Did churches close down in 2020? I posed this question in a college class recently as we discussed the importance of community in the Christian journey. The ensuing discussion about the necessity of “going to church” in order to be a Christian eventually led us to a deeper point: there are different working definitions of “church.”
The way one answers the question about church in 2020 will largely be impacted by how one defines church. If you define church as a regularly scheduled gathering of Christians for worship and instruction, then yes, perhaps churches did close down in 2020. But what if you instead defined the church as the people of God engaging in the mission of God to restore the creation of God as part of the in-breaking kingdom of God? If the church is when God’s people come together to participate in God’s redemptive work, that cannot be canceled.
As the main conduit of God’s new creation work in the world, the church is not solely about a worship gathering. It is more about engaging daily as a community in the kingdom of God (which does, of course, include weekly gatherings for worship and instruction). Church is centered on participation in the life of Christ. Church is about engagement, not merely attendance.
In many ways 2020 has led us to reform and reimagine elements of the life of the church. While never altering the mission of the church (sharing the salvific good news of Jesus Christ in both declaration and demonstration), this year has broken many of the rules of our religion. And this disruption leaves us with the question: what will we go back to that we have previously done, and what will stay changed for good?
One of the most important questions church leaders can ask is: What type of church will my community need 5–10 years from now, and what can we do in the coming months to begin that journey? How will we contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ into our local communities post-COVID? As we pray about the future of our churches, we must begin that process of change today.
We cannot deny that COVID-19 (and 2020 in general) will forever change aspects of our lives—and that includes Christianity too. Historically, we see example after example of the Christian church enduring times of great difficulty and emerging from those crucible moments stronger, more Christlike, and different. Crisis is often the catalyst for change. The question is whether we will allow this time to change us for the better.
The year 2021 will present us with the opportunity to choose to return to what was, or to engage in the new work that God is up to in our churches. The future of the church will look different (yet with our same historic mission!), and we can begin engaging in that change immediately, as “churches of tomorrow.”
So what will churches of tomorrow look like? I believe they will focus on small, prioritize being flexible, and invite participation.
Focus on Small
– Leverage the power of small by creating resources for different segments of your church. Provide a weekly sermon discussion guide with conversation topics for families and/or small groups. Provide a weekly prayer time both online and in person for congregants.
– Share your space with families. Open up space in your building for study groups for families with children in virtual learning. Provide signups for families to use your gym to help their young ones burn off energy.
– Encourage avid readers in your church to hold Zoom book clubs with books geared for group discussion, such as Uncommon Virtues, by Dr. Carla Sunberg and Richard Alan Hadley).
– Identify positive events, resources, and activities in your parish (the geographic area immediately around your church building), and prayerfully seek new ways to engage with your neighbors through what the Chalmers Center calls “asset-based, participatory development.”
– Hold once-a-week or once-a-month meetings with 3–5 members of your congregation, either in person or online. Use forty-five minutes to engage with them, provide updates from the church, answer questions, and keep them connected and invested in the mission of your church. During these times of great stress and content overload, strive to over-communicate with members of your church. With the saturation of information right now, what feels like over-communicating to you will often be just barely sufficient in reaching your whole congregation.
Prioritize Being Flexible
– Be where your congregation is—which is both online and in person right now. Determine what hybrid ministry means for your church as you continue to serve your congregation. You can find tools to aid you in hybrid ministry in this blog post from The Foundry Community. One option is to provide a weekly Q&A livestream or Zoom call with the lead pastor, answering questions sparked by the Sunday sermon.
– Necessity is often the mother of invention. And this time requires ongoing innovation as you serve your congregation and community. What might it look to provide work space or kitchen space at reduced rates for small businesses in your community that are struggling or just launching?
– Become known for one positive thing in your community. In Indiana, one church has spent the last two decades becoming “the cereal church” as they support a Nazarene Compassionate Ministry center. Once a year they collect boxes of cereal to fill the ministy center’s food pantry, and they’ve grown from filling a car to filling a 15-passenger bus each September! What might it look like for your church to become “the [insert positive adjective] church” in your community?
– Engage your congregation in leadership. As we have seen throughout 2020, when disruption happens in our lives, there is not enough time for pastors to do everything needed in the life of a local church. And, if we’re being honest, there wasn’t really enough time for everything even when there wasn’t a global pandemic! In both good times and bad, we must invite and train lay leaders within our churches. Not only is this practice biblically faithful, but it also allows for Spirit-nurtured multiplication by leaning into the priesthood of all believers.
– Engage in partnerships, both locally and globally. The beauty of having a global church is that we can be connected with sisters and brothers around the world. Leverage these partnerships to work together in addressing ministry needs. Consider partnering with a local business in mutually beneficial ways that support the work of both organizations.
– Empower emerging generations to lead ministry work in your church. Create space and resources for teens and young adults to lead your congregation into new days of ministry. Delegate responsibility, not tasks. Responsibility provides the opportunity to own failure and success, which will increase buy-in.
– Lean into our calling as local churches to be centers of compassionate ministry in our neighborhoods. This will be contextualized in every community and can look like an emergency food pantry, blood donation drives, grocery deliveries, or free internet and space for students to do virtual school and/or adults to apply for jobs.
Churches of tomorrow that focus on these three areas will be able to respond to the chaotic waters of life while still being faithful to our calling as the people of God. This is about holding our methods loosely while grounding ourselves firmly in the timeless message of Jesus Christ. As we step into 2021 and the years ahead, we are engaged in a divine mission, and we must do everything we can to reach our communities and neighborhoods with the healing, saving, sanctifying good news of Jesus. As we step into a new chapter in human history, we can faithfully engage in the work of the church when we focus on the small, prioritize being flexible, and invite participation.
Small. Flexible. Participatory. Those were some of the key attributes of the early church as described to us in Acts, and God worked in amazing ways through their faithful obedience. May the same be said of us.
If you are looking for discipleship and preaching resources to help you engage your church congregation during this time of hybrid ministry, check out this new resource from The Foundry Publishing that has tools to help your whole congregation journey through the book of Acts together.