By Andrew Smith
Take a minute with me and close your eyes. Think back to life before the Covid-19. What was life like? What did work look like? How busy was your schedule? What was your church doing in this season?
If you’re anything like me, Covid completely shifted life well beyond the initial “lock-down” phase. And yes, many things have at least started to move back toward that idea of “normal” we keep hearing about, but in many ways, life is different.
But the question I keep asking myself is, “Is different bad?”
Or even, “Is there something good and corrective about this experience?”
Because while none of us ever hope for seasons of chaos, pain, and upheaval like we’ve all been in, these are often the times in life that God uses to lead us to new insight and a willingness to try new things. Maybe this is the “beauty in the ashes” of this Pandemic reality: the invitation to re-think, let some unnecessary things fall away, and look for unexpected places where new life can grow. And this is an invitation for us both personally and for the churches we serve.
We can’t go back even if we tried.
As church leaders, on top of the forced shifts we’ve had to make, the reality is, many people aren’t coming back to church “as it was.” I meet with pastors on a regular basis and many are seeing 50% or less of their former congregation returning to in-person worship and programs. And most are coming to terms with the fact that this isn’t a temporary reality.
While it’s easy to blame loss in attendance on people that just weren’t as committed or whose faith wasn’t as deep (along with a biblical reference to wheat and chaff), I believe those explanations are too simplistic. The truth is, this isn’t a new trend. The pandemic just dramatically accelerated what has already been happening in churches for the past 20 years. As church leaders, we have to seriously consider that people are increasingly not finding the same value in the way we are practicing faith, or at least the way we “do church” here in the United States – that for many, something seems to be missing. And I don’t believe the solution is to just do better or try harder; to have better worship, deeper Bible studies, or more attractive programs. It’s about recapturing that organic, externally focused faith that makes it an undeniable, positive, tangible reality not just in our lives but in the lives of everyone around us.
One of the biggest shifts in the church during this pandemic is that it has forced us outside of our traditional walls and programs. Whether it’s working from home, virtual worship, or literally gathering outdoors; we haven’t been able to do things the way we’ve always done them. And while these changes inevitably bring anxiety and/or frustration on an organizational level (How will we make budget? How do we continue to offer programs? How do we keep people connected and involved?), I’ve continued to wonder if the inability to keep things going isn’t also an opportunity to ask some questions we rarely get to ask as leaders. Questions like:
How much should our programs and energy be focused on people being in church vs. just empowering people to be the church in their everyday lives?
What programs are truly central to our church and the mission we’re trying to accomplish?
Is the organizational form of church (that has been so disrupted by the pandemic) really the expression of the movement of God that caught your heart when you chose to get into ministry?
Do we need to “go back” to spending so much of our time, energy and resources (including buildings) on our own internal church family or are there ways we can repurpose those resources to love our neighbors better – and bring about God’s wellbeing in the neighborhoods we live in?
A new/old way forward?
Ironically, I think this pandemic reality, that can feel like it has torn us and our churches down, may also be the invitation to a new (or actually an old) way forward. Maybe some of what’s been torn down, much like pruning in gardening, can make way for new growth. Maybe this is the perfect season to be thinking about how we might rethink our models in order to recapture (or restore) the fullness of the mission God has given us. The mission of the church is far more than just gathering people in a building and teaching them about God and (in my opinion) should look far more more like an outside of the walls movement or everyday people participating in bringing about lasting, tangible wellbeing for everyone, in every aspect of life, all over our community. Is this not the biblical idea of Shalom? It’s the image of the in-breaking “kingdom” – that uncontrollable, bottom up, ever-growing movement that provides shelter, rest, and hope for all – that God has been calling his people to embody from the beginning.
And if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that many in our community are not experiencing this holistic wellbeing. None of us can ignore the need we’ve seen during this season: people who’ve lost jobs, lost loved ones, struggled financially, wrestled with loneliness or struggled with mental health issues. And that’s not even to mention the racial injustice we’re still wrestling to come to terms with. But most of these things didn’t start with the pandemic, and the need won’t end if and when the pandemic subsides.
So, what would it look like to take the invitation that this season brings? In the midst of the pain and loss, to reconsider what God might be calling (or re-calling) us to as the church moving forward.
The truth: It will cost us something. The Jesus pattern has always been death before new life. We will have to be willing to lay some things down, things that may seem central to our identity as leaders or as a church – maybe let go of some of the programs we’ve always done, services we’ve always had, that nagging need for numbers and financial stability in order to become a more full expression of God’s goodness out in our community. But what better could we offer our community as the church in this time? What better could we be right now than the healing, relationship-building, empowering, hope-giving people God has called us to be? I believe the “church,” in its fullest expression, is needed more now than possibly at any other time in our lives. That’s the invitation we have. And if we’re willing to take it, I believe we as leaders might trade some of our own pain, frustration, and burnout for renewed hope, purpose, and peace in the work we have been called to do.
Are you a church leader in Central Florida wrestling with these questions? We’d love to talk to you! Fill out our contact form to get in touch.
Check out part two to this blog series to hear why I am hopeful about the way forward and the three steps I believe we need to take as church leaders.