Americans are resilient. Yes, they panic and start praying when a crisis reaches our shores. But we’re an optimistic lot, accustomed to inevitable (and typically rapid) recoveries from the numerous disasters our nation has faced in this century. The Great Recession, Swine flu, 9/11, hurricanes, political polarization, terrorism, school shootings and wars all incited rampant fear in the near term but had little enduring impact on most of our lives. Our short attention spans enable us to resume our prior lifestyles as soon as the latest national emergency no longer dominates the headlines. I’m concerned the racial tensions we’re experiencing today won’t result in any meaningful changes in how Christians love our neighbors of another color. I’m worried the revival sparked by the Coronavirus pandemic will be short-lived – with cities opening up, will the millions who cried out to God in the heat of the moment recant their tearful confessions and repentant pledges? After all, 9/11 filled America’s pews but only for a couple months.
Our churches are resilient too. America’s church growth model survived all of those same crises. Before the COVID-19 curve flattened, many pastors were admitting past mistakes and promising to do better once they got back in their buildings. They discovered members weren’t prepared to share Christ boldly and answer tough questions when the fields were “ripe for harvest”. Now they’re realizing those in their congregations who aren’t African American don’t know the Bible’s prescription for racial reconciliation, unsure what to do when the crowds feel “harassed and helpless” (Matthew 9:36-38). Yet as churches begin to resume in-person gatherings, we’re already seeing focus shift away from implementing needed changes to excitement about returning to “business as usual”.
Powerful, consumer-driven forces led churchgoers to largely abdicate their evangelism and disciple-making responsibilities, reducing the Great Commission to invitations to church services. The pressures of reopening now confront the reality of trying to convince those who are quite content with the pre-pandemic status quo that those responsibilities were actually individual mandates, not transferable requests. Adding to that pressure is the possibility that new believers and “seekers” drawn toward Jesus by the crises will show up next Sunday, expecting to be “fed” but suspicious of any expectations placed on them.
It would be a shame if the primary adjustments to “Church as We Know It” on the heels of COVID-19 are improvements in online channels for worship and giving. Making “church” even more convenient is a step in the opposite direction, when what’s needed is a deeper understanding of the high cost of discipleship – renouncing all the world holds dear for the sake of following Jesus. This period could be a reset button for America’s churches. It’s a chance to mobilize Christians into the current storms and prepare them to be “first responders”, forsaking self-preservation, as soon as the next disruption opens the floodgates to “prayer, care and share” opportunities.
But how many churches will change materially as a result of the pandemic and protests? Who will rethink strategies based on what did (and didn’t) function well when their churches were scattered, unable to gather in a building? Let’s look at two examples, one a small denominational church and the other a multi-site megachurch, both bent on undertaking transformations today that will forever alter the courses of their communities…
Like many other Baptist churches, this small and aging congregation was seeing a continual decline in attendance, baptisms and giving. I’d describe members as deeply religious, committed to their convictions, creeds and church. To insiders it feels like a close-knit family, but not many venture in from the outside. Some see it as an exclusive social club as many prominent city leaders call First Baptist home. Several members are active in local charities, but First Baptist as a whole runs compassion initiatives only during the holidays, without involvement from other churches.
Online services didn’t translate well with this audience. Pastors and staff prayed the pandemic would end soon, both for those suffering and for the church’s welfare. As weeks passed, seeing the vast needs of families across the city, leadership’s conversations and prayers evolved into recognition that they couldn’t wait for life to return to normal. The impact on its community was likely to be felt for months and First Baptist had to act. However, it lacked the preparation and partnerships to mobilize members and resources even to address the emotional, financial and logistical issues of its own congregants, much less other local families.
From that day forward, leadership decided changes were necessary to reorient First Baptist around a new set of Kingdom priorities, scrapping worldly comfort and complacency…
- Empowerment – Equipping individual members to love their neighbors, knowing they connect with people each and every day that First Baptist will never reach. Converting “pew potatoes” into disciple-makers would require significant reorganization of staff and lay leaders. Rather than simply leveraging APEST (Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds and Teachers) to run the church, they must train members to perform those functions within their circles of influence.
