The year 2020 and the new decade seemed a perfect opportunity for preachers to capitalize on the “20/20 vision” metaphor. The fanfare and excitement quickly turned from bright and crisp to blurry and cautious, however, as the coronavirus forced churches to turn off their lights and close their doors for weeks or even months.
In January, when I surveyed over 400 churches, among the questions I asked was, “What is your church most looking forward to in 2020?” I planned to use the responses to generate potential articles detailing the exciting plans and ideas churches of all sizes had for the new year.
But the list of visionary ideas soon got shuffled to the bottom of my stack as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and churches were forced to press pause.
When I read through the list of responses recently, it felt as if I was examining a time capsule of predictions and plans for a year that was supposed to be, but never materialized as expected.
Many churches started the year with high hopes and great expectations. One medium-size church said, “The future looks good and we are excited.” A very small church said they were looking forward to “a fresh start.”
Here’s a taste of the plans churches had developed for this year: starting a leadership residency program, launching a generosity campaign, opening new satellite campuses, building new facilities, renovating existing spaces, establishing church campuses in prisons, purchasing property, hiring new ministry staff, implementing new vision and ministry strategies, celebrating milestone church anniversaries, balancing the budget, increasing community involvement, adding a midweek worship service, creating new discipleship pathways, sending out more short-term mission teams, exploring multisite options, renewing evangelism efforts, hosting a Night to Shine event, paying off the mortgage, improving the leadership development process, relocating, beginning a dyslexia ministry, bridging the cultural divide, focusing on marriage enrichment, onboarding new elders, transitioning to a new lead minister, emphasizing small groups, training new leaders, increasing the focus on corporate and personal prayer, and improving technology and the online worship service.
I don’t know how many of these grand visions came to fruition, but my guess is most of them, excluding the last two, were shelved or scrapped.
Social distancing, seat reservations for worship, limited programming for children and students, trying to sing worship songs with a mask on, hand-sanitizing stations, and limited contact with others have all contributed to making “church” look and feel quite different today than it did pre-COVID-19.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Because each church is at a different stage of regathering, there is no single answer or uniform response to the question, “Where do we go from here?” Some churches are back to their pre-COVID-19 worship attendance numbers, while most churches have seen less than half of their members and attendees return. Some churches lost members who went to other churches that reopened sooner or to churches they found online while “shopping” around. Some folks have decided they prefer watching church online from the comfort of their home. And some have lost the personal rhythm of attending church altogether.
David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, predicted in late August that as many as one in five churches could permanently close because of shutdowns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
“In the long run,” Kinnaman said, “I think we’ll look back at this pandemic as a fundamental change to the way Americans . . . attend church.” Even before the pandemic, interest in attending church was waning; the pandemic and ensuing church closures have intensified that trend.
Years ago, I heard John Maxwell say, “Momentum is a leader’s best friend.” COVID-19 halted the momentum of most churches this year.
Here are nine actions steps you and your church can take to reset and regain momentum as you move into 2021.
1. Recognize the unrealized expectations and plans that were changed by the pandemic. Years ago, Paul Harvey said, “In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these.” Acknowledge and grieve the losses and then move forward with these next steps.
2. Redeem what you can. Legendary basketball coachJohn Wooden said, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” Identify the pieces of your plan that still work and continue to work those parts.
3. Retool your ministries and staff as needed. It may be time to rethink the roles and responsibilities of your church staff and then shift some people around. You may need to shelve or restructure some ministries to better meet more pressing needs. Make necessary changes now.
4. Resolve to keep trying new approaches to ministry. Thomas Edison said, “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” The strategies and programs of the past may no longer work today, so look for new ways your church can gather, grow, and go despite the restrictions and health concerns.
5. Refresh your vision and mission. Do not just look at the obstacles facing your church, try to see the opportunities that lie ahead. J. Oswald Sanders said, “Eyes that look are common. Eyes that see are rare.” Ask yourself these questions: What do I see God challenging me or my church to do or be in this next year? Who will I share this dream with over the next two weeks? How will we seize this goal and make it a reality?
6. Redirect resources appropriately. Now is the time to rework your church budget to better fit the needs of today and your plans for the future. Identify any changes in giving trends since COVID-19 and do your best to make reasonable projections for 2021. By doing so, you can be more strategic as you align your budget with your refreshed vision and ministry plans.
7. Recommit to your core focus of making disciples who make disciples. Emphasize your church’s ongoing commitment to the Great Commission. Engage your congregation to be disciple makers in person and/or online. The methods you use might look different than before, but the church’s mission has not changed.
8. Restore the value of faith’s fundamentals. Congregations are constantly changing, but it is critical to keep fanning the flames of commitment to fundamental practices of the faith modeled by the early church in Acts 2:42.
9. Remember, God will not leave you or forsake you. There’s an old saying, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know who holds the future.” Move forward in faith, trusting God will walk with you and your church, and that he will provide you with what you need in his perfect timing.