The Virus and the Church

How church leaders responded during the early stages of the pandemic.

In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, church leaders were compelled to reassess their ministry strategies and pivot quickly. The following perspectives capture the early thoughts of church leaders, and offer a fascinating glimpse into how churches responded to the unfolding crisis.

AN OUTREACH MAGAZINE SPECIAL REPORT

It has always been the genius of the church to speak hope into uncertainty, and certainty into hopelessness. It is no different today. Faced with uncertainty and disruption, the church is responding with agility and unquenchable hope. But that’s not to say that the adjustments are not jarring, the challenges monumental.

As church gatherings were closed down and even small groups migrated to Zoom, we wanted to get frontline perspective. We invited pastors to talk to us about their aspirations for ministry in this season, to relate stories of inspiration that are rising, to reveal new strategies that are coming together.

The following pages contain a small sampling of their ideas, a glimpse from that pastoral vantage. We’re posting much more at OutreachMagazine.com/coronavirus and through our newsletters. (You’ll find the newsletter sign-up at the top right of this page on a desktop, or at the bottom of the page on a mobile device.) And if you are looking for coronavirus resources for livestreaming, online giving, outreach and discipleship resources, you will find an annotated listing at OutreachMagazine.com/coronavirus-resources.

There is a growing consensus that the COVID-19 pandemic will not just alter 2020, but that it will have lasting impact on the church and will be a catalyst for reshaping ministry for years to come. Many of the comments we’re hearing reflect that perspective and longing.

Thank you for the honor of walking this journey with you.

@JamesPLong
Editor

THE HOLY TASK OF LISTENING

In this era of livestreaming and social media, none of us would have imagined that a simple phone call could save our church. When the COVID-19 virus wreaked havoc on our weekend gatherings, churches of all sizes scrambled to take advantage of advanced technology to connect with their scattered and scared flocks.

At New Life, we have certainly used our HD cameras, Facebook Live, YouTube and Roku to broadcast songs, sermons and prayers. However, the most powerful moments have happened on personal phone calls between our teams and our church. We decided during the first week of the pandemic to simply pick up the phone and call everyone in our church. Weeks later, we’re still getting messages from our members retelling those sacred exchanges.

We rediscovered the power of personal conversations. We listened to their stories, heard their concerns and fears and ended every phone call with pastoral prayer. We realized, again, that shepherds must know and nurture the sheep. As it turned out, our modern technology was not enough. Our church needed outbound phone calls. We needed to rediscover the holy task of listening.

Calling thousands of people in a short time was a daunting assignment, but we had extra time because all other programming came to a sudden stop. We had time to linger with people, time to cry with them, to chronicle and respond to their practical needs. Turns out, people needed to know we cared before they cared about our online content.

—Brady Boyd
New Life Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado

LET’S PRAY MORE FOR OUR MINISTRY THAN OUR MISERY

I am not saying to stop praying for God to take this misery away. I am not super spiritual—when there is misery in my life, I ask God to take it away. But we need to pray more for our ministry, that we would be light during this time. I don’t like going through trials, but they shouldn’t stop our ministry. When do you see the light better, outside in the daylight or at night? It is the same light no matter what time it is, but you will see the light in the darkness in amazing ways.

We need to have a kingdom dream that says, God, it’s not about the quality of my life anymore; it’s how I glorify you. And if I shine brighter in dark times, I will pray for darkness to end, but I will pray more for my ministry.

If we redefine the “good life” as simply glorifying God, then life will never be bad. But if we define it as health, wealth and prosperity, most of us won’t have a good life during this time. If our definition of good life is “I get to glorify God,” I promise you this season won’t be bad. In fact, it might be one of the best seasons we’ve ever been through. We can shine, and people will note that we’ve been with Jesus.

—Chris Brown
North Coast Church, Vista, California

COVID-19 SIMULATION GAME

Chicago and the whole state of Illinois were given the “Stay at Home” order. Stuck in my house I called my friend, mentor and missiologist Alan Hirsch to discuss how I should lead my church into the future without buildings and programs.

After a short greeting Alan told me, “Dave, we used to play a simulation game in order to help people imagine how to mobilize their entire church for the mission of Jesus. The simulation game would go like this: ‘I want you to pretend that you are the Archbishop of Canterbury and you oversee all of the Church of England. There are 44 dioceses and 12,500 churches. But suddenly one thing has changed: You suddenly do not have any church buildings. What would you do?’’’

Then Alan said, “Dave, we are living that simulation game.” And then he asked me, “What will you do?”

And let me ask you: What are you doing?

With lots of prayer and wise counsel, I shifted the focus of Community Christian Church in a couple new ways. These are probably changes that I should have made years ago. Realizing that necessity is the mother of innovation, we gave birth to these two shifts.

