By Ashley Wooldridge
The catcher was crouched and readied behind the plate. The pitcher threw the pitch. The batter didn’t swing.
And for a moment, Bill Klem, baseball’s most legendary umpire, said nothing.
Confused and frustrated by the silence, the catcher finally turned and asked, “So what was it, a ball or strike?”
Klem famously responded, “Sonny, it ain’t nothin’ till I call it something.”
_ _ _
Guess whose call it is whether COVID-19 has been a “ball” or a “strike” for your church? Well, that would be you.
So, what’s your call?
Is COVID-19 a once in a lifetime crisis, outside your control, that will negatively affect your church’s growth for years to come? Or is COVID-19 a once in a lifetime opportunity God will use to springboard your church’s growth for years to come?
I believe wholeheartedly this crisis is the latter—it is a once in a lifetime opportunity for future church growth.
Will that be the case for every church? No. But it should be for healthy churches. And how you lead your church through 2021 will likely determine the trajectory of your church for the next 10 years. That’s how much I believe is on the line.
So, what do you do?
Actually, that’s the wrong question. Rather, I think you should focus on how you should think, for without the right thinking, you’ll almost never do the right things.
I could spend a lot of time reciting all the things we are doing to reengage people at Christ’s Church of the Valley—as of February our in-person worship attendance had reached more than 60 percent of its pre-COVID-19 level—but those might be the wrong things in your context.
But I believe if you’ll change your thinking, God will direct you to do the right things for growth.
That said, here are three ways of thinking that I believe can lead to breakthrough growth.
Crisis Always Equals Opportunity
The greatest breakthroughs in the Bible happened right after the deepest crises.
- Abraham is asked to leave his home and everything behind (Genesis 12).
- Joseph is accused of rape and thrown in prison. Stick a fork in him; his life is over (Genesis 39).
- Moses and the Israelites are stuck on the banks of a sea with an irate army approaching (Exodus 14).
- King Hezekiah and Jerusalem are surrounded by an army they cannot defeat (2 Kings 19).
- The disciples are quarantined together after Jesus’ death. It’s hopeless (Luke 24).
In all of these instances—and I could list many more—God’s greatest breakthroughs happened after the hardest crises.
Yet, in spite of all the biblical and historical evidence, I’ve observed a distinct lack of faith among churches this past year; many don’t think they will survive this crisis, let alone thrive long after it is over. I’ve heard multiple times, “The church will never be the same again. I’m not sure our church will ever get back to the attendance we had pre-COVID.”
Has that sort of thinking entered your mind?
It’s as if we think this is the first time the church has faced a global pandemic. I’ve heard people say, “This is unprecedented.” It’s not. In fact, history shows the church has thrived after worse pandemics. Which leads to a second change in thinking.
History Is a Better Predictor Than the Current Headlines
How did the Roman Empire go from crucifying Jesus to declaring Christianity their official religion approximately 300 years later? There are lots of reasons, but history records two horrific pandemics during this period. The first was the Antonine Plague of AD 165. The second was the Cyprian Plague of AD 249.
History shows that one of the major launching pads for the growth of the early church was how Christians led and loved through these two devastating pandemics. And yes, these pandemics helped church growth instead of hindering it. At one point during the Cyprian Plague, 5,000 people per day were dying in Rome. The love and leadership of the church during that time led to one of Christianity’s greatest growth periods.
More recently, the Spanish Flu of 1918 devastated America and 50 million people died worldwide. Churches in America closed physically. People wore masks. But in the years that immediately followed, America experienced church revival and growth. And they did it without the internet.
Imagine being a pastor in 1918. How would you continue to engage your church if you couldn’t meet physically? In 2020, with the help of the internet, we were able to keep people engaged far better during COVID-19 than other times the church couldn’t meet in person.
So, don’t believe people won’t come back physically. Don’t believe the headlines that large gatherings are a thing of the past. After the 1918 Spanish flu, did people all of a sudden decide not to attend baseball games, the theater, or church?
My point is this: Be careful not to get caught up in all the clickbait. Remember, many headlines are designed to scare us so we’ll open the article. And yes, even Christian writers and consultants use clickbait. Don’t take the bait. Allow history to inform you. The church is resilient. If the gates of hell can’t destroy it, a pandemic won’t either.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t leverage online services for all they can provide. They are an amazing tool to reach people. And now nearly every church has this tool! What a blessing from COVID-19. But I fully believe in the long run people will want and need real community—physical community. I believe our online attendance and our physical attendance will continue to grow. It’s not either-or, it’s both-and. In fact, I believe so much in the future of the church and people’s hunger for the answers only the gospel provides that Christ’s Church of the Valley will be launching three new campuses in 2021.
What do you believe?
If you don’t believe you can grow your church during or after this crisis, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy for your church. Your thinking will drive the wrong actions.
So, there’s one more change in thinking we need.
This Crisis Will Not Kill Our Faith; God Wants to Do Immeasurably More Than We Can Imagine
I’ll never forget being a 23-year-old working my first job at the Intel Corporation. The nation’s economy had just entered a deep and scary recession. The CEO at the time, Craig Barrett, called a staff meeting for all 85,000 employees to address the crisis. Everyone was scared. Everyone feared the worst. I’ll never forget Barrett’s leadership when he said, “Healthy and strong companies that lead well through a crisis will always come out stronger on the other side. Companies who are weaker and panic, who don’t lead well, will find themselves on the cusp of ruin.” Then he added, “Trust me, we will come out a stronger company on the other side of this.” His final sentence shot adrenaline into our company during what was a brutal year. Two years later, his words proved to be completely true.
Having faith God can move after a crisis isn’t a business principle, it’s a biblical principle. Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”
And to be transparent, I’m sure my faith didn’t always please God this past year. I felt as discouraged, beat up, and on the floor with no faith as anyone. In fact, I’d never been so discouraged in my life. So, as much as I may have conveyed my faith with the words above, let me promise that my faith was challenged this past year. Over and over again, I’ve had to change my thinking. Crisis is always an opportunity. History proves the church can grow through and after a pandemic. I will not let this crisis kill my faith.
My prediction is this fall and the beginning of 2022 will be prime times for you to do something big to reengage your church. But your thinking—your faith—will dictate if you do the right things.
I’m planning for growth.
Will you join me?
Ashley Wooldridge serves as senior pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley, a multicampus church in the Phoenix, Arizona, area. He and his wife, Jaime, have three girls and love to see marriages and families thrive.