BEYOND COVID: Church Recovery After The Shutdown

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As you begin to re-open your church building, there is one big thing you should and need to consider… Will stepping back into the past harm your future?

It is predicted that many churches/ministries, an estimated 20% to 30% will have major challenges in the next 18 months to 3 years and that the COVID shutdown will and has had a deep and long-lasting impact on the lives of a lot of independent churches, non-denomination churches, smaller churches as well as aging churches and will reshape the congregational landscape forever.

In a Barna Group survey:

  • 68 percent of pastors surveyed, stated that they are confident that they will continue to survive after the crisis. “This means that 20 to 33 percent will not survive the crisis in the next 12 months.”
  • 61 percent of black pastors say that they are confident that they will survive vs 67 percent of white pastors.
  • Currently, 36% is the Average in-person attendance for reopened churches

Here is a list churches that are at risk of not surviving the Coronavirus shutdown and restrictions:

  • Those under 100 regular participants/members
  • Those that have been in ministry 1 to 3 years
  • Those earning less the forty thousand a year
  • Those in the North East
  • Those led by women
  • Those struggling financially before COVID-19

As leaders navigate this crisis, reality is sitting in. “Church as usual” is no more. Bubbles are being burst, and assumptions are being challenged. One leader stated that “there is a lot of repositioning.” “There is a loss of control, and it’s difficult to lead when you’ve lost some of those leveraging points.”

As the shutdowns begin to gradually ease in many cities around the country, many church leaders will revert to what they’re familiar with, in an attempt to regain those “leveraging points” for a sense of control. Unfortunately, many leaders are simply too eager to step back into the past when they step back into the building.

What will happen if you go back to what you think is normal?

Pastors. Do yourself and those you lead a big favor. Don’t try to sustain a method or model of ministry that cannot be sustained in this current climate. This is the wrong way to think. As much as you may have an emotional connection to a model or method of ministry, many of those you lead are not. Especially millennials and Gen. Z.

According to a Barna/Stadia survey, currently, 59% of Gen Z and 58% of Millennials prefer online gatherings or ministry post-COVID.

Here’s something else to consider.

After the celebration of coming back together, and seeing those you haven’t seen in a long time, remember that those you lead have tasted new fruit, and have engaged in new experiences as it relates to ministry or church. Going back to an analog model of ministry will conflict with their digital/online ministry experience during the shutdown. Nicky Gumbel in a ministry leadership podcast summed it up like this, “We have tasted something better.”

This reminds me of Paul’s questions to the Galatians, “So now that you know God (or should I say, now that God knows you), why do you want to go back again and become slaves once more to the weak and useless spiritual principles of this world?” Gal. 4:9

To simply re-embrace what was could destroy what could be.

“We can not keep crying that we want to go back to Egypt because all we’ll get is a wilderness if we do so.” Thom Rainer — Retired Pastor and Founder of Church Answers

Starting Over

“COVID-19 is our persecution. It caused us to scatter digitally and plant the gospel in places we haven’t been previously.” Myron Pierce (Acts 8:1)

The Coronavirus crisis has accelerated change and trends in every area of life including “church”. It has brought about changes that you would have seen 3 to 5 years from now had there not been a Coronavirus crises.

For many leaders the Coronavirus has awakened them to the reality that they need to change. With this in mind, church/ministry leaders should think in terms of starting over rather than thinking in terms of getting back to “normal” or the way things use to be.

“Behold, I will do a new thing” Isaiah 43:19

If you’re going to lead in the future you have to be able to embrace it now. Let this be the season of trying something new. A season of innovation and taking risk. This is what innovators do. This is who the Apostle Paul was.

This Coronavirus is a typhoon strength storm that has and will shipwreck many ministries and organizations. There will be many that will run aground, close their doors, and never return (Acts 27) , because they’re not innovators and their skill set is such that it will not allow them to be.

The form, model or method of ministry before COVID was and is geared toward facility-based ministry. This became a real problem during the shutdown when you had limited or no access and very little attendance.

If you plan to make it through and beyond this crisis, and as much as you may not want to admit it, this storm has and will force every ministry and organization to lose, toss away and get rid of unneeded and useless cargo. But don’t worry. This is a good thing. This is an opportunity to retool your vision, redeploy your people and restructure your ministry and organization.

