From the Small-Church Front Lines

small church after the pandemic

A Scouting Report From Small Church Pastors

As we come out of the pandemic, wouldn’t it be great if we could get a scouting report about what to expect in the years ahead for our churches and the communities we’re called to serve?

Attempting to predict the future is a foolhardy endeavor, but I believe we can get a sense of what might be coming and how to prepare for it by hearing from those who have spent some time in boots-on-the-ground ministry. And I don’t know of anyone more in touch with their communities, more hands-on with everyday folks or more prepared to handle whatever might be coming next than the multitudes of hard-working, God-honoring, people-loving, relentlessly praying small-church pastors and leaders that God has raised up in rural areas and big cities all over the world. They may be the closest thing we have to the Hebrew spies from Numbers 13 who walked through the Promised Land to give Moses an advance report.

The average pastor of a healthy local congregation knows more about what’s happening, how people are feeling and where we’re likely headed than almost anyone else in their community. And they’re active right now across every state and nation. The collected wisdom we can gain from small-church pastors may be the church’s greatest untapped resource.

During the lockdowns, I talked with scores of small-church leaders, often several times a day, as we’ve navigated through this global crisis. Despite working with scant resources and limited time (many were bivocational), they have done remarkably consistent work. They had a lot to tell me about what they think will happen over the next 10 years or so in ministry, much of which I have tried to capture in this article. Some of what they had to say will be hard to read. But hang in there. Caleb and Joshua didn’t deny that giants lived where the Hebrews were going, but they knew that God was bigger. He still is.

The Fallout of COVID-19

Like hibernating bears adjusting to the light, as we stagger out of months of lockdowns, we find a world that has not just shifted, but continues to change at an even more accelerated pace. You don’t need to be a prophet to see this coming. Just look around. 

COVID-19 hadn’t caused these changes—it accelerated and amplified what was already in the air, for both good and bad. The changes happening now and in the future are likely to occur in two waves. First is two to five years of shake-up. We’re heading for an avalanche of societal problems, including:

* Divorces

* Evictions 

* Bankruptcies 

* Joblessness 

* Pastoral resignations

* Church closures/consolidations

This initial phase of post-COVID-19 fallout is likely to be so tumultuous that it will bring about the second wave: at least another five years to adjust and assess what the new territory has in store for us.

 

We’re also heading into a difficult season of trying to restore broken relationships. The number of recent issues that have caused divisiveness among friends, families and church members is endless. There is more disagreement over both significant and trivial issues now than at any time in at least 50 years. The relational hurts will not soon be forgotten.

Longing for Community

With the rise of remote work, accelerated by the pandemic, a lot of people are realizing they no longer need to live in big cities, bearing the costs, hectic pace and lack of space that goes with urban dwelling. This will alter both the small towns they’re moving to and the big cities they’re moving from in ways we can’t predict, but we need to be ready for.

A small-town pastor recently told me, “The shift is already happening.” People moving from the city are buying houses in his small town at historically high prices. 

Back in 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that rural America was the new inner city. Small towns are now experiencing problems (drug addiction, homelessness, teen pregnancy, etc.) that previously were believed to be confined to urban areas. These challenges will only increase as the populations of small towns grow. Because of this, new residents may not find their new small-town environs as friendly as they had anticipated.

Another change coming is that big buildings and the mortgages that go with them will not be the norm. According to my friend Mel McGowan, an architect and a contributing editor for Outreach magazine, even large and growing churches no longer want ever-bigger buildings. Instead of pushing for maximum size, they’re testing the waters by designing multiple venues based on the Silicon Valley concept of “minimum viable product” for the worship/teaching experience. Several advantages to this approach include cost, location, portability, relational access and more.

In other words, a whole lot of smaller and midsize venues are coming, even for large and growing churches. 

We all have spent a lot of time recently with one foot in isolation and the other on social media. Before the pandemic it was voluntary. Then, when isolation became mandatory, it became hugely amplified. As lockdowns start to lift, we are likely to see two tracks running parallel. First, there will be a huge thirst for intentional relationships and community-building to counteract the deep feelings of loneliness we’ve experienced. Second, we’ll see another group of people burrowing even deeper into their isolated technological caves.

Our churches need to help people address both the renewed longing for connection and the numbing isolation that many will have a hard time freeing themselves from.

Christians in America

As challenging as these realities are, I’m not a pessimist. But I am a realist. Are difficult times coming? Yes. For the church and the international economy? Absolutely. Is it time to panic? Never.

In my book, The Church Recovery Guide: How Your Congregation Can Adapt and Thrive After a Crisis, I note that churches that have not only survived but thrived during the recent lockdowns share three common traits: resources in reserve, team-based leadership and adaptability. Those three traits also can prepare us for the challenges ahead.

So don’t panic, but do prepare. We live in a broken world. It’s not a matter of if another crisis is coming, but when. Those are the times when the church should be stepping in with hope and help, not fear and conspiracy theories.

One thing that probably isn’t coming is a return to “Christian” America. According to a recent Gallup poll, fewer than half of the U.S. population (47%) consider themselves members of a local congregation. This is the first drop below 50% in the eight decades they’ve been tracking these stats. As someone who has lived my entire life as a Christian in a post-Christian culture (Canada, then California), I have a few gut responses to this news.

First, if you’ve been living in a mostly Christian bubble, a Christian culture won’t be coming back—at least not in our lifetimes.

