Facing the truth is key to finding our future.
October 8, 1871. August 27, 1900. April 18, 1906.
Do these dates look familiar? Because I live in Chicagoland, I know the first is the date of the Great Chicago Fire. The second date represents the enormous hurricane that wiped out Galveston, Texas. The third is the earthquake that demolished much of San Francisco. Three cities, three disasters.
Of those three cities, Chicago and San Francisco rebuilt and continued to grow into the global cities they are today. Galveston, on the other hand, did not fare so well, giving way to the emergence of Houston as the international city in the region.
In 2020, the pandemic shook the world, impacting churches big and small. Like Chicago and San Francisco, some churches have found ways to thrive after disaster; like Galveston, others did not recover as well, if at all. How are churches doing in the wake of the earthquake called COVID-19 or the tsunami of issues it helped create? Will the church continue to thrive and experience remarkable growth, or struggle into decline?
The Value of Facing the Facts
In his seminal book on organizational leadership, Good to Great, Jim Collins recounts his interview with U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale. Stockdale, a former prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, was confined for seven years and tortured numerous times. Stockdale said he never lost faith that he would get out, but many other prisoners gave up hope and died. When Collins asked who didn’t make it, Stockdale replied, “The optimists.” Those men kept insisting they would be released soon, and when it didn’t happen, Stockdale said they died of a broken heart.
“This is a very important lesson,” Stockdale told Collins. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Collins coined the term the Stockdale Paradox to describe the tension leaders need to have in balancing realism with optimism. Applying this principle to the church, we need to face the facts of our time, regardless of how brutal or dark they may be, while maintaining hope that Christ will continue to build his church until he returns. Wherever we are in time and place, we who know Christ are called to engage our culture for the sake of the gospel. To do so effectively, we need to be aware of the trends that are shaping the future of the church. Here are a few I am seeing.
They Are Not Coming Back.
In the early stages of the pandemic, many in the church assumed that within a short period of time people would begin to come back and attendance levels would return to what they were prior to 2020. Many people assumed that by now we would have returned to “normal.”
However, the numbers show otherwise. A recent article in Christianity Today, based on a Pew study and a few others described the percentage of people who are coming back: “While people steadily returned to church services in the first half of 2021, the trend hit a plateau. Going into the third year since COVID-19, congregations and their leaders are left with the reality that the people who worshiped alongside them before may not be coming back.”
Pew also found that about 1 person out of 5 (21%) reported watching religious services virtually but not attending in person, leading to a trend that will likely continue: hybrid worship models with a growing online presence offered by many churches. This presents challenges and opportunities for ministry, but it indicates some people are not returning to the pews.
It Is Not Calming Down.
In an article in The Atlantic, The New York Times columnist David Brooks demonstrated how America goes through a “convulsion” of sorts about every 60 years. These convulsions all share certain features:
• People feel disgusted by the state of society.
• Trust in institutions plummets.
• Moral indignation is widespread.
• Contempt for established power is intense.
Sound familiar? It did to me, too. In my editorial for the Sept./Oct. 2021 issue of Outreach, I wrote how the enormous convulsion that began in 2020—one that transcends the pandemic—also includes racial injustice, riots, political division, mixed messages from politicians and scientists, and economic collapse. The cultural convulsion we’re going through will last longer than just the period of the pandemic. The division that you’ve seen in the culture and possibly in your own church is probably going to continue for several more years.
The Church Is Being Challenged.
It is no secret that the church has its own internal issues. The continued fall of prominent Christian leaders, too numerous to name at this point, has caused us to ask, “What’s wrong in the system? What is in the water that we need to address?”
Add to that a handful of high-profile Christians who have publicly deconstructed their faith, bringing the credibility of belief into question. Tellingly, in 2020 Americans’ membership in houses of worship dropped below 50% for the first time in the eight decades Gallup has tracked the stat. Membership in a church is no longer a civic expectation, and the once foregone conclusion that religion is good for society is now open for debate. Those who have chosen to remain in the church cannot ignore the cracks in the foundation as we are divided along political lines and our infighting has spilled out into the public square through social media for all the world to see.
Leaders Are Burning Out.
Barna Research reported an almost 10-point rise (29% to 38%) in the number of pastors who considered quitting full-time ministry from January to October 2021. Even more alarming, 46% of pastors under age 45 considered quitting.
Eighteen months into the pandemic, Barna Group President David Kinnaman commented on the state of pastoral health: “This is a growing crisis for church leaders in America. Now is the time for the Christian community to come alongside their pastors to pray and support them so they can continue to lead in healthy ways. Pastors, too, need to proactively guard their health and well-being, taking a holistic assessment of how they are doing.”
“The cultural convulsion we’re going through will be longer than just the period of the pandemic.”
The reality is, we love the Lord, and we love people. We thought that those two things together led to a fulfilled and Christ-centered ministry, but the hard truth we have found instead is that the stress of ministry matches what it’s been in the past. Perhaps we misread the situation historically. Perhaps we thought that we’d be the exception, that pastors would finally be widely loved and affirmed. But the stress of being a pastor is common and is not going away.
How to Respond
In light of these trends, what should church leaders do as they plan for the future? How can we balance the realities of the trends above with the optimism we need in order to continue ministering effectively? I have a few suggestions.
• Recognize the new normal. Stop pining for the way things were. The moment we are in does not pause the mission we are on. Resilience will be essential as we move into the future.
One resource that can help is the Resilient Church Leadership Network at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, of which I am the executive director. Its mission is to “resource, inspire and connect pastors dealing with both internal pressures like burnout and mental stability and external pressures such as cultivating their church online, caring for their congregation, and ministering well in a time of crisis.” It includes training, counseling resources and more to help church leaders. You can learn more at WheatonBillyGraham.com.
• Plug in to community. We deeply need one another, so now is the time to get into some new or renewed relationships with others. This is the time for pastors to get into community with other pastors, and for leaders to be in accountable relationships with elders and others. Doing so could create a space to seek counseling and to engage in some spiritual receiving or spiritual direction. More and more pastors are recognizing the importance of a counselor to help with their own mental and emotional health.
“The moment we are in does not pause the mission we are on.”
This would also be the time to ensure you have encouragers in your life who can speak words of hope when you are weary. Don’t go it alone. Prioritize time to talk with and meet peers, mentors and others.
• Put in place healthy practices. Establishing consistent and healthy routines, such as stewarding our schedules to times of rest, and setting aside time to be in the Word or to witness and serve, will be lifesavers right now. Personally, I need to find space to slow down and engage more. We all do.
Some of the best helps for spiritual practices going forward will be engaging with growing resources such as online curriculum. More and more, we have seen the power of technology—from cable news to social media—and we must provide robust resources through this medium to help people engage better.
We have entered into a situation we did not expect or prepare for, but we can’t deny the reality of where we are. We aren’t going back. Right now is the new normal. But we can move forward with an optimism informed by realistic expectations and fortified by the unshakable promises of God. May the Lord find us faithful in this time.