Take the resources that you were wasting pre-COVID, and focus it on areas of ministry that have gone neglected and are now needed for both those you lead as well as those in your community.

If you want to have an impact on our current digital reformation, you have to give it more than 1% of your budget and more of your time. Don’t be satisfied with the people setting in a room, be willing to go after the hearts of people that will never set in a church building. These people are online waiting for a new and different experience.

“In the future, most growing churches will spend up to half of their staffing budget for online ministry and the other half for in-person ministry.” Carey Nieuwhof

What’s at stake is how you show up for the current and emerging generation.

7 Focus Points As You Begin Your Recovery

As it relates to surviving beyond COVID-19, among many leaders, optimism is high but confidence is low. So as you begin to reopen your building here are seven things to focus on and put in motion to help you recover after the shutdown.

1) Digital is the new default.

You may not like it but it doesn’t mean it’s not true. This means embracing the reality that more people will access your ministry or organization digitally than in-person and will likely have more digital connections with your ministry or organization than in-person connections.

This is not something new. This was actually happening before COVID.

If your organization had a strong online presence before the crisis no doubt you strengthened it during the crisis. If your organization had little or no online presence before the crisis, surly you now see how important having a digital platform can be. Now you should focus on understanding it better.

“I use to be one who was not a proponent of social media. I was totally against it because I’ve seen it destroy lives. Until this Coronavirus came and because it was the only way I could reach my people, I have to refocus my entire mind, get a Facebook for the church as well as myself, live streaming, teaching out of my home…Which was totally against everything I thought I would be doing. I want to tell you, this is the best experience I’ve ever had, reaching not just St John’s people but people across the world.” Pastor Frazier of St. John Baptist Church, Orlando, FL

Now that you’ve figured out that online/digital ministry is real, and as you step back into your buildings, don’t make the mistake of treating online/digital ministry as just another flavor enhancer to your brick and mortar place of worship. Make this mistake at your peril, because online ministry is the new normal.

Now more than ever, it is important that you use your 167 hours wisely. This is the number of hours you have from the time you finish your sermon on any given Sunday, until the time you see your group or congregation again the following Sunday.

Although live streaming should not become your primary strategy, I strongly suggest that ministries and organizations post a video and schedule a Livestream at least once during the week, and at least 2 live streams or pre-recorded videos of the weekly sermon twice on the weekend.

While conducting your Livestream during the week, on Facebook or Instagram, take the time to ask people what their needs are, and how they are doing in the midst of the crisis. Communicating that you care about their needs will open the door for input and conversation.

As a leader, you need to understand that you are not the only voice influencing those you lead.

2) Engage your online audience.

Focus on engagement rather than attraction. Engagement builds relationships both with individuals as well as your community, both online and offline. Engagement is a way of connecting. If you can connect, people are more likely to take action, get involved, and respond. Ministries and leaders that engage an audience especially online will be more successful and survive beyond COVID-19.

3) Focus on your strengths.

The following data will bring clarity and make my next point.

  • 48% of churchgoers say they have not watched any church online in the last few weeks.
  • Only 40% of churchgoers report watching their regular home church online.
  • 23% said they watched a livestream of a different church other than their own.

Just about every church is now live streaming, and churchgoers are searching for that one ministry that is doing it just right. They’re looking for that one ministry that’s head and shoulders above the rest. Once they find it, they will for the most part only watch or stick with that one organization even if it’s not their home church. Why? Content! Content! Content! Watching you preach to an empty room for 45 minutes is not only comical and boring but it’s also poor content.

In the early days of the shutdown, I did a video about how people were getting streaming fatigue and why. Some digital experts are calling it “screened out”. It’s happening because just about every leader and ministry is doing the same things, the same way and they’re doing it over and over and over. What you have to remember is unlike traditional ministry, there are no constraints to online ministry. So be creative!

According to Nona Jones, global faith-based strategist for Facebook, “The average attention span of Facebook users is 3 seconds” and online attendance numbers are beginning to bare this out.

Things are so fluid now, that you can not look at what another ministry is doing to benchmark your results. You have to determine what impact you want to make and move according to what is best for you and those you lead.