- Engagement – Not letting COVID-19 become just another seasonal outreach that ends as soon as they get back in the building. Short-term assistance with passing invitations to worship services is far too transactional. Families will still be lost and hurting when the virus has run its course. They’ll wonder, “where is the Church now?”, and likely assume it “checked the box” rather than forming sustainable relationships that endured beyond the immediate challenges.
- External Focus – Laying aside building plans to allocate a large portion of giving to sharing the Gospel how Jesus did, by first demonstrating His love through compassion. New strategies require new budgets. First Baptist’s pastors saw the inconsistency of expecting members to give generously of their first fruits to the church, yet not modeling generosity by paying forward a similar percentage to care for those hurting, helpless and lost in the community.
- Expectations – Raising standards for the Kingdom-building roles of members outside the “4 walls”. Congregants had come to expect much of pastors, who obliged by risking burn-out to meet those expectations. A “balance of power” role-reversal would certainly rock the boat. But in light of the countless missed opportunities to love neighbors during safer-at-home orders and racial tensions, now was the time to focus on growing disciples rather than a church.
Mission Lakes is non-denominational, multi-site and growing at a steady clip. It has engaging sermons, exciting worship and vibrant small groups. Each campus targets young families and prides itself on the city’s best children’s ministries and youth groups. Hospitality and convenience are mission-critical at Mission Lakes. All are welcome. Care is taken to ensure visitors aren’t offended by messages that touch on politicized, controversial topics. Commitments to Christ and engagement in church activities are the primary goals and success metrics.
During the pandemic when buildings were shuttered, record numbers tuned in to Mission Lakes’ online services. Word had spread that Mission Lakes provided an online experience that smaller churches in town simply couldn’t match. Pastors and staff initially saw the pandemic as a gateway to tremendous growth once they reopened their doors.
Yet at the same time Mission Lakes’ leaders also began to observe the attitudes and actions of its members in response to COVID-19 and race relations. They hoped to hear stories of members bringing “church” to neighbors and engaging non-believers in spiritual conversations during the pandemic. Despite lacking diversity, they had hoped to see members reaching out proactively to African Americans to bridge divisions and share the love of Jesus. Instead what they found is a congregation unprepared to step into the mission field – more filled with fear than faith and more inclined toward strong opinions than loving intervention. Those observations kept the senior pastor up nights, wondering whether Mission Lakes had lost its first love. Maybe the church wasn’t truly transforming lives within its congregation and across the city. He decided it was time for a new strategy and path forward reemphasizing these Kingdom principles…
- Repentance – The first step is a public confession, acknowledging that accountability for disciple-making starts at the top. Then, present a new course of action focused on depth, both in terms of intentional discipling relationships and challenging teaching in sermons and small groups. Jesus, Peter, Paul and John the Baptist all came out the gates preaching repentance, so speak truth about sin and confront tough issues. No longer allow growth to be an idol, letting attractional strategies soften the blow of the Gospel and downplay the costs of following Jesus.
- Surrender – Next, align goals and metrics around Jesus’ expectations. The Lord asks far more than repeating the sinner’s prayer and getting involved in “church chores”. The price He paid for our redemption leaves no room for “cheap grace”, faith without works. The consequences of Mission Lakes setting a low bar, ignoring the need for sanctification following justification, became apparent during the pandemic. Transformation should be the benchmark for members.
- Discipleship – Unveil a decentralized structure and personal growth track to ensure Mission Lakes never again finds itself unprepared to be effective for Christ when scattered, unable to gather. Decrease dependence on the buildings and weekend services. Turn small groups into neighborhood groups, commissioned to infiltrate communities through outreach, service and relationship-building. Gear youth ministries toward arming kids to withstand the secular onslaught from friends and professors.
- Compassion – Deploy disciples into ongoing, relational ministry to those impacted in any way by the Coronavirus pandemic or racial injustice. Emphasize cross-cultural bridge-building, spanning socioeconomic and racial lines, through outreach and service. Better steward Mission Lakes’ underutilized resources and facilities, leveraging them to deliver programs and services needed by families in each community during these challenging times.
It’s Your Turn…
Beyond improved online capabilities, will your church be different than it was a year from now as a result of its learnings from the current crises? If your church’s leaders had known COVID-19 and protests of racial injustice were coming, what would you have suggested be adjusted to ensure your congregation was ready to assume responsibility for bringing light into the darkness?