You can shut the building, but you can’t stop the church.
THE NEW FUTURE OF THE CHURCH
I wonder why so many of us were surprised that shutting down our worship services didn’t shut down The Church. We should have known better. The church is not a restaurant, a shopping mall, a theater or retail establishment. Its viability doesn’t depend upon buildings, programs or the methods that we so confidently put our trust in.
Yet, like many, my first response to the COVID-19 shutdown was panic. I worried that we’d lose touch with our people. I wondered how we would pay the mortgage, staff salaries and other fixed costs that would continue even when we couldn’t meet together.
It’s easy to preach and pontificate about the sovereignty of God and Romans 8:28 when I’m teaching a Bible study or looking back through life’s rearview mirror. But it’s not so easy to remain confident when all I can see out the front windshield is chaos and a looming disaster.
That’s when I forget that Satan’s best shots always end up hurting his cause more than God’s cause. I forget that before Easter’s empty tomb, the day we now call “Good Friday” was actually the most hideous, evil and damnable day in all of human history. But Sunday came. It always does. It always will.
The COVID-19 global pandemic is no exception. It’s an economic, societal and medical catastrophe. But when we look back, we’ll see the hand of God. Not that he necessarily caused it—I’ll blame Adam for this one—but that he used it.
As so often happens, what we as leaders feared most (the loss of our freedom to meet and worship publicly), God has used powerfully. While none of us will look back on this season fondly, it’s borne some wonderful spiritual fruit that will alter the way we think about church going forward. Here are four things I’m most excited about—developments that could yield lasting change.
THE CHURCH HAS LEFT THE BUILDING
Over the last half century, we’ve became so skilled at producing large-scale worship events that many of us started equating the health of the church with the size of the crowd—and the work of the Spirit with the enthusiasm in the crowd.
Now I want to be clear—I am the last guy to rip on big churches, beautiful campuses and well-produced worship services. North Coast has all three. They’ve allowed us to reach more people, with better quality, in an environment that makes come-and-see evangelism natural. All of which are good things. But the temporary loss of our ability to use our buildings and gather in a large group setting has highlighted an often-forgotten truth: The church is the people of God, whether scattered or gathered. The church is not defined by our weekend worship services.
The fact is, when our churches are at their best, we aren’t focused on Sunday. We’re focused on Monday. When we are at our best, our people are equipped to serve and lead well in the marketplace. They see themselves as an empowered priesthood of believers, each one on special assignment: delivering mail, teaching third-graders, selling insurance policies, running a business or installing kitchen cabinets for the glory of God. They work skillfully and live their lives with the kind of consistent integrity that causes others to ask the reason for the hope that is in them.
Unfortunately, as we became better and better at producing high-quality worship services and our crowds grew increasingly larger, we started defining ministry in terms of the things that take place in the building. As a result, equipping the saints for the work of ministry became mostly about raising up volunteers and leaders to work in or for the church. Our leadership pipelines focused almost exclusively on developing church planters, vocational pastors, small group leaders, Sunday school teachers, worship teams, greeters and parking attendants. There wasn’t much focus on raising up CEOs, professors, office workers, community leaders and other marketplace roles.
And that’s where the upside of temporarily losing the use of our buildings and the freedom to gather comes into play. Prior to the shutdown, most pastors and church leaders assumed that the size of their ministry was limited by the size of their buildings, and the scope of their ministry was defined by drive time and/or the number of campuses they could launch.
But once we were forced to go online, many of us had an epiphany: Far more people were listening to our sermons, making decisions for Christ, engaging in small groups and financially supporting the church than under our old building-centric models. One friend put it this way: “We used to think of ourselves as a multisite church with an online presence. We now think of ourselves as an online church with multiple physical locations.”
It’s a subtle shift, but its implications are massive.
Going forward I expect that larger and more aggressive churches will be the first to capitalize on this new understanding. Instead of offering crumbs and leftovers to the nearly 30% of Americans who work on weekends, those who live beyond a reasonable drive time and those who can’t make it on any given Sunday, they’ll shift to a new both/and model of ministry that equally values and serves those who can come to the building and those who can’t.
My prediction is that it won’t be long until most churches follow their lead. After all, thanks to the shutdown, online evangelism and discipleship is no longer a theory to debate, but a reality most of us have now experienced.
SMALL GROUPS AS A PRIORITY, NOT A PROGRAM
When it comes to the importance of small groups, most pastors talk a good game, but few actually pay the price to make them a priority. I understand why. When it comes to affirmation and applause, it’s all about the size of our weekend crowd. There’s no Outreach 100 list for small groups. And it’s always been true that what we measure and reward most is what we get most.
But once COVID-19 closed weekend gatherings, it became obvious that we had to find another way to keep people connected, not just with the church, but also with one another. Same for the new folks we started reaching online. They too needed a new way to connect.
Suddenly, churches that had previously only given lip service to small groups were scrambling to get people into online groups. And in the process, they’ve discovered that small groups really do make a difference when it comes to connecting, evangelizing and discipling people—especially the new and larger audience they are reaching online.
