Thinking Smaller

leadership post-pandemic

4 Leaders Reflect on How 2020 Changed the Scorecard for the Church


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Each year in the July/August issue of Outreach magazine we spotlight small churches and church plants that are having a big impact on their communities. In the past year and a half, every church from the largest multisite megachurch to the smallest microchurch has learned to adapt during the pandemic to smaller ways of doing ministry—one-on-one Bible studies, small socially distanced watch parties, church services streamed to living rooms. All this has given churches an opportunity to rethink what it means to “do church” together and what churches should be measuring in a year when the normal church-growth metrics went out the window. 

We reached out to four leaders to glean their insights from a small church and church planting perspective on what the pandemic has taught us and how it will shape the trajectory of the church going forward. This forum is the first in a series of articles Outreach magazine is planning on the future of the church. We hope that it will inspire you to think deeply and creatively about how your church can more effectively reach your community, today and into the future. —J.S.

What are we learning about how to optimize our online offerings during this time of pandemic?

Jonathan Davis: At my church, multiple people lead and participate on Sunday because we’re hosting our service on Zoom and streaming it on Facebook. You have different people reading, different people leading in music, different people doing responsive readings or prayers. And every week it’s a different group of people. I think it may be easier to ask somebody, “Could you lead a prayer on our Zoom meeting?” than “Could you stand up in front of this room full of people and lead a prayer?” For people who have anxiety about public speaking, it may be a lower barrier for them to participate in a Zoom meeting.

Brandon O’Brien: My sense is there’s always a lag in technology. In the beginning you try to do with the new technology what you were doing with the old and just replicating it one-to-one. I know of a pastor of a church in the Northwest who said he was doing online sermons, and then when they went back to meeting in person, not everybody was coming back. They’re in this great big room with 20 people, and it just didn’t feel right. So he would send his sermon out on the weekend on Friday or Saturday, and then in person on Sunday he would do a five-minute summary and then Q&A. He figured out that the internet is good for distribution, but it’s not great for engagement.

I think a hybrid approach where you use the internet for what only the internet can do and you use the physical space for what only the physical space can do is fruitful. And I think small churches can make those changes faster without fear of alienating huge groups of people. Counterintuitively, a lot of innovation can happen at that scale because there’s a different sense of risk analysis when you’re making those changes.

How might churches being forced to think smaller shape the way we do missions and community engagement going forward?

Stephen Witmer: Personal discipleship has really come into its own in the last year. I have a pastor friend who said he and his church were aiming for “a kind of ministry that COVID can’t touch.” The smaller you get, the more pandemic-proof you become. It’s so much more flexible. It’s so much more reproducible. Our church has been really focused on one-to-one Bible reading for the last several years. You can reach people, and COVID can’t stop you from doing it.

Dennae Pierre: COVID exposed the depth of need our nation and the church itself has for community. Just because something seemed to be working pre-pandemic doesn’t mean it was actually establishing the kind and depth of Christian community that was really needed. A lot of the behaviors—the anxiety, the fighting, the polarization and all that came in this last year—came out of anemic spirituality and a real lack of depth of community. When we think about microchurches or small groups that are being missional or engaged around a particular topic or are serving others, I think that those are really unique opportunities to help knit Christian-to-Christian community together.

As we’ve been training church planters and pastors, we’ve told them to stop counting how many people are watching their service. Instead, count how many people are connecting with each other, how many people they are still in relationship with, who’s coming to small groups or who’s in one-on-one relationship. That’s probably what we always should have been counting. It’s not just people hearing a message and going home, but are they embedded in this Christian community where they have that network to hold them through some of these difficult things?

Davis: I agree completely with Dennae that we need to change the scorecard. For many years, we have tracked how much money we have in the bank, how many butts are in seats on Sunday morning, how many buildings we have. Instead, what we should be measuring is how many people each week are engaged in mission, how many people in our church are sharing their faith regularly, and if disciples are making more disciples. When you take all the other stuff off the table, those are the deeper issues anyway. 

