The necessary changes aren’t as dramatic as we might imagine.
Just between you and me, who is tired of hearing about all the big shifts, pivots or changes that need to happen due to all the “unprecedented” disruptions we’ve experienced the last couple of years? I know I am. And I’m a guy who loves change and helps churches navigate change for a living. Whether you’ve been in church ministry for two years or more than two decades like I have been, it’s enough to make anyone start to think: This is not what I signed up for. Do I really want to continue doing this?
In fact, I know a lot of you are asking that question. A recent Wall Street Journal article shared data from an October study released by the Barna Group. The survey found that 38% of pastors were seriously considering leaving full-time ministry. That was up from 29% in January 2021, which, as you know, was already almost one year into the COVID pandemic. But this isn’t just a phenomenon among older pastors. Nearly half of pastors under age 45 are also considering leaving full-time ministry. Of course, this is just compounding the shortage of pastors many churches and denominations were facing before the pandemic.
I’m sure there are many factors driving this questioning of calling, but among them is certainly this sense that the last couple of years are pushing the need for significant change in how churches engage their mission.
In other words, pastors sense that they need to lead a completely different kind of church in the new normal.
Do we really need to become a new church for a new normal?
What’s driving this pressure? It’s likely the fact that a good number of churches have half-empty sanctuaries on Sunday mornings while many people are still watching services online. With so many people engaging services online, I think pastors have the mistaken assumption that everything the church does to minister to people must also be online. There’s an unspoken expectation that if people are engaging Sunday morning online, then everything that happens Monday through Saturday also needs to be online. It’s as if every church needs to become a 24/7 online church like Amazon has become a 24/7 online store.
First, let me suggest that trying to move all our ministry online could potentially become very detrimental to our mission. In fact, I don’t believe 100% online is God’s plan for the church at all. The reason I suggest that is because we can connect with people online, but we really can’t develop the types of relationships online that would lead to spiritual transformation and the life change we desire for people. There are way too many “one anothers” in Scripture for us to think that God’s design for relationships can happen through a computer or mobile phone screen.
Online ministry is helpful for reaching new people and encouraging people to take initial steps towards faith and connection to the church. But it’s actually an awful platform for establishing deep relational connections. Could you imagine a young couple meeting through an online dating app and then going on every date, getting married and living out their marriage relationship solely through Zoom?
Or, can you imagine sending our kids to school online and expecting them to learn all the course material, interact with their teachers and develop formative relationships with their peers? Can you imagine spending every school day on a computer and expecting our kids to learn how to grow not only their knowledge but also their relational and emotional IQ? Oh, wait, we tried that. Anyone want to go back to watching your kids try to do gym class and art class online?
Yes, I think online ministry could potentially be a wonderful “front door” to reaching new people. It could be part of our reach strategy to initially engage with people outside the church and outside the faith. But online church has significant limitations when it comes to relationships, spiritual formation and ongoing discipleship. It’s very challenging to help people become more like Jesus through a website or a phone app. For that to happen, we need to live life together. We need to “one another” with one another.
What does not need to change?
Over the last couple of years, there’s no doubt about it. We’ve experienced a significant confluence of disruptions in our society. We’ve lived through a global pandemic. We’ve witnessed social unrest in response to several atrocities that have rightly captured the attention of the world. We’ve experienced political divisiveness that has also divided our congregations. We’re currently watching the resurgence of an evil empire as it tries to expand its kingdom in a way that’s unlike anything we’ve experienced since World War II. There’s no doubt about it. We’re in the middle of several global disruptions that have also indirectly impacted our mission as the body of Christ.
Because of that, yes, change is required to engage culture in this new normal. But are the shifts really that big? It might be helpful in this season to begin with what does not need to change for our churches. Let’s focus on what was true yesterday, is true today and will remain true for the foreseeable future, if not for eternity. In fact, it might be a good idea for you to discuss this with your ministry leadership team, especially in this season where it often seems like the new normal demands monumental change.
If you were to make a list of everything that will not change, what would be on that list? Let me help you get started. I would include:
• Jesus (Heb. 3:8)
• The Word of God (Mark 24:35)
• God’s plan for us (Ps. 33:11)
• Our mission (Matt. 28:16–20)
• God building the church (Matt. 16:18)
• Out eternity (John 11:25–26)
• The priority of loving God (Matt. 22:37)
• The priority of loving other people (Matt. 22:39)
• Our mission field as a church
• Our doctrine or theology that’s the foundation of our ministry
• The core values that shape how we engage our mission
This list could go on and on. I actually think it’s helpful in these days where it feels as if so much of our world is changing to talk about what will not change. What do we believe at our core? What forms the foundation of our existence and purpose? Why do we engage our mission no matter the disruptions that we face?
In a world that demands change, I think it’s helpful to recommit to the things that will never change.
What are the simple shifts that we must consider?
At the same time, though, we are living in a different world than we did just a short time ago. My wife, Emily, recently asked me, “Is it possible that we’ve experienced more change in the last five years than we’ve experienced in the first five decades of our lives?” I believe it’s very possible that we have.
And that brings us back to where we started. You may be thinking, “The world around us is dramatically changing, and, therefore, my church must become a completely different church.”
Even with all the disruptions and “unprecedented” change we are experiencing, I still don’t agree that the changes are necessarily very significant. Yes, we need to change. But are the changes really that significant?
Before I proceed, it might be helpful to remember we follow a God who has demonstrated a desire for change. There are many instances where he has advocated for new. Consider these:
• “Don’t long for ‘the good old days.’ This is not wise” (Eccl. 7:10).