Shift 1: Focus on the needs of the community, not the church. Through conversations with city leaders and other nonprofit leaders, we were able within a week to identify the top 12 needs in our city and communities.

1. Food Insecurity
2. High-Risk Individuals Care
3. Homelessness
4. Prayer
5. Loneliness and Isolation Outreach
6. Collecting Donations
7. Quarantined Individuals and Families
8. Homeschooling Instruction
9. Incarceration Connection
10. Essential Service Employees
11. Mask Sewing
12. COVID-19 Care

Shift 2: Focus people on external care, not internal programs. Having identified the top needs in our city and communities, we began to repurpose about half of our staff and volunteers to lead these 12 teams, one for each of these significant felt needs. We put all this under the branding of “COMMUNITY Cares” and began to boldly challenge our people to be the church by showing that Community cares.

What was once a simulation game that was played just to imagine about the mission was now my reality with perhaps my greatest opportunity to mobilize our people for Jesus’ mission.

What will you do?

—Dave Ferguson
Community Christian Church, Chicago

GOD IS WORKING FOR A NEW FUTURE

This virus comes on the heels of some of the worst failures of the church in our lifetimes in North America. And now COVID-19 is forcing us to stay at home, be local, tend to God’s working among people in their lives. But if we ground ourselves in God, who is present and working among us; if we lead one another via his great presence in faith and trust; if we do the little things of cultivating kingdom in small, interactive spaces; I believe God is birthing something new.

Once the virus dissipates and society returns to its daily routines, we will have a deeper, thicker church. It may not look the same as before. It may be less impressive in the eyes of the flesh. But this renewed church will be rich in the life of the kingdom. In ways we never could have imagined prior to COVID-19, this renewed church will witness to the rule and reign of Jesus Christ, the hope of the world.

—David Fitch
Peace of Christ Community Church, Westmont, Illinois
Northern Seminary, Chicago

BE SHEPHERDS

As we’ve been wrestling through the coronavirus pandemic and its relational and economic upheaval, we have leaned into a few big ideas.

We paused all in-person programming and are pursuing relationships. We found, as a church staff, that this crisis has actually created a great opportunity for us to push deeply into personal relationships. It’s not too often you take the time and effort to contact your church family simply to check on them and ask if you can pray for, help or serve them in some way. Especially as a larger church, when we send out communications to every individual, we are often asking them for something. We may be raising money or simply asking them to be involved in some way, but rarely are we simply checking on them for purely pastoral reasons.

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We have a mailing list of over 20,000 people who would have connected with Grace in some way. One of our practices during this difficult time is taking that list and calling through it individual by individual. We are simply asking if we can pray for them, help them or serve them in any way. The response from our folks has been overwhelming, because they are scared, hurting and facing a high degree of uncertainty. It’s been a phenomenal time to simply pastor and shepherd them through these uncharted waters.

We’ve been leaning heavily into Acts 20:28: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” We’ve been taking our “extra” time that has been freed up, because we are not running programming or having normal weekend services, to simply press into the pastoral end of our church family. This frankly has been a goal and on the to-do list for a long time, but now through his sovereignty, God has provided us with the unique opportunity to reach out and express love and care to our people.

—Jeff Bogue
Grace Church of Greater Akron, Ohio

DON’T LOOK BACK

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have lasting impact not only on the economy but on the church. Many of the changes that we are putting in place now may impact the way we view ministry in the future, and many churches may emerge healthier than before the crisis. A crisis is an ideal time to focus on the things that really matter, and to consider our true priorities as the body of Christ.

Like any pastor, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t stressed. But I would also be lying If I said I wasn’t strangely hope-filled.

The point here is not to radically rethink our mission (for this has always been to make disciples who make more disciples), but to rethink our ways of engaging in the mission. What if, for instance, we began to measure success based on the number of people we mobilized weekly on mission instead of the number of Sunday attendees or even the amount of money in our coffers? What if we moved from lecture and classroom-based discipleship to one-on-one relational discipleship? What if we detoxed from our addiction to come-to-us events and began to think in more localized, incarnational ways regarding being church and spreading the gospel?

And what if, when all this was over, we didn’t look back?

If you are a pastor or church leader, take heart and get creative. God’s Spirit has always led God’s people to creativity at key moments in history, and the moment we are in will possibly define existence for generations.

You may feel busier than ever making pivots in strategy during this time. Take time for prayer and reflection with your leaders to consider how your church might function differently after the pandemic passes.

Under the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, God’s people lived in exile, separated from their place of worship, their traditions and, in many cases, their own families and communities of origin. Many struggled to maintain devotion to God, to perform meaningful worship and to live out of their convictions instead of the prevailing culture.

For many in the church, today is perhaps our “exile moment.” We are reminded daily that God does not reside in a building made of brick and mortar. We struggle to find connection and meaning with uprooted lives and routines. We are surrounded by idolatry—from people calling for financial stability over the lives of neighbors to the embrace of hoarding increasingly scarce resources.