Changing the metrics changes the conversation about what a healthy church looks like. And the great thing about that is there are things you can do in an urban context, in a suburban context, in a rural context to address each of those issues, but fundamentally those metrics and the questions that we ought to be asking have a consistency across the board no matter your church’s social context.

How do you think what we’re learning during the pandemic might help the church with larger cultural issues (racism, the flight of the nones, etc.)? How might the church reimagine how to approach those kinds of issues?

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O’Brien: Evangelical Christianity has a significant credibility crisis when we start trying to speak into issues like race and justice. I think that the larger a church or organization is, the more likely it is that their credibility will be questioned. Smaller churches have a kind of credibility advantage. There’s less to hide. There’s less flash and spectacle, and there’s something about that that is easier for people who might otherwise be skeptical to access. I’m not saying let’s leverage that, but I think that does create kind of an opportunity for smaller congregations to become proximate to people who are skeptical or have been hurt by some of those larger iterations of the American church.

Witmer: One thing I’ve thought a lot about in our church with all these incredibly divisive, tricky, tough issues that we’re trying to talk through is the importance of thick relationship. Not just seeing other people on a screen but all the things that happen around Sunday morning, or other times when we have offline conversations and we can talk to each other, affirm each other, look each other in the eye, form relationships and shake each other’s hand.

Pierre: It has been fun to watch churches that have shifted from the pastor being the one doing all the ministry, because the church can only reach one, maybe two, cultural degrees of separation. But in your church you always have those people who are at that second degree, and they have their own network of friends. Churches are targeting eight to 12 lay leaders to begin to start missional groups with non-Christians. And the goal isn’t to get people into our Sunday service, but to really empower those eight to 12. Things like that are great opportunities if we’re thinking about how our local church is a training ground to send missionaries. The goal is to help people have the maturity to be sent to do discipleship evangelism.

Has the pandemic reshaped assumptions about church planting and in what ways?

O’Brien: There’s this sense in church culture that a church plant becomes a church plant when it’s self-sufficient or self-sustaining. Recently, I saw people thinking through what to do if a church is always financially dependent upon a sending church. Because they’re being sent to a location that has an enormous number of turnovers (like university students or something like that), they’re never going to establish a base that’s consistent enough to maintain. Instead of sending, they’re maintaining a permanent financial and accountability connection, but giving autonomy to the church to do what they need to do without the pressure of saying they have to get to 100 in the first year or 200 in the second year.

Davis: I was coaching a church planter recently, and the church is in a community that has a lot of high-risk individuals. They planted right before the shutdown. And now over a year into having launched as a new church, they still haven’t gathered on Sunday yet. But they have 150 people who participate in local missions and Bible study groups. They have had to completely rethink what it means to be church in a context where their people are not yet gathering face-to-face. 

When you remove Sunday morning from what it means to be church, all sorts of possibilities open up. They have really leaned in to small groups of people who can relate to one another. People are having Bible studies with their own families, and all sorts of other things that are equipping people in different ways. Hearing how that church planter adapted and how that congregation adapted gives me a lot of hope for where God is taking the church.

Witmer: I’m in New England, which you probably know is pretty hard spiritual ground. A lot of the culture is quite post-Christian, and churches are small and struggling. Over the course of the last year, a group of seven or eight small churches—one in Maine, a couple in Vermont, some in Massachusetts—formed a collective to plant small-town churches together. This is one of the exciting things about small church going forward: the possibility of collaboration. 

We’re partnering together financially and relationally. Leaders of small churches in small towns often think, Could we ever plant a church? If we could, it would probably be one every 20 years. Doing it together and building deep relationships among these pastors, it feels like life coming up out of the last year of desolation. And we have a sense that we could plant a church every year together. It’s incredibly exciting.

What can we learn from the global church or the early church that might be beneficial for us going forward?

O’Brien: My job is facing global leaders, and I deal with two issues regularly. First, do we really believe we have anything to learn from the global church? I think we actually need to do a lot of self-evaluation on that question. Because what we would want to learn is probably strategy, but they have something very different to offer: a whole different vision of what the output of discipleship ought to be. And I don’t know that we’re ready for that.