Serve your community by focusing on one or more things your group or organization does well. No matter how large or small, every ministry and organization has a strength.

4) Budget and Finances.

Jim Sheppard CPA and CEO of Generis recommends that churches/ministries, move their organization to a three months rolling budget as you begin the recovery process. In other words with all that’s going on, and with all the uncertainty, planning for just three months at a time in a smart way to go.

To be healthy organizationally and financially, consolidate any overlap and redundancy in programs, processes, and vendors.

Be visible to build relationships. Ministries with a connection or relationship with their community will take a softer financial hit than those who do not. At the end of the day, your brand will impact your organization’s bottom line.

Serve your community by doing the one or more things your group or organization does well.

5) Beware of consolidation.

“So…the fact that 29% of churches are seeing an attendance spike and 23% of Christians say they are watching a church other than their home church might mean further consolidation is happening.” Carey Nieuwhof.

So what is consolidation?

Consolidation is when larger, savvier churches pick up Christians from other churches. These larger churches were digitally prepared and had a strong online presence before the crisis. Many of them have had years to understand there digital platforms as well as how to use them.

As I’ve written many times, people vet you before they ever visit your place of worship so it’s no wonder that if your organization is doing live streaming right, there is a strong possibility that as you begin to open your building, those that you reached online during the crisis will be coming to visit you after the crisis. So if you are a smaller ministry or church, how do you compete with this? (See next Point)

6) Not just on Sunday.

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post outlining how the digital age has and is changing the way the current and future ‘church’ meets, from a designated time and place to any time, anywhere, and sometimes.

Some leaders struggled with this post, back then but, now many are beginning to understand that our traditional western view and definition of what constitutes when, where, and how “the church” meets is no longer valid.

As church buildings begin to reopen, people are slow to return. The question church leaders should ask themselves is what can people get at this dedicated building that they can’t get online?

The legacy “church” model that we’re familiar with and comfortable with, has kept us from doing things differently and in many cases has kept us from doing things better.

The building, called “church” shouldn’t be the center of a ministry, but one of many options you now have to reach people. Both the building and your online presence (campus) should be seen as extensions of your ministry.

7) Activate small groups.

Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. Hebrews 10:24–25.

Small groups are the engines of ministry. They tend to be more connected and with close relationships. Their gatherings are more intentional and with a purpose. Notice the early Christians when they met from house to house. Without a relational connection, the body of Christ doesn’t function well, and spiritual growth and discipleship are handicapped.

In the early weeks of the Coronavirus shutdown, some leaders shifted focus from their facilities to online and to people’s homes, enlisting those with the gift of teaching to help establish and oversee small groups. This biblical move has helped people realize and assume responsibility for their own spiritual growth, evangelism, the discipleship, and leadership of their own families, friends, and neighbors. Those with this ministry gift, (many who are ministers at their local place of worship) should be the go-to persons for spiritual and biblical leadership for their family, friends, and neighbors. They should use the shutdown as an opportunity to not only share the gospel with these groups but to also fulfill their calling.

Phillip Stutts, the president and CEO of Win Big Media has done marketing surveys of what consumer sentiment is post-COVID, that can also be applied to ministry.

One of the things they have learned is that there has been an intense focus on local. People are less likely to travel. They’re more focused at home, more likely to engage with local vendors. This includes how they engage and participate as it relates to their faith.

For decades, the focus has been on getting people to come to a building to grow, rather than equipping them where they are.

The goal of ministry is not to open or reopen a building. A building is simply a western method of ministry. The mission and goal is to reach people and you don’t need a dedicated building with a set time and place to reach people.

3 Key Questions

Here are three key questions ministry leaders should ask themselves to survive and stay relevant beyond COVID-19.

  1. What did I start doing during this crisis that I should keep doing?
  2. What did I stop doing that I won’t go back to?
  3. What does this new reality make possible?

Leaders, it’s time to re-think ministry. It’s time to do something new.

The Coronavirus shutdown was not a sign to reset what’s known as “church”, but a sign to rethink it and ask ourselves, is what we call church really what God intended?

I write about Christian ministry sharing fresh insight and game changing strategies to help you reach your ministry goals. Follow on

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