This is a moment for the church to shine and for our faith to shape our own living. Loving God and loving our neighbors have always been radical. However your church shifts and however you remain faithful in this crisis, don’t look back.

—Jonathan Davis
Beale Memorial Baptist Church, Tappahannock, Virginia

STAY OUT OF THE BUILDING

While we look forward to some sense of normalcy to return to our lives—including meeting in the same room with our church family again—going back to normal can’t mean business as usual.

We’ve been through too much. We’ve lost too much. And we’ve learned too much.

We left the building because we had to. Then we did what we needed to.

In churches of all sizes, pastors and care teams checked up on their people. They brought food and medicine to at-risk friends. They offered prayers of reassurance to frightened people. Many of you counseled church members and their families through illness and death.

And we did it all outside of our church buildings.

Being able to gather in our buildings again is important. But for the sake of our people, our community and the God we serve, our strongest ministry needs to stay outside our church buildings.

That’s where lives are changed. That’s where Christ needs to be seen. That’s what will fuel the fire for gathering again. Because that’s what Jesus called us to.

May it not take another crisis for us to keep doing what we should have been doing all along.

—Karl Vaters
Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, Fountain Valley, California

THE AGILE CHURCH

The word “unprecedented” has been used an unprecedented number of times recently. We are running out of adjectives to describe the change the world has experienced going through the coronavirus pandemic. The global health crisis along with the evolving economic crisis and growing existential crisis has meant that in a very short space of time there have been huge shifts in the way we do business, school, life and, of course, church. Some of these shifts are surprisingly hopeful.

Rapid innovation is possible. The sudden closing of places of worship has meant churches jumping on to the digital bandwidth wagon at unprecedented speed—and, for the most part, quite successfully. Skype, Zoom, Facebook Live and Periscope churches have broadcast services to their congregations and beyond, often to larger numbers than would have normally visited in person. This gives us great hope that we are able to adapt at pace. The church is more agile than maybe we believed ourselves to be. The spirit of creativity and speed of innovation must continue as our world gets used to a new normal.

Reinvention of the parish. Surprisingly, the move to digital has coincided with the need to rediscover the local. This helps bust the myth that online interactions lead to the death of actual relationships. With lockdown in place in many parts of the world at this time, Christians are rethinking what it means to love their neighbors and engage with the people in their immediate geographical communities. We are hearing of Christians who are offering phone calls or doorstep visits to the lonely and vulnerable. Food banks are working on delivering food to the needy. This upsurge in neighborly engagement may prove critical and fruitful not only now, but for years to come.

Responsible evangelism. Just as during the post-9/11 period, many churches are reporting more engagement than normal. Many point to a spiritual openness in the face of these seismic social changes and the threat to life. Christian leaders should steward this opportunity well, helping people come to a clear understanding of the gospel that is more than a fear-based, get-out-of-hell-free pass. When the rich young ruler asked Jesus about how to inherit eternal life—potentially out of a fear of his own mortality—Jesus instructed him to sell everything and give to the poor, possibly to broaden his horizons beyond his own situation. As we live out and explain the gospel, we must make sure it is faithful to Jesus’ teaching and lifestyle, and not a diluted gospel of easy-believism, so that faith will outlast the crisis.

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Rebooting of our heroes. When I visited Haiti following the catastrophic earthquakes of 2010, I was very moved talking to the children about their hopes and dreams. Even those as young as eight expressed their ambitions to become doctors, nurses and teachers. I have seen this echoed a little already here in the media. Suddenly celebrities and sports stars are no longer the central focus of public attention but rather health workers, scientists and good neighbors. This could have an effect on a whole generation growing up. If churches are seen to be part of this frontline crisis response, then we are laying foundations for a new generation of active, engaged disciples.

Reintegration of mission. Even when our churches can’t be physically together, and we are reliant on digital communication more than at any other time in history, it is encouraging to see the reintegration of mission. The word and deed to the church’s mission is coming together in profound ways. There is sacrificial service and there is clear articulation of the gospel. This balance offers us as the church an exciting way forward into life beyond the pandemic. We will continue to live and speak the good news. We will continue to love and to challenge. We will continue to offer compassion and a call to repentance.

—Krish Kandiah
Home for Good, United Kingdom

THE EMERGING CHURCH DEPTH MOVEMENT

As churches scramble to learn how to do online ministries, leaders need to look beyond the COVID-19 crisis and realize that the pandemic is a tipping point. Social distancing between people will end, but social distancing from the church will continue. The waning church growth movement will hasten in its decline and be replaced by what I can only describe as a church depth movement that addresses urgent, personal desire for God. Be prepared for three big changes:

Immersion will replace compassion. Compassion is emotion of sadness for others less fortunate than ourselves. Immersion is behavioral empathy for another person’s daily struggle to survive. Don’t just serve soup to the homeless—create bonds of friendship that bring the homeless into your home.