• “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isa. 43:18–19).
• “Sing a new song to the LORD! Let the whole earth sing to the LORD!” (Ps. 96:1).
• “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins” (Mark 2:22).
• “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun” (2 Cor. 5:17).
There’s a lot of trading old for new in these words. There’s no doubt about it—we can hold fast to the things God promises will not change. However, God also promises new.
But how new is the new? How much change needs to change?
In practice, I actually think the changes are not as significant as we might think. A lot of the “new” that is needed for this new normal involves simple shifts that don’t require for us to become a completely different church. More importantly, a lot of the “new” doesn’t require us to become a completely different leader or pastor than we were before. Let me give you some specific examples. Here are some simple shifts we probably need to consider.
1. Are our churches willing to make the simple shifts needed to help people in our mission field?
Our church is located in the same mission field, but the needs of the people we are hoping to reach are changing.
We need to become more aware of the fact that our mission field is across the street rather than across the world. People across the street are dealing with new challenges in today’s world. Some of that is based on the growing diversity of the world around us. People in our mission field have been impacted by the same disruptions that our church is experiencing only magnified at the individual level. Here’s the good news: The church was designed for such a time as this. This is our moment. We know how to love others well. We know how to lead with kindness. The world around us needs that type of disruption.
2. Are we willing to make the simple shifts needed to become a multi-generational church doing everything we can to reach the next generation of young adults?
We were effectively engaging the previous generation, but those ministry strategies aren’t working as we try to reach the next generation.
We tried creating separate ministry programs and services to reach the next generation. Unfortunately, creating separate programs to reach new generations did not work. To reach the next generation of young adults, we can’t design separate ministries to reach young adults. We have to become a church that’s designed to reach and minister to young adults. That includes all our worship services. That includes our various ministry environments. That includes our commitment to pouring into their kids.
3. Are we willing to make the simple shifts needed to provide guidance and counseling to hurting people in our community?
People in our community are dealing with the consequences of the pandemic.
That includes some people who are overcoming physical health challenges, but it may include many more people who are dealing with emotional health challenges. Overwhelming stress. Depression. Anxiety. The consequences of these emotional health challenges are impacting relationships all around us. People are hurting emotionally, and many of those people believe there’s a spiritual gap that’s at the root of their pain.
4. Are we willing to make the simple shifts needed to help people reconnect relationally so they don’t have to go through life alone?
Many people have spent the last two years isolated in many ways from other people in order to protect the health of themselves or the people they love.
Masks. Social distancing. Avoiding large public gatherings. If the data is correct, as much as half the population is keeping their distance physically to prevent themselves or others from getting sick. Whether you believe that’s valid or not, it has certainly impacted the relational health of a significant portion of our population.
5. Are we willing to make the simple shifts needed to engage people online and point them to faith and the church?
People are living their lives in both physical and online spaces.
And they’ve been doing this for almost 20 years. The pandemic didn’t force us to embrace hybrid church. Facebook. YouTube. Google. Twitter. TikTok. That’s what forced us to embrace hybrid church. The spaces where we engage ministry may look a little different. And, yes, ministry will still happen within the walls of our church buildings, but ministry also needs to happen within the dialogue on social media and the support we provide online. At the end of the day, ministry is ministry, and ministry is still all about people. We know how to do that.
Let me add a few more:
• Many of our communities are becoming more multicultural while our church continues to remain very homogeneous.
• We are still living out a vision for our ministry that we embraced pre-pandemic that seems outdated and irrelevant now.
• We built our team of staff and volunteers to primarily engage ministry in a physical environment, but now much of our reach strategy relies on engaging people online.
• Our flow and elements of our worship services haven’t changed in several years and now there’s nothing compelling that would encourage someone to join us on a Sunday morning and invite a friend.
• We have designed our ministry strategy to encourage most people to consume biblical teaching rather than equipping people to engage a Kingdom mission.
These are all important shifts. But are they really significant shifts?
You’ve heard me say this many, many times. In almost all instances, I think it comes down to this. Whether we want to admit it or not, the way we do church becomes more important than why we do church. Or, to state it a different way—we choose tradition over mission.
The crazy thing is this. “Why” we do church often points us back to that list of things that we do not need to change. In fact, it would be wrong to let them change. However, we must also hold the “way” we do church lightly and with open hands.
The why establishes our convictions.
The way reinforces our preferences.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll sacrifice my preferences for my convictions any day of the week. Honestly, when I look at the simple shifts that churches need to consider in this new normal, more often than not, it involves giving up preferences to realize the kingdom impact that is rooted in my convictions. My calling. My mission. Our mission.
With that, let me give you a simple next step to consider. Sit down with your ministry team and engage in this important discussion. Bring your Bibles. Bring the knowledge and understanding God is revealing to you in this new normal. Make a list that answers these two simple questions:
1. What does not need to change?
2. What must change in order to fulfill our mission?
Don’t overthink this. You know the answers to these questions. God has already made this very evident to you. You just may not have had the courage to verbalize it. When you say it out loud, though, don’t be surprised when the rest of the team agrees.
It’s time for us to have this courageous conversation. These are simple shifts we must consider to fulfill the mission God has called us to engage.
One last thing … Don’t be surprised that as you engage in this important conversation if God uses it to remind you of the original calling he placed on your life. God did something in you. He gave you this mission. Even though the world around us is very broken …
Don’t give up.
Don’t walk away.
God has called you for such a time as this.
This article originally appeared on TheUnstuckGroup.com and is reposted here by permission.