Is the global church simply responding to a passing season or evolving into something entirely new? Barna research revealed (on a May 20 U.S. broadcast) that, despite the initial rush to online services, one third of practising Christians had not engaged with an online service at all in the past four weeks. (Just over half were streaming their own church, one third were visiting others, and one quarter were viewing multiple services, whereas one third were watching at alternative times to Sundays). What can we say about the prognosis for churches with any confidence in the face of such an alarming finding?
Rather than returning to the good in what we have had, I believe we need to add the better in what we have faced, to see the best of both worlds combined. This optimised hybrid will be based on three important principles.
1. Relationship equals authority.
We have necessarily engaged in some measure of crisis response, but ongoingly our leadership will need to be differently intentional. Specifically, this will be around how we resource people and how we influence them, both of which need relational influence for maximum impact.
We don’t want to over-present information, especially in written form, if large amounts of text can be a turn-off for those who don’t read widely. Giving tools is important, but how we connect and apply them much more so, and that’s where leaders need to be purposeful in enhancing their capacity to to bring life transformation.
Being forced to use more video and podcasts has been an induction into a new practice for some, but this must surely be retained as people demand options. In many cases, those people have already been accessing those options, and even opting out. The voice of authority for engaging and then impacting them will nevertheless need more than good content development in the months ahead.
Influence has always needed relational connectivity, but now even more so. If we want it post-COVID then we need it within COVID. We need it now for current impact, too. But the medium is not the message so video, text, Zoom, Facebook, or any context we choose is merely a tool within which the ageless need for mentoring will still be required to bring person-to-person growth.
Accountability is an altogether different proposition than adaptability. We need to be agile enough to respond to change, but if we are not convinced of the need to unpack life on a one-to-one basis, then we will have missed within the COVID-19 season what we might well have missed before it.
Leadership does not allow us to dump and run. Proclamation doesn’t usually change lives by itself. Engaging in genuine discipleship needs influencers to walk with people for whom they care.
From the mountaintops to the masses, spiritual influencers of lasting quality will walk with God so that they can then walk with people, and walk we must.
2. Pastoring undergirds discipleship.
Let’s hear this accurately, pastoring people does not equal discipleship, it supports it. The spiritual formation of people is about constantly shaping responsive obedience to Christ which is a measure of people’s relationship with God. Our own relationship with people is necessary to facilitate that.
I have been asking since the beginning of the pandemic for pastoral leaders to maintain personal connection with those in their churches and communities, and this also needs focused ministry that brings growth and life change. This is obviously critical given that the Great Commission of Jesus is not on hold. People want to be led because they want to make a difference.
Consider shepherds tending flocks of sheep. They don’t just provide care. They also run a business. They genuinely do care, of course, but this is in order that they might better provide for the nurture and reproduction of animals that will ultimately produce more wool and meat.
The shepherding of people is similar. We offer real care but not as an end in itself. It has been said that armies have hospitals, but hospitals don’t have armies. Christians are a force of love and justice in the world, transforming society by using their gifts while being led by the Spirit in making a difference. Care is offered in the context of mobilisation for mission because a Christian shepherd’s business is discipleship.
3. Community trumps consumerism.
Steve Gladen, connections pastor at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, says that the proliferation of (and record attendances at) his church’s 9,000 small groups in recent months has proved the value of community for spiritual growth.
It has also proved the need for small group communities ongoingly rather than allow the church to conform to the pressure of convenience in centralising their Sunday focus. Many have sadly suggested that small groups (whatever their incarnation) are a programmatic intrusion on busy lives and something of a relic of past church practice. Not so. Far from being tried and found wanting, many small groups have been tried badly.
Small groups that focus on the core business of discipleship avoid a one-size-fits-all look. They also avoid majoring on safe and cerebral Bible studies which educate people while also insulating them from mission. In addition, they offer much more than mere personal connection.
Building on a valid need for friendship, they then contextualise application of spiritual learning to the everyday world of participants. They become cells of a body that is living the new life found in Christ. Again, accountability is necessary here if such groups are to succeed in offering transformative growth, so good leadership (or at least quality video tools) will be critical n achieving this.
But for those preferring coffee catch-ups after Sunday services as their almost-exclusive means of connecting, they will unwittingly retain a consumerist preference for meeting personal needs that will largely bypass meaningful evangelism. Communities that are well led around the shared objectives of a biblical vision will prioritise mission-focused growth in their members (and therefore the production of new members).
The mechanism for achieving this has been reinstituted by the very need for people contact. Zoom groups have recently offered churches the chance to reposition the engine room of personal and collective growth in a flexible and efficient way. Time will tell as to whether the current momentum of well-attended Church small groups can be retained.
Returning to public services in a post-COVID world is unlikely to allow a rapid recapturing of the full benefit of the large-scale celebration dynamic. Respectful reintegration of the early adoptors and also of those who are somewhat more cautious will need purposeful unity across an eventual blend of smaller services coupled with ongoing online options.
Yes, both will be needed and it is likely that the ‘paying customers’ will vote with their feet anyway if others provide the ‘customer service’ that is desired. A longing for community will remain, but one which will enable a core focus on adaptively resourcing the transformation of each Christian’s world, This will warrant a different approach to that which forlornly hopes for a return to the one-size-fits-all (and one-day-fulfills-all) packaging of weekend services.
So, we have a COVID-event feeding a post-COVID evolution. And when the event is over, we will need to be positioned and ready. This cannot just be about recapturing what has been lost.
We have indeed been deprived of the familiarity of something we long to get back but, like a young girl famously stated in movie almost a century ago, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!”