My friend Mike Smith (recently retired pastor at Central Baptist Church, Fountain City TN and thinker extraordinaire) and I have been speculating about what is on the horizon for congregations and parishes as the next phase of the Covid-19 shutdown takes place. We’ve wondered what comes afterwards, as we transition from the crisis of the moment to the long-term implications of the coronavirus pandemic.
Here are ten of our random and only partially developed thoughts/questions, plus one pressing question we all need to ponder. Please feel free to add yours to these as we all seek to navigate the choppy seas that are before us.
1. There will be no “light-switch moment” when some horn sounds and life suddenly returns to normal for churches and parishes. Instead, we will gradually and painfully emerge from this pandemic and it’s impacts over the course of months and even years. Until there is a reliable vaccination for the virus (estimated to be 12-24 months), we should assume that many people would be wary of public gatherings of any type. It will probably be well into 2021 before large-scale physical worship attendance becomes the norm.
2. This means that the adaptive change lessons we have learned over the last five weeks are our new reality. Specifically, innovative methods for gathering the scattered church, engaging the de-churched, and meeting the un-churched and our neighbors are going to be our primary focus for the rest of this year and probably longer. We’re going to need some new metrics, by the way.
3. We have learned so much so quickly! We discovered that we can connect with a wider range of church members than we thought possible, provided we are willing to go to them on a regular basis and in multiple formats via the internet. If we’ve learned this much in five weeks, what will be know five months from now? Our resilience and imagination is encouraging.
4. We’ve learned that we can quickly develop online content at low cost and in sufficient quality. Already, the notion that online worship must be a replica of sanctuary worship is fading. It is remarkable to watch the adaptation that is taking place as people begin to explore the possibilities and creativity of virtual worship.
5. We’ve learned that we have people who are willing to connect with socially isolated members by phone, email, Facebook, Zoom and other means. We can have meaningful ongoing contact even if we cannot be physically present with one another. The next generation of this contact will be fascinating to watch as we find new ways to create deep connections with one another.
6. We should assume a surge of mental illnesses, increased addictions, depression, loneliness, marital conflict, parenting frustrations, chronic anxiety, unresolved grief, etc. How are we preparing to offer help to those who are going to suffer most as the disruption continues?
7. When we do get back to whatever passes for normal, we will have a whole culture even more addicted to the Internet than previously. How will this impact the way we engage our church and/or fellow believers? We should not expect our folks to walk away from what has become indispensible to them.
8. It’s been our observation that, prior to the virus, most church staff members invested nearly all of their time in those who showed up for church on a regular basis. In the future church, will staff revert to such a pattern, or will they reconfigure their time to include preparing and using the internet to stay in touch with the moderately and slightly connected members of the church and even the largely disconnected? If staff decides to reconfigure its use of time, what might that look like and how will it be receive by relevant oversight groups?
9. Will congregations and ministers be willing to try to cultivate a congregation outside the core congregation, one that exists primarily via individual interactions with online content and communications rather than physical presence at designated times?
10. Will ministers and the congregation be wiling to build on their experience with Zoom and other providers to structure, promote and resource online small groups? If so, what might the impact be of such an effort on former methodologies and on a church’s reach and impact?
Finally, churches are being challenged to have the same conversations as retailers, universities and hospitals: Is our building a necessity for delivering our services/ministry?
We will probably learn to answer this as a polarity exercise. That is, the answer will simultaneously be “yes” and “no”. We will, like retailers, universities and hospitals, find ways to be the church both in a physical location AND in a virtual and scattered manner. We knew this diversification was needed, but the pandemic has fast-forwarded us into our future at warp speed. We will not be able to un-learn what we have learned about being the church going forward. Our new normal will see us regarding our physical location as one of many expressions of our church. In doing so, we will quite possibly become more of the gathered and scattered church Jesus had in mind for his followers.