Church Growth in the Year of COVID

Throw out the playbook, not the mission.

Fast-growing churches are no stranger to challenges, but 2020 has greatly tested even these agile congregations.

As LifeWay Research, in association with Outreach magazine, surveys churches for these lists, we also seek to understand aspects of their experience that may be helpful for other churches. This year, as we spoke to the leaders of a number of them, we learned they are facing the same challenges as every other church—dealing with the fallout of COVID-19.

“I’ve talked to pastors all over the country,” says Kyle Brownlee, lead pastor of Xperience Church in Defiance, Ohio (No. 33, Fastest-Growing). “Big churches, megachurches, smaller churches. Nobody had a playbook. Nobody knew what to do.”

“I don’t think anybody’s ever been through anything like this,” says Matt Brown, lead pastor at Sandals Church in Riverside, California (No. 46, Fastest-Growing; No. 24, Largest). “The first two weeks of COVID-19, I felt like the captain of the Titanic. Staff meetings felt like the musicians shuffling chairs on deck. ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do this.’”

Before 2020, the challenges these churches faced related to facilities they were constantly outgrowing, finding the right volunteers for weekly services, making each aspect of ministry scalable and hiring staff to meet emerging needs and a larger organization. In a sense, their growth prepared them for the rapid changes brought on by the pandemic.

“I think most Christians say they want growth,” says Brown. “But the reality is growth forces change.” He compared it to a family of four discovering they are now expecting triplets. “You’re not the same family anymore. Everything has to be different—roles change, rooms change. Things are constantly changing, and that’s really hard for people because we like our church to be the same. But growth makes that impossible.”

For this reason, fast-growing churches live in and foster a culture of change, yet they also face the same motivation challenges of all churches.

Pastor Stephen Chandler of Destiny Church in Columbia, Maryland (No. 1, Fastest-Growing), says churches are competing with all of the other pressures in people’s lives. “Our competition is the CrossFit club that meets on Sunday morning or the AAU travel soccer team, the side business that somebody’s running or whatever other things that are competing for people’s attention and time.”

A NEW CLARITY

The fastest-growing churches have clearly been blessed. Xperience Church’s Brownlee says he doesn’t want to take for granted what is happening. “I think of our town of 16,000 and to see what we’re seeing here, watching the lives that are being touched and changed, I just want to step back and reflect on what God’s doing.”

In addition to God’s blessing, they also tend to have a lot of clarity around essentials for their church. They don’t all word them the same and clearly have different cultures, but to keep up with the growth they have seen, fast-growing churches need to communicate and stay focused on what is essential.

Existing clarity of vision among these churches has meant this year has been less about changing direction and more about applying this direction to a new reality. The clarity of their vision is often seen in streamlined programming. For younger churches, that is all they have known.

As Brandon Beals, founding and lead pastor of Venture Church in Mill Creek, Washington (No. 22, Fastest-Growing and a Reproducing Church), shares, “We’ve always run lean. We’ve never been overstaffed. We’ve never had ministries that we weren’t sure if they were viable or not.”

Other churches worked to rediscover that place. Mosaic Christian Church in Elkridge, Maryland (No. 81, Fastest-Growing), is only a dozen years removed from their start, yet they saw this as a time to get back to that point mentally. Lead Pastor Carl Kuhl says, “I like where we got over the course of a couple months. I wish we had had a mindset of a church plant at the beginning, saying, ‘If we’re starting from scratch, how are we going to do this?’”

SERVING CHANGED

The Dream Center where Xperience Church serves people and builds relationships had to shift online during COVID-19. Their impact was evident when, in the middle of the pandemic, the local police chief asked when they were going to reopen. Many of the needs they address—abuse, addiction and suicide—were on the rise.

One of the four essentials for Destiny Church is helping people make a difference. In the past, they measured this by the number of people serving in the church. “In this crisis, we dialed it back, and we have not put any emphasis on volunteering in the church. Instead, we’ve given everybody an opportunity to serve in outreach and to be a blessing in the community,” says Chandler.

Mariners Church in Irvine, California (No. 19, Fastest-Growing; No. 16, Largest), made a similar shift to their outreach ministries. “Many of these ministries existed on campus, and we’re not meeting on campus. They’ve been repurposed, and our people are stepping in to serve our outreach ministries that are attending to the vulnerable communities,” says Roddy Garcia, outreach pastor at Mariners.

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Brownlee of Xperience Church says, “At the end of the day, we got away from caring about how excellent something is, and just cared about people and what we can do to reach people, serve people and let them know that we’re here and that we care.”

WORSHIP SERVICES CHANGED

Even churches that already had thriving online services still had to make adjustments. Church at The Mill in Moore, South Carolina (No. 53, Fastest-Growing), had technology that was great for in-house, but it didn’t translate well to online.

“We tweaked it week in and week out, until we got it to where we wanted it,” says Executive Pastor Ken Fisher. “We’ve had a lot of positive feedback, and we are going to continue online worship. We’re just doing it at a much higher level now than we had done before.”

At Mosaic Christian Church, Kuhl says they rethought their service specifically for an online audience and made significant changes, including moving sermons away from the stage. “When we go back, we’re not going to ever do online broadcasts the same,” he says.

Like the early movies had to move beyond just broadcasting stage plays, Kuhl would like to see the American church learn how to make the equivalent shift in what they broadcast. “We continue to experiment every week on the online broadcast to see what we can learn.”

CONNECTING CHANGED

Megachurches took many of the same steps as small churches to stay connected, including picking up the phone. Sandals Church realized that amid huge growth in online attendance, some people were left behind because they weren’t able to meet online. So, they began calling all 25,000 contacts in their database.

