Even after the restrictions are lifted the church will need to learn to operate in new ways.
As we prepare to reopen after quarantine, we will create a new way of being the church and doing ministry.
In 2009, I graduated from the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, with an Executive Master’s in Leadership degree. That first day on campus I remember milling around with my new cohort, getting to know each other. After disclosing my clergy credentials to a classmate, the expected question came without pause, “So, why is a preacher in business school?” To me, the answer was obvious. Though my focus was on the kingdom of God, I realized I still needed to do business well in order to achieve my ministry goals.
Obviously, it is important for church leaders to read trade periodicals like Outreach magazine in order to discover best practices and to evolve our strategic thinking. However, I contend there are other parallel industries where great data mining, research and creativity is happening right now to help prepare us for the new world that will emerge from this quarantine. And, because it is my firm belief that the kingdom of God is called to lead the world, those industries would do well to study the innovation of the church. Business and the business of church are in the midst of a once in a century shift. And, as is the case with all shifts in culture, those who lead it will have the greatest impact and will define one if not more generations to come.
I want to suggest three industries that churches would do well to study and follow in order to successfully navigate this season of disruption, fear and opportunity.
In the year 2000, Blockbuster Video passed on its chance to buy Netflix because it reasoned, people valued the in-store experience more than receiving, at that time, a DVD in the mail (streaming wasn’t a thing yet). That fateful decision sealed Blockbusters destiny—some Gen Z’ers are googling Blockbuster Video to figure out what that reference is all about. The church, by and large, has made the exact same decision. We told the world that if they wanted us, they had to come and see us. That was of course the exact right thing to do and say in one sense considering koinonia fellowship in its truest sense points to that dynamic which is created wherever two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus. Just like the remainder of a half-truth is a lie, a half correct answer is still wrong. While the local church provides the relational environment essential for disciple making, the parachurch is able to provide the raw material and principles for equipping the saints.
I grew up getting dressed for church while watching the Reverend Frederick K.C. Price on television. Price’s ministry was a great example of the black parachurch model. His ministry was not based on me physically attending his local church; he had a teaching style that did not depend on the powerful, in person, call-and-response experience that I was preparing to attend; and it was delivered through a multimedia platform with which I was very comfortable. This means then that I, like millions of others, grew up recognizing the validity of the “in-store” and streaming versions of church.
As we move to reestablish and redefine the “in-store” experience of church post-quarantine, we must commit to continuing and enhancing the streaming ministry that we have been forced to adopt over recent weeks. What changes need to be made to our online experience that differ from our ‘’in-store” product?
Well, since we’ve been in lockdown we’ve realized that the stimulant and participatory model of video broadcast is ill-fitting. Exhortations to lift hands and shout loud that work well in congregations fall flat in family rooms. More conversational styles, viewer models, shorter in length broadcasts and stand-alone video packages seem to be the order of the day. Savings in utility costs and catering should be redirected to video editors and app developers to cultivate the people now watching you online.
Hospitals are interesting places. They are where the hundreds of medical techniques, fields of study, equipment and practitioners converge to make a difference. A few months ago, my wife called me, explaining that she was having difficulty breathing and had called for the paramedics. I rushed from the preaching engagement I had just finished to meet her in the ER. With my slight bending of the speed limit, I arrived in record time … before she had been fully admitted. Once assigned a bed, I was amazed at the breadth of services being provided in the same place. X-Rays, lab tests, every kind of medicine known to man, all at a moment’s notice. They figured out her issue, thank God she’s feeling better than ever, and I left not only relieved, but also with a new lens through which to view doing ministry.
This is very much how most of our churches operate: everything in one place. We seek to provide relevant ministry from the youngest to the eldest, to the congregation and community, and to provide guidance on spiritual matters like evangelism and practical ones like personal finance.
This whole “flatten the curve” thing is really to allow hospitals time to ramp up their capacity, to enable them to effectively and efficiently treat the scores of persons who will ultimately be infected with the virus. Likewise, the church is ramped up to provide food security to a growing part of our communities, to organize sewing circles to make masks for the public while safeguarding the medical grade masks for health care workers, to provide emotional support through community, and to still provide sense-making gospel guidance.
With each passing day, the church is ramping up the spectrum of services it will provide to meet the unique needs of our pandemic society. Just as hospitals are scaling up for a long-term campaign, we must rid ourselves of the idea that COVID-19 is an interruption to regular church that will soon pass. Instead we must accept the reality that a seismic shift is happening within our culture that will alter the way we function as a species, requiring the church to change its strategy and tactics.
The good news is that those who make the change will be rewarded as the need for faith increases, like the need for N95 masks is at an all-time high. This is not a sprint or a marathon. It is a triathlon—an endurance event that will require different skill sets at different times to overcome different challenges.
This industry is comprised of event planning, restaurants, hotels, sports, live music, theater, etc. All of these businesses are dependent on the physical attendance of people who expect a high quality customer service experience. Right now, hospitality and entertainment industry experts are working hard to figure out how to reopen “high touch businesses.” Spas, professional sports, bars and clubs, and churches are all working hard to imagine new creative ways of being together safely.
The prized targets for the post-quarantine world for travel and hotels are millennials. If you recall, this is the group of persons who were being banned from beaches as they boasted about booking dirt cheap fares. They cast aside warnings about being stranded or infected with some sort of YOLO (You Only Live Once) reasoning. This carefree attitude, along with their high social interdependence, makes the millennial the most likely group to venture out first, once restrictions are lifted.
Unfortunately, this is the exact same crowd the church has struggled the most with to reach. While we’re zooming all day about checking on our seniors—as well we should—we should spend even more time becoming more millennial friendly. They may now give us a second hearing, now that their physical vulnerability is a part of their reality.
Because we are social animals and the instinct to gather is hardwired into our DNA, both practically and spiritually, churches should be busy ramping up their capacity and systems for the post-quarantine era of ministry now. We must/should be ordering touch-free thermometers and hand sanitizer stations and producing clear signage that specifies our new protocols. Those protocols will include temperature screening for worshipers, the wearing of scarves, masks and gloves, refraining from touching, and encouraging congregants to be mindful of social distance.
We must also develop communication plans to inform our congregations that the church they return to will be much safer than the one they left. Educational videos should be developed now to clearly communicate the plan, as well as building a new culture of precaution without instilling fear, but rather as an expression of resilience, faith and commitment to community. New standard operating procedures must be adopted for the sterilization of microphones, podiums, and musical equipment, and anywhere else gloves and masks cannot provide a modicum of safety. Cleaning services, maintenance staff and contractors must be retrained to protect themselves and others while working and taught how to achieve new deep cleaning standards.
As we prepare to reopen after quarantine, we will create a new way of being the church and doing ministry. Rather than starting at square one, now is the time to observe, adjust and adapt better ways of serving our congregations and communities. The time is now.