of people who meet online or in person to experience a worship service together. These can take place with anyone, anytime, and anywhere! Facebook is specifically designed to make hosting an online watch party easy. These parties are a unique opportunity for your people to invite friends and neighbors from their circles of trust and influence. Remember, over half of Jesus’ teachings happened in an outdoor setting, so why not encourage your people to host a watch party in their backyard, driveway, or garage?
Micro Church: In this new normal, our churches have an incredible opportunity to mobilize people for mission like never before (in our lifetime) through micro churches. Three factors have combined to make it possible to launch micro churches of 20 to 50 people supported by digital content from local churches and led by volunteer leaders. These three factors: an increase in spiritual interest by people at large, a desire by many for smaller groups (for health reasons), and access to great digital biblical content.
For a generation we have admired the small and reproducible expressions of lay-led churches in the East, and now the cultural climate and conditions make it possible for us to do this in the West. This is a huge opportunity to mobilize the people of God, and it could lead to church-planting movements for which we have long prayed.
4. Opportunity for Collaboration
Here are three important reasons to join arms with other churches and collaborate:
- Your church needs other churches more than ever.
- Other churches need your church more than ever.
- Churches working together are the best way to advance the kingdom of God.
There are about 35 churches in the five NewThing Networks in Chicago. Churches in this diverse group have vowed not to compete, but rather, to collaborate and work together to advance the kingdom.
Watson Jones of Compassion Baptist, a NewThing church on the southeast side of Chicago, reached out to other network churches about an opportunity. He explained that 70 percent of the COVID-19 cases in Chicago were occurring in the African-American neighborhoods that made up only 29 percent of the population. Upon closer examination, it was discovered that older adults in those communities were the main ones contracting the virus. Why? Because they were on food assistance that would not allow for food delivery, so they were making multiple trips to grocery stores where they were repeatedly being exposed to the coronavirus.
Watson said his church was launching a new initiative called “Chicago Delivers” to pay for food delivery for qualified older adults in those neighborhoods. He asked if other churches in our network would contribute funds and collaborate on this effort. Our answer was immediate—Yes!
In this case, collaboration was a do-or-die issue. Don’t miss the opportunity to collaborate with other churches.
_ _ _
In the late 1980s, REM sang, “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.” How prescient. A new future is being born, a new normal is beginning, and it holds huge opportunities for churches who will approach it with courage and bravery.
Dave Ferguson serves as lead pastor of Chicago’s Community Christian Church, a multisite missional community. Dave is also an award-winning author and the visionary for the international church-planting movement NewThing and president of the Exponential Conference.