Destiny Church responded in the same way, which Chandler says is their biggest shift brought about by COVID-19.

“Our approach prior to this crisis was, ‘We’re not going to be invasive in people’s lives.’ We don’t call first-time visitors and thank them for coming. We don’t check in on people if they haven’t been to church for four weeks,” he says. “But with this crisis, we just completely changed the ideology, and checked in, literally on every single person who has ever given contact information to Destiny Church. People were just raving about how loved, cared for and encouraged they felt through this season.”

Staying connected for Church at The Mill required doing some behind-the-scenes work that Fisher admitted may not seem very exciting—updating the church database—but was necessary. “We have taken a massive database, and we’ve been able to do a really good job cleaning it up to make us even better, more effective at being able to communicate to our congregation.”

GROUPS CHANGED

Like most churches, the small groups at Destiny Church went virtual. “Every fitness group, mom’s group, marriage group went onto Zoom calls and were able to connect on a weekly basis, really keeping the church unified,” says Chandler.

While groups changed where they met, communication about them did not. Because Xperience Church is a church of small groups, Brownlee looked for positive stories to highlight. Through video he shared about “a couple who joined a marriage small group and laughed the entire time and were blown away by how they were able to still connect with other couples through video,” and “a single mom who had a hard time getting into a small group because they don’t have childcare, who now can stay home with her kids but still connect.”

STAFF RESPONSIBILITIES CHANGED

“We had to challenge our staff to be agile. We moved people. Departments became irrelevant, because so much of what we did became video-based,” Brown says of Sandals Church.

Garcia of Mariners Church agrees. “Job descriptions went out the window. You just stepped in where there was a need. That was critical.”

Beals told his staff at Venture Church their jobs had changed. “I don’t need a children’s ministry right now. I don’t need an assimilation director. We are going all in online.” They divided the staff into two areas: serving in online content production or in being a humanitarian organization.

Fisher wanted Church at The Mill staff to capitalize on the unique opportunity to spend time connecting one-on-one with those in their ministry. “There was a more personal connection between pastors and their respective ministry teams that you normally don’t have whenever you’re running a million miles an hour during normal programming.”

PREPARED FOR THE FUTURE

Brownlee says the last few months have given Xperience Church resolve for dealing with future adversity. “If, God forbid, anything like this ever happened again, we want to be the church. We’re not backing down from adversity and struggles and issues. I’m going to depend on God like never before. I’m going to rise up like never before. I’m going to be a voice. I’m going to come alongside people. I’m going to love people.”

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Similarly, Chandler says the confidence level at Destiny Church is “pretty high right now. We have confidence that we can pivot and transition based on whatever comes up.”

But he is quick to add that this confidence is ultimately not in themselves. “God is building his church, and people’s faith in God and people’s commitment to the local body is not based solely on an attractive in-person experience on a weekly basis. It is actually based on the God who is in them.”

At Mosaic Christian Church, Kuhl is fond of saying, “The mission drives everything.” He notes that when the next unknown hits, “it should be the same level of humility and hard work that says, ‘Hey, let’s get the mission done. We know what Jesus has called us to. We’ll figure out how to get there.’”

It is important to note that this optimism, confidence and resolve came at a time when most of these churches had not yet started meeting in person. When we spoke to them, they weren’t sure who was still engaged and whether any of the new online attendees would surface in person.

A NEED FOR OTHER CHURCHES

Chandler has seen the value of the Association of Related Churches (ARC) network, as Destiny Church was able to pool resources and information with other ARC congregations within the first week of the pandemic. They also had phone calls with others to learn from inside and outside the church. “I think being able to learn how our community was addressing and approaching this catastrophe helped us to be able to adapt and respond pretty quickly,” he says.

Other churches weren’t able to collaborate as quickly. At Church at The Mill, Fisher lamented a fragmentation that prevented many from working through situations together. “It has certainly been a challenge to come up with the ‘right’ solution,” he says. “We have spent a lot of energy reaching out to other churches to try to understand, ‘What are we going to do?’ ‘What have they done this summer?’ ‘How are they going to regather into the fall?’”

With Venture Church, Beals found the shared crisis brought unity. “As pastors, we all united together, because this was the first time we were all going through the same thing at the same time.”

There is a sense of recognition among pastors that something occurred this year that was both an incredible trial and an amazing experience. A refreshing unity occurred across churches that pastors will continue to seek as their ministry moves forward.

GRATEFUL

As Brown looks back at what has happened at Sandals Church, he has been “surprised by our people’s faithfulness, by our giving. I’ve been wowed by our numbers. The church rallied. I was really encouraged.”

The rallying together extended beyond just his church. This was the first time he had been able to work so closely with Black, Latino and Asian pastors.

“We were really working together. We had moved beyond lip service,” he says. “I had more communication with pastors than I’ve ever had.”

Chandler says, “I just could not be more proud of the church, and not just Destiny Church, but the capital ‘C’ church, and not just in the States but across the world.

“I think in this crisis,” he continues, “we have seen our education system come to a screeching halt, our governmental system scrambling, economics, and all that. I think in the midst of that, the majority of churches that I’m connected to have thrived by going online.”

The Destiny Church pastor says he knows of “hundreds of churches across this nation that have fed people who have run out of food, helped people keep their lights on and keep from being evicted, and been there at the point of need.”

Garcia also expressed pride with what Mariners Church and the church at large accomplished. While also improving their digital experience almost overnight, he says churches were stepping in and serving their community at the same time.

“I love that two-pronged approach of feed the sheep but also desire to change the world in the name of Jesus,” Garcia says. “People who are refugees in our local communities, who are low-income families, who are single parents, who are foster youth, who are experiencing homelessness—they’ve not been forgotten during this season.”