The coronavirus crisis has taken us off the rails we thought were permanent and dependable. Congregations are facing a future that we have no precedent for or roadmap to navigate. There is a sense of disorientation, fear and bewilderment among leaders and judicatories that are trying to manage a life they never imagined or prepared for. Each morning we awake wondering “what can possibly happen today?!” In fact, “managing life” is becoming an oxymoron as we increasingly feel out of control of what is happening to us. 

There is also a sense that we are facing a crisis that, while portrayed as a medical or financial dilemma, may also be a crisis that requires a faith perspective to fully meet the challenge. Fear, loneliness, social isolation, food insecurity, job viability, along with heightened anxiety and dread are now a daily reality for many people whose life was relatively stable just three weeks ago. 

Congregations face a future that is radically different from what they imagined at the dawn of 2020. Looking ahead, with a nod to Charles Dickens, one can make a good case that this is both the worst of times and the best of times for congregations. 

As to the worst of times…
The great fear is that this dual crisis of health and finances will hit congregations hard in areas we are weakest. 

Many established congregations are comprised of a majority of senior adults. This population is especially susceptible to the ravages of the virus. If the current trend lines hold, some of our most reliable and regular members are facing major medical challenges. Even if the illness spares them, it will impact their quality of life and may affect their willingness to fully engage in public activities for a very long time. “Flattening the curve” is a strategy for stretching out the onset of the virus so that medical facilities can manage the surge in services needed. It also means that the outbreak of the virus will stretch out over many months, rather than a few weeks. This will mean that it will be probably be months before the “all clear” signal is given to return to regular routines such as church attendance, not weeks. When we do, things will look very different. 

Many churches in America run on very thin financial margins. Congregational reserves are modest at best, and fixed costs dominate most congregational budgets.  Many established churches simply do not have the capacity to absorb a major loss of income over more than a few weeks. Our reserves have been dwindling as our churches have plateaued and declined over the last two decades, and many of us find ourselves with more facilities than needed for the numbers of attenders. The costs of running those facilities will continue unabated, and may even escalate as deferred maintenance issues erupt and can no longer be deferred. 

Many of our most devoted members live on investments and depend on resources that are threatened by the looming recession. The financial fear that a recession/depression brings may cause some of our most trustworthy financial supporters to pull back on their giving habits. Concerns about the efficiency of online giving to make up the loss of financial support that physical attendance brings are legitimate.  Every pastor dreads the loss of a “snow Sunday” offering that never quite equals a normal Sunday’s income. The inevitable decline in receipts that we all face means a sort of financial triage will be necessary for each church. We learned in 2008 that deep cutbacks in spending generally mean support for denominational and mission entities will rapidly decline, and layoffs and cutting of staff support or positions will soon follow. 

Some observers of American church life have been predicting that the trend lines of the last thirty years pointed toward the closure of between a fourth and a third of existing congregations by 2035. Our current crisis may accelerate those trend lines to the point that we have less time to get our affairs in order than we had thought. Think months, not years. 

The harsh reality is that the parallel financial crisis and health tsunami may wash away some of our churches who have “preexisting and underlying conditions” that make them particularly vulnerable to the future we are facing. Many others may be crippled to the point of questioning their viability. 

Whew…that’s a nightmare scenario that is painful even to put into words. 

However, there is another way of imagining the future, and for that, let’s assume that we are entering a season of remarkable opportunity for the church. 

As to the best of times…
The church, across the ages, has often been at its best in the face of its most challenging moments. From plagues to depressions to persecution to natural disasters to wars and pestilence, God’s people have found their backbone and their calling in the midst of some of their darkest days.  While the circumstances have often been overwhelming and devastating, it was often in our darkest moments that the lights of faith, hope and love shone brightest. 

Salvation history teaches us that God works in mysterious and counter-intuitive ways to bring the reign of God to bear upon our world. From Abram’s call to abandon the known for the unknown, and on nearly every ensuing page of scripture, God is portrayed as leading his people into a future that appears fear-full, but is actually the place where we will see “more than we can imagine” unfold before our eyes. Jesus modeled for us and proved to us that life WILL conquer death, no matter how dark and foreboding the present circumstances seem. 

Our culture and our world may well be more open and receptive to the good news of Jesus Christ than we have known in our lifetime. Our faith in politicians, science, financial markets, consumerism, nationalism, and many other things is being shaken to its core. For too long we have elevated these pretenders to a level of absolute loyalty that they do not deserve. These false idols are being revealed as just that, and there may well be a hunger to find something more substantive and enduring for people to believe in.  

Combined with a surging hunger for meaning, the Church has an opportunity to show the world what healthy people do in times of crisis. Rather than panic and devolve into self-absorption and self-protection, we run toward the needs in our culture rather than away from them. We refuse to demonize others, but act out the story of the Good Samaritan on a daily basis. Local churches can lead the way to show their communities what “love your neighbor as yourself” actually looks like. 

Every day brings increasingly urgent instructions to retreat physically away from others. While that is a physical necessity, a corresponding relational move toward others by Christ-followers is a massive opportunity for us to show the difference we make in a city or community. As churches and faith communities find ways to innovatively engage one another virtually and in ways new to us, we can extend that care to all of our community, not just our church members. Doing so will show our world that we are the ones who enter when many others exit their life. 

I pray that the divisiveness too often present in congregations melts away as we lift our gaze and our attention to a common mission that unites us rather than those things that divide us. We simply do not have time or energy to battle one another. 

One of my hoped-for scenarios is that when we emerge on the other side of this pandemic, we will experience a deep and profound appreciation for shared community, worship in the same room, small group interaction, and the role of faith in our life. We’ve taken for granted so many things that have now been ripped from us. Could it be that getting those back sparks a resurgence of interest in churches and ministry? 

Innovation is going to be forced upon us, and for many churches that have resisted the need to innovate and experiment, that is a steep learning curve. What we might find is that forgoing corporate worship and small groups, while painful, thrusts us into a new world that we needed to enter anyway. The resulting openness to innovation, technology, and fresh ways of thinking about being church and not just doing church is the beginning of a rich season for many churches. Being relevant to the needs of others and cultivating the willingness to listen to new voices would be a welcome addition to many churches. 

Surely, every church is going to experience a pruning season over the next few months. Finances and other metrics of success are going to decline. It may well be that pruning produces for churches what it does for fruit trees: fewer but higher quality fruit. Forced choices about what to lop off and what to keep will challenge us to reexamine why we exist and what our true calling is. That is a healthy exercise, even if it means real loss and pain. 

So, which will it be? The worst of times or the best of times for your church?  

Actually, we know that it will be both, as Dickens implies. There are hard and hard-to-imagine days ahead for every church and every one of us. However, that does not have to be the final word. We are a people who walk by faith, and not simply by sight. If we can look at what cannot be seen, if we can imagine possibilities where others see only unsolvable problems, if we can embody hope in the midst of despair, we just might find ourselves emerging from this crisis shaped to be more like the church Christ needs for the 21st century. 

Might it be so.

Bill Wilson
Dr. William “Bill” Wilson founded The Center for Healthy Churches in January of 2014. This followed his service as President of the Center for Congregational Health at Wake Forest Baptist Health since 2009. Previously he was Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dalton, Georgia, where he served since 2003. He brings over 33 years of local church ministry experience to CHC, having served as pastor in two churches in Virginia (Farmville BC and FBC Waynesboro) and on a church staff in South Carolina. Bill has led each of the churches he has served into a time of significant growth and expansion of ministry. He is the director of CHC.