Personal intervention will replace institutional charity. Displaced and unemployed masses will not praise our donations of time, talent and money. They will praise Christians who risk everything to protect victims of trauma from the economic, physical and sexual abuses of victimizers.

Reconciliation will replace advocacy. The goal of advocacy is to force others to agree with our public policies, and it resulted in polarized politics. The goal of reconciliation is to honor the rights of people we neither like nor agree with. The credible Christians of the future will be humble before mystery rather than proud of their self-righteousness.

The emerging church depth movement will not focus on making more disciples, training more outreach teams or imposing ideological conformity. It will be about maturing a motivated minority who become role models of the Fruit of the Spirit, spontaneously and daringly, in daily living.

Before COVID-19, we concentrated on developing relevant, high-quality programs that attracted people to church. Following COVID-19, we will need to concentrate on mentoring deep spirituality that results in individual heart bursts to bless people within each Christian’s reach.

What excites me is that the Holy Spirit has already been preparing the hearts of many pastors and nonprofit CEOs for a time like this. So many Christian leaders are tired of counting disciples, adding members and tracking second- and third-time visitors. So many leaders are weary of all the expectations of institutional survival and megachurch greatness. They yearn to guide a handful of believers into a deeper, riskier, walk with Christ. Now is your time.

—Tom Bandy
ThrivingChurch.com

THE OIKOS PRINCIPLE

History teaches us that there are silver linings in every crisis. We cannot yet know every lesson or benefit that will eventually emerge from the COVID-19 threat. But the paradigm for ministry that it has forced on so many local churches is interesting. The bad news is, the crisis caught us flat-footed. The good news is, we’ve been forced to consider the most important implication of the Christian mission, that God’s kingdom is best shared virally, from person to person. Auditoriums and well-lit stages have simply never been where God’s best work is accomplished. Now that we can’t access those assets anyway, perhaps more of us will finally be open to that reality.

For decades, the 10/40 window has provided us a clinic on church growth. Evidently, professional clergy, high-tech stages and multiple programing options are not the keys to kingdom growth. When believers are forced out of that context, when they’re forced to stop going to church, they might be compelled to start being the church. Do the people we lead even know that they’re built to change the world? Which brings me to the oldest and most powerful church growth tool out there: the oikos principle.

Picture your life as taking place in a theater that’s filled with a lot of people. Some are sitting in the balcony. Others in the mezzanine. Still others are sitting down in the orchestra section. To some degree, they may all be able to see the way you behave or to listen to what you say, but it’s those eight to 15 people in the front row who have the best seats in the house to do both. The Greeks called that inner circle of “extended family,” our oikos.

Maybe it’s time to consider taking at least some of the spotlight off of our stages and focus our energies back to where 95% of world change actually takes place—on the front row. Ninety-five percent of Christian conversions are generated through a personal relationship that is shared between a believer and someone who is close to them. No seriously, that’s not a typo. Ninety-five is not my way of saying “an awful lot.” It’s my way of saying 95. Like, in almost everyone. If you don’t believe me, just ask your church family.

The next few months give us a great opportunity to test-drive that singular principle that Jesus gave us to grow his church. After all, when you think about it, what else are you going to do?

—Tom Mercer
High Desert Church, Southern California

DON’T LET THIS CRISIS GO TO WASTE

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” I don’t necessarily agree with Emanuel about much, but he’s spot-on with that statement. My prayer over the last few months has been that our churches would under no circumstances get back to “normal” when the crisis has abated.

I see three longer-term opportunities for churches as we navigate the ways this crisis has changed our culture permanently:

Simplify your ministry strategy. You’ve already begun to do this out of necessity, but what would it look like to continue with intentionality? Complexity leads to getting stuck. Move from being a church of programs to a church that helps people walk down an intentional discipleship path. If you were offering multiple styles of worship, leverage this opportunity to unify around one for good.

Right-size your staff and empower volunteers. Target no more than 45% to 55% of your budget to be allocated for staff. We’ve found in our data that declining churches have more staff than growing churches—35% more. Does more ministry complexity lead to more staff, or does more staff lead to more ministry complexity? We think it’s the latter.

Become a church for the next generation. Become a multigenerational church reaching the next generation for Jesus. Having had to move so much of your ministry strategy online was a leap forward in the right direction. Don’t waste it. If you can’t realistically make that shift on your own, consider merging with a church that’s already doing it.

Leaders look for opportunities in the midst of trials. I have sensed God doing something incredible that we’re just starting to see. I believe the church can redeem this cultural moment for good—and we’re only at the beginning.

—Tony Morgan
The Unstuck Group

Read more COVID-19 Perspectives from pastors and church leaders.