How you see the impacts of the Pandemic will shape the church for a generation.
Over the past 20 years “regular church attendance” has declined from 3.2 times per month to 1.8 times per month. A recent Barna study indicates that 32% of practicing Christians have stopped attending any church whether in-person or online.
In a recent conversation, Jim Sheppard, CEO and principal of Generis (www.generis.com) shared that he asks church leaders whether they see the pandemic as an interruption or disruption. Those that see the pandemic as an interruption–to be waited-out so they can go back to doing what they were doing before March 2020–are likely to continue struggling against the trends of declining church attendance. Barna’s numbers would seem to indicate the pandemic is accelerating trends.
But Jim goes on to share that he believes the current disruptions are a chance for churches to get out of a rut and be more effective at growing and sending mature disciples. To capture this moment, we have to shift what we measure and embrace diverse streams of engagement. We need to capture volunteer hours and share the number of groups and activities with whom people are involved. These are the metrics that show how a person’s faith is woven into the whole fabric of one’s life.
Pre-Covid, conversation starters when meeting a church leader were, “What is your weekend attendance and how is your giving doing?” If you followed churches and church leaders on social media, the late Sunday/early Monday posts were often about how many baptisms happened over the weekend. All these data points will remain important, but they also reveal a how-many-people-in-the-building-on-the-weekend bias.
Building effective disciples is a seven-day a week mission, and Jim suggests that perhaps God had to get us out of our building for a few months to help us refocus our creativity. Jim says that the pandemic has settled once and for all that “on-line worship is real worship.” Pastor Larry Osborne (North Coast Church), in a webinar with Nathan Artt of Ministry Solutions, says the church must embrace a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” approach to ministry. Going forward, gathering in the building on Sunday morning should be blended with house-church style of ministry.
12 Stone Church in Lawrenceville, GA has adopted a “both/and” strategy with their dual platforms of 12Stone Live and 12Stone Home. They have appointed a home ministry pastor who leads and nurtures home groups who not only gather to watch the service but also engage in smaller, more localized worship, teaching, fellowship, and service.
Citing retail as an example, Osborne says the future belongs not to Amazon, which is primarily online, or Macy’s who has focused on traditional in-store shopping. Rather the future of retail is Target and Walmart who are aggressively developing hybrid models of on-line commerce while maintaining their physical stores.
Sheppard believes that when restrictions are lifted, and people are comfortable assembling for worship, attendance is likely to be 60%-70% of pre-Covid capacity. But total engagements – live + on-line – have the potential to be significantly larger than prior to the pandemic.
Faithfulness in a time of disruption creates new opportunities and channels for making disciples. The Church can offer salvation to the people who might never come to a large church but will have a meal with their Christian neighbor. Friendships with those in our neighborhood can lead to stronger discipleship and bear the fruits of generosity, service, and deep caring. Let us use this time to consider how God is calling the Church to bear more fruit.