That’s because at its core, discipleship has never been about getting people to attend or serve at our large gatherings. Discipleship is simply the process of helping someone take the next step of obedience. It’s dependent upon two essential ingredients: biblical information and genuine community. And neither one is dependent upon our buildings or large church gatherings.
Biblical information (the process by which our minds are renewed and our lives transformed) can be communicated effectively in all kinds of ways. As those who once railed against video venues and online services learned when they were forced to go online, God’s Word is powerful and life-changing no matter how it’s delivered: face-to-face, on a big screen, in a book or magazine, or on a monitor.
But life-changing discipleship also needs genuine community, something that many pastors erroneously assumed took place in their weekend services. Thus, they were satisfied as long as people attended services regularly, served somewhere and faithfully gave to the cause.
Now going to church is a good thing. I’m a pastor. I like it when people show up. But let’s be honest—once a church has 150 or more in attendance, it’s a gathering of acquaintances, not a community.
A disciple-making community has the kind of relationships that would have been found in a New Testament house church. It’s a place where I know your name. You know mine. It’s a place where it’s hard to pretend and hide. When you ask me how I’m doing, I tell you the truth. When you say you’ll pray for me, you actually pray.
Contrast that with the acquaintance-level relationships at our worship services where I recognize your face but can’t remember your name. Where it’s easy to hide. Where I ask you, “How are you doing?” and you always say, “Fine,” even if you’re starting chemo tomorrow.
Fortunately, the temporary need to go all-digital forced many churches that once settled for acquaintance-level relationships to find new ways to connect people in online small groups. And now that they’ve put the time, energy and staffing into making that happen, I expect that the priority of small groups will continue to increase even in churches that once treated them as an afterthought.
THE DISCOVERY OF PERSONAL MARGIN
Another positive impact of COVID-19 has been a renewed emphasis on maintaining spiritually healthy priorities. Pastors always list their top priorities as God, family, then the church. But few have a schedule that reflects that order (or family members who would confirm it to be true).
Prior to the widespread stay-at-home orders, most pastors I know were slow to admit that they were too busy doing too many things that had too little impact. Once they’d stepped on the treadmill of people-pleasing ministry, they found it hard to get off.
They feared being criticized if they didn’t show up at every meeting or community event they we’re invited to. They worried that nothing would get done if they didn’t do it themselves, or were convinced that if they didn’t do it, it wouldn’t be done right.
By the way, all of those things may be true. But if our priorities really are God first, family second, and then the church, we should expect some things at the church to fall through the cracks, and some people to be upset when they discover they’re just third on our list.
When COVID-19 suddenly turned off the treadmill, it exposed the folly of our frenetic pace and people-pleasing schedules. Despite a long list of canceled events and our inability to show up at everything, the work of the church continued to flourish. In some cases, better than ever.
I’m encouraged that most of the pastors I coach and talk to around the country are coming out of COVID-19’s forced sabbatical with an understanding that what they previously called normal was neither normal nor healthy. They’ve come to realize for the first time at a deep soul level that it’s Jesus’s church, not theirs; that he’s the key to success or failure, not their hard work, stellar programs or ingenuity. They’re learning to live with a margin, learning to say no to an overbooked people-pleasing schedule so they can say yes to the things that really matter.
THE POTENTIAL TO NARROW OUR MINISTRY FOCUS
In the same vein, COVID-19’s shutdown of events and programs has provided a rare opportunity to prune back ministries and programs that have a legacy but no real fruit.
For a long time, many of our churches have had a bloated ministry menu. We keep starting new things, which is good. But we lack the courage to put dead and dying ministries out of their misery. Imagine a restaurant that asks everyone what they want and then tries to serve up whatever it is they ask for. On the surface, that may sound like a good way to reach lots of customers. But in reality, when you try to cook everything, nothing tastes very good.
Powerful ministries are focused ministries. They’re like the In-N-Out Burger chain in the West. The In-N-Out menu is ridiculously simple: burgers, fries and a drink. The food is good. The lines are long. But unfortunately, many of our churches are more like a Jack in the Box: funny commercials, a huge menu and no line.
COVID-19 is helping to change that. It didn’t take long to realize that we could survive—even thrive—without many of the programs and events that previously seemed so essential. And because it’s much easier not to bring something back after the lockdown than to prune it or kill it, we’ve been provided with a unique opportunity to refocus our time, money and energy on programs and ministries that actually bear fruit.
I realize that eventually our ministry menus will become bloated once again. It’s human nature. Every program has its fans, even the ones that no one goes to anymore. But in the meantime, I’m encouraged by the pruning that has taken place. It’s narrowed our focus and will increase our fruit.
If you were alive in 1953, my bet is that you would have bemoaned the rise of communism in China and the forced removal of every foreign missionary as a defeat for the gospel. And I’m pretty sure you would have found a measure of solace in the fact that European churches remained open and free to proclaim the gospel—and in many cases were actually subsidized by the government.
You wouldn’t have guessed that less than 70 years later, closed-off China would be home to a powerful and vibrant house-church movement while open and free Europe would be filled with empty churches.
But that’s how God works. Sunday’s always coming. We just have to wait and watch for it.