Which churches will thrive, which will struggle, and what is the way forward?
Now that banning gatherings is becoming commonplace, the faith community will be temporarily forced to morph into something new (or maybe something old, read on).
During this time and afterward some churches will thrive, but others may struggle. Having coached churches for 30 years, trained hundreds of church leaders and earned two doctorates in the field, here is my forecast with survival options for those churches at risk.
CHURCHES THAT WILL SUFFER THE MOST
1. Churches with aging buildings and no savings
During the 20th century having an impressive building was a way to make a church’s presence known. Many churches borrowed their way into debt to restore, renovate and expand older facilities. When downturns in attendance occur (and they always do) such churches may not have the flexibility made available by sizable savings.
They are vulnerable because they do not have contingency plans for an attendance downturn. If a roof needs repair, a boiler replaced, etc. a church may find itself no longer inhabitable after a quarantine.
Impressive facades, of course, weren’t the way the church became known in the New Testament. Paul reminded the church that they should not be known for their physical attire, but instead he encouraged them to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Col. 3:12).
Survival options: Look for ways to cut overhead by selling, leasing or giving away facilities that drain budgets. Research the correct amount of savings a church like yours should have and create a savings plan. Also, begin to build your church’s reputation upon compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. These are the best avenues to make a church visible in a community.
2. Churches that have overbuilt
A church building craze exploded in the ’70s and ’80s and led to many sanctuaries that are outsized for their current congregation. Even a megachurch (a church of over 1,000 attendees) may still have hundreds, if not thousands of attendees. But the cost of oversized facilities and their upkeep may mean that that even these churches have little resources available for unexpected expenses or low offerings.
This problem arose in part because of a popular 20th century adage (not supported by research) that, “If you build it, they will come.” And so, the size of the expansion was customarily based on the size of the congregation at the time of building.
For example, a church in the 1990s may have been running 400 people in an early service and 600 people in a second service with a facility that seated 800. An architect might suggest combining the two services (not a good idea, because it decreases options in times and styles) and combine into one service in a new 1,600-seat sanctuary. “After all,” the church leaders reasoned, “400 plus 600 equals 1,000. And, a new sanctuary of 1,600 would give us room to grow.” But, when the service times and styles were merged in a large cavernous sanctuary, the church began to run only 700 people. A lack of options in times and styles started the church on a downward trajectory.
Survival options: Look at ways to right-size sanctuaries. Converting part of the sanctuary into classrooms, welcome centers and prayer spaces can create intimacy in the once larger space. And look for ways to monetize facilities.
In The Coming Revolution in Church Economics: Why Tithes & Offerings Are No Longer Enough and What You Can Do About It, Mark DeYmaz outlines dozens of ways churches can lease out portions of their facilities, create local business hubs, develop shared working spaces, etc. to increase income from aging buildings.
3. Multisite churches that own their own sites
A trend in the 20th century was for growing churches to purchase older church buildings, theaters and community buildings in which to hold satellite worship services. Many times denominations did this to encourage growing churches to take on the expenses of a closed church. But, because of the reasons cited above (e.g., the cost of maintaining the facilities) when combined with attendance drops, liabilities were rapidly created.
Survival options: Lease or rent sites for offsite services. And look for opportunities to sell, lease or give away facilities you own. This promotes longterm flexibility when demographics, styles and finances change.
4. Churches that rely on the onsite Sunday morning offering
With the proliferation of online giving tools, most churches have embraced online giving. However, some have not and this creates hurdles for supporters. Even churches that have misgivings about online tithing, offerings and pledges will rethink their strategy when the church is dispersed.
Survival options: Create and promote an online giving option. Many denominations have a preferred online giving tool to use. Then educate your congregation about why disciplined giving and online avenues can help a church to thrive.
5. Churches that put on a Sunday spectacle
Some churches spend an inordinate amount of time and money on the lighting, sound, musicians, broadcasting and staff associated with putting on an elaborate Sunday morning experience.
These Sunday morning expenditures will now be seen as optional, as churches are forced to focus more on smaller groups as a way for people to be connected and discipled. And, congregants may discover that smaller groups that are flexible and meet in neighborhoods are more enjoyable and convenient.
Survival options. Many of today’s young pastors have created youthful churches that are moving away from Sunday performance and toward more organic expressions of church. I provide a look at 12 categories of organic churches in my book, Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations. Most of these emerging congregations prefer less staging, softer music, audience participation and smaller auditoriums (capacity around 200).
CHURCHES THAT WILL SURVIVE
1. House churches, pub churches, café churches and online churches
These entrepreneurial smaller churches are often dismissed by leaders of more established congregations. Typically they meet in rented or free facilities. Their low overhead allows them as small churches to more easily survive fiscal cycles brought on by a quarantine.
2. Churches that have spent their money on staff, rather than spent their money on facilities
The trend in the 20th century was to expand facilities and stretch staff. This created overworked leaders. Then, when emergencies arose small staffs were not able to handle the extra workload. But if a church spends its money creating a team of experienced and talented staff, these entrepreneurs can create innovative online options.
3. Churches with bi- or co-vocational leaders
My colleague, Dr. Jay Moon, describes bi-vocational pastors as those who work two jobs until the church can support them. He describes co-vocational pastors as those who work two jobs, never expecting the church to support them full time.
In other words, the latter have a clear calling to leadership in the marketplace and to leadership in the church. Because the co-vocational pastor does not envision a time where she or he will be in full-time employment of the church, they may be able to make long-term decisions without personal financial needs clouding their judgment.
Still, both can be an advantage during times when churches are unable to physically meet. A bi- or co-vocational pastor will become less of a drain on the church finances. And a pastor who is involved in marketplace leadership will better keep her or his pulse on needs in the community.
4. Churches that are young, having been recently planted by a mother church
Planting a church is an arduous endeavor that requires creativity and entrepreneurship. It takes tenacity, good theology and a balance between ministry and family. The very balance needed in a good church planter can help him or her maintain equilibrium during attendance swings brought on by viral quarantines. And, did I mention that many church planters are bi- or co-vocational? That’s another strength.
GOOD NEWS—MOST CHURCHES WILL SURVIVE
My 30 years coaching leaders has led me to believe that God empowers his people to survive and thrive in difficult times. The Bible is overflowing with people that God empowered to overcome adversity. Church history further attests to this.
Christians have a grit whereby they come together and work for the long-term existence of the community of faith. It may mean that the facilities, staffing and priorities may change during and after a quarantine, but the Holy Spirit and God‘s will for his church will not change.
A Scripture reminder is Paul’s admonishment that “We pray that you’ll live well for the Master, making him proud of you as you work hard in his orchard. As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us” (Col. 1:10–14).
WHAT EVERY CHURCH CAN DO TO INCREASE SURVIVABILITY
Focus on making learners, as Jesus commissioned us in Matthew 28:18-20. Your goal should be to help congregants “learn” during this time, not necessarily congregate.
Focus on small groups as the primary venue for discipleship. Research indicates that most people stick with a church when they are involved in a small group that meets regularly for Bible study, prayer and service. The Methodist movement was founded and grew because of such small groups. And Jesus exemplified this when he chose 12 learners who he apprenticed to become his 12 apostles.
Focus on prayer and serving the needs of others. During a difficult time Christ does not want us to make foolish decisions about our health. But he does want us to think of others as more important than ourselves. This means considering ways we can help others during this period and therefore let Christ’s light shine through us. Philippians 2:1–4 sums this up fittingly:
“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”
Originally posted on BiblicalLeadership.com. Used by permission.