The second issue is that once relationships are strong enough that I can press and find out what the real need and problem is for church planters in Africa or India or places like that, very often what really blocks them from doing what they need to do is resources. Even if they received an education in-country, it was a Western education, and even though they are desperate for resources, the ones that they get are Western and don’t help. They’re sort of flooded with resources and education that actually make them less effective in their contexts, but have a lot of pressure from us to feel grateful that we’ve given them all these things. 

What that means for us is that there are a lot of things we consider assets that might be liabilities. Before we export those liabilities, let’s do some careful examination about whether they’re actually assets. And I think that we can’t know that without the engagement from the global church to help us see what’s an asset and what’s a liability.

Pierre: We have a network of international pastors here in Phoenix who are all pastoring congregations in their first language from all over the world. One thing that has stood out has been the depth of prayer and worship that is going before everything. There’s this deep, deep dependency on the Lord that comes from persecution and poverty and all kinds of things that have been their context. 

Also, I don’t want to say that the global church doesn’t have its own theological divisions—there are plenty—but even where there are theological lines, all God’s people are activated for the work of the ministry a lot more effectively. One of the things I’ve appreciated, especially about Latin America, is that even in churches that are complementarian and theologically conservative, you meet their leadership teams and there are all kinds of strong women involved. I think we need to think more creatively in terms of how we’re empowering God’s people.

Witmer: The New Testament teaching on the church that has most captured me over the last several years and has redefined success in my view and given me permission to be a small-town, small-church pastor and not hang my head about it is in Ephesians 3. The apostle Paul talks about the Jew-Gentile church manifesting the manifold wisdom of God—displaying the wisdom of God. Paul is describing a church that is see-through to the gospel. It’s like a window. You’re looking through it and you’re seeing the beauty of God’s wisdom. 

That’s a different way of conceiving a church’s success—not how large it is or how big the budget is, but is it see-through to the gospel? If you are really zealous as a church to communicate through your life together something of the nature of the gospel and the wisdom of God, it might be that you’re a larger church and you’re fast-moving because the gospel can be large and fast-moving, but it also might be a different aspect of the gospel and the wisdom of God. Sometimes God works slowly, and sometimes he works small.

The pandemic has hit all churches of all sizes hard. How can we be prepared for the next unanticipated crisis? How does the church become more resilient?

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Pierre: The Gospels talk so much about the wealthy and the rich young ruler. There is an aspect of comfort that is a constant assault on our faith. We’re going to have a lot more comfort before the next challenge or crisis. I think the big question to ask is, How do we disciple Christians? Christianity was created in the midst of persecution, suffering and marginalization, and that’s not what Christians in America want.

This last year was a gift that many of us weren’t ready to receive. I think of the 10 virgins, and the five who go out to get oil because they didn’t have enough. I felt like that was so much of the American church. 2020 came and some were ready and present because their faith has been shaped in suffering, and many weren’t. As we enter this new season, how do we think about forging a really deep, mature faith so that we can continue to prepare people for trials and adversity?

Davis: One of my mentors, Israel Galindo, says, “We don’t learn from our experiences. We learn by reflecting on our experiences.” I think that a lot of churches, maybe the vast majority of churches, are going to try to get back to normal without spending a lot of time reflecting on their experience of the last year and a half. And without taking some time to do that reflective work, we’re not going to be learning much.

For churches to build more capacity, to build more resilience, they need to be carving out space to ask some deep questions. What do we grieve from the last two years? What do we celebrate? What lessons have we learned that we need to know about ourselves? What is God’s Spirit saying? Churches that are trying to get back to normal and start calendaring things again are missing an incredible opportunity for learning and an incredible opportunity to build that kind of resilience you’re talking about. I think even before the pandemic a lot of churches were sensing, Something’s gotta change. We’re spinning our wheels. I think the pandemic has really ripped the Band-Aid off in a lot of ways. I see that as a healthy thing for churches that are willing to embrace it.