Second, 47% church membership? That’s higher than I expected. But it will drop more. And fast.

Third, this strengthening of America’s post-Christian culture will be especially challenging for my friends in the Bible Belt.

Fourth, this doesn’t change the mission, the future or the hope of the church. As a small-church pastor in a post-Christian culture, I can assure you that there is great ministry to be done among people who don’t share our worldview and who wouldn’t even consider using a church facility for a wedding or funeral, let alone attend a worship service on Sunday.

Since America is accelerating on its path to post-Christianity, we need to prepare ourselves to live in the reality of a C.T. Studd quote that I love to cite: “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” It’s time to set up our spiritual rescue shops. 

Return of the Shepherd

For several years, a steady drumbeat of books, articles, podcasts and conferences have been telling us that pastors must become entrepreneurial leaders if we want our churches to grow. That message has been so relentless that I gave in to it and tried to become an entrepreneurial pastor. This did not result in church growth. Instead, it nearly killed an otherwise healthy congregation and almost drove me out of pastoral ministry.

Thankfully, the siren call to become an entrepreneurial pastor may be waning, along with a small but growing acceptance that the pastors who are more like shepherds may not be an utter failure.

For instance, in a recent podcast episode, Andy Stanley said, “It may not be the way you’re wired, but especially in times of crisis, uncertainty and disruption there is a role that we must all step into when it comes to leading, and it is the role of shepherd and pastor.” After acknowledging candidly and good-naturedly that this is something he struggles with, Stanley said, “You don’t even have to do this well—you just have to do it.”

Before we started training pastors to be executives and innovators, we were called to be shepherds. If you’ve been more of a manager than a shepherd, you may think that all the relational aspects of pastoring can be outsourced, even in times of disruption. But, again, even Stanley says there are no exceptions: “In times of disruption, there is a shepherding role all of us must assume.” 

Yes. All of us.

If you feel inadequate and undertrained in the shepherding aspects of pastoring, don’t lose hope. Reach out to a small-church pastor for advice. Those so-called “soft” skills, like listening, waiting and giving people a shoulder to cry on are what we’ve been doing for a long time. And we’re all going to need to get better at them in the next few years.

What else can we do moving forward? Here are four values to focus on:

* Unity. Perhaps the most long-term loss to come out of this recent season has been the deep divisions in the body of Christ. Jesus calls us to be a united body. Not at the cost of truth, but around the truth. We’re supposed to come together during times of crisis. Instead, we’ve splintered over nonessentials. This has cost us more than we may ever know. And the only way to get it back is to unite around the essentials again.

Love God. Love others. Make disciples who become disciple makers. Our mission is clear. Let’s unite around that.

* Simplicity. Newer generations have shown an avid disinterest for the hyper-busy calendars their parents were (and still are) enslaved to. Most of them are actively designing their lives to be less cluttered. They won’t participate in a church with a crowded schedule, elaborate facilities and the like.

That doesn’t mean they’re ready to run back to the good old days (that never really were) of worship and fellowship in a little white chapel. Nor should they want to. But they are thirsting for something more genuine, authentic and relational than what they found (or didn’t find) in too many of their parents’ or grandparents’ churches.

While we’re not about to return to “Christian America,” there is a growing spiritual thirst. New generations don’t believe that the old institutions will fulfill that thirst, and they’re right. But they will be drawn to a simple gospel, lived in an uncomplicated way, pointing to a crucified and resurrected Savior.

* Consistency. For the last 28 years and counting, my wife Shelley and I have ministered in the same church as has our fellow staff member, Gary Garcia. And now we’re seeing the payoff of living and ministering simply and consistently. People who left the church years, even decades, ago are calling or coming by to touch base with their roots again. And the fact that we’re still here gives them a spiritual marker that they can identify and trust.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with moving from a church when God calls you. I had several short-term ministry posts before we landed here. But there’s something invaluable about staying for the long haul if you’re blessed to do that. In times of disruption, long-term faithfulness will be more important than ever.

* Integrity. It used to be that when someone found out I was a pastor, it instantly warranted a level of credibility and trust. Not anymore. Now, being a pastor puts me at a trust deficit with most people. And I can’t blame them. There have been far too many instances of that trust being broken.

 

We need a return to integrity. And there’s only one path to get it back: We have to do the right thing, every time, for a long time. With no agenda.

There’s no shortcut. Broken trust can’t be restored through better methods and programs, only through the hard work of person-to-person relationships. Damaged integrity cannot be repaired institutionally, only relationally.

And it won’t work if our primary goal is to bolster our own reputations. That’s too self-centered, which was the problem to begin with. The focus has to be on healing the people we’ve hurt. We have to stop asking how to get people to trust us again and instead work on how we can be more trustworthy people. Our performance must match our principles.

One Last Look Ahead

The future may not be predictable, but it’s not a mystery either. And the way forward isn’t new or even innovative—it’s slow, simple, honest and relational. 

It’s about the beauty of worship, the teaching of the Word, the passion of prayer, the joy of fellowship and the simplicity of relational outreach. That sounds a lot like the church Jesus said he would build. And Jesus knows what he’s doing.

Read more from Karl Vaters.

From Outreach Magazine  6 Essentials of Leadership Resilience

This article originally appeared in the January-April 2021 issue of Outreach Magazine.