As churches prepare to re-open, it’s fair to ask if COVID has undone church decline. Over the last two months, your congregation has gone through a transformation. You have created new forms of worship, established new means for people to give, and launched new communication forms. Most importantly, you have found a new purpose in your communities. Bottom line: your congregation has gotten unstuck.
When your church opens up again, will you still be dealing with the dynamics of decline? Or has the coronavirus turned all that around? The news is promising, but not without risk. In this article, you will discover three ways to solidify the gains your congregation has made so that you don’t allow this crisis to go to waste.
Before COVID: Indicators of Church Decline
In my culture-shifting work with congregational leaders across the country, I have identified a handful of reliable indicators of decline, which I write about in Dream Like Jesus. These indicators are concentrated in the areas of worship, ministry, and congregational culture. When a church is in decline, worship tends to be uninspired. For example, prayer feels perfunctory, and faith-sharing lacks authenticity. This lack of spark translates into declining numbers. As the active presence of the Spirit diminishes in the gathered life of the church, worship attendance lags.
Overall, giving stagnates—the number of giving units declines. The number of people involved in active ministry slides until fewer people are doing more and more work to stay afloat. Underneath all of these indicators is a congregational culture that is more focused on survival than outreach. As the church tries to save itself, relationships become problematic. The need for harmony supersedes risk. Disagreements simmer just under the surface, and when expressed, take on a hidden or surprising form. Decision-making is cautious, slow-paced, and unlikely to support visionary action.
Church in the Time of COVID: Signs of Promise
With COVID, the church has found itself in the surprising position of being in high demand. The church has responded by reaching way out beyond its walls and its usual forms. You now have a more substantial presence—appearing online, in parking lots, drive-in theaters, and captured forever on FB live and YouTube. Not only that, with the shared danger of the pandemic, people have revealed a new level of transparency and honesty.
Congregations have tried new things—willing to risk everything to retain some semblance of normalcy. In this environment, worship has taken on an immediacy. Even though mediated by screens, once boring services have come alive again. Prayers are passionate—laced with compassion, sweetened with urgency, and more relevant than ever.
The church has experienced something of a resurrection. But this miracle is not guaranteed to last.
Three Ways to Outwit Decline.
Stay big. Once your building re-opens, you may think you no longer need online worship or online giving. Not true. You have expanded your footprint, attracting new followers, views, likes, and virtual visits. Don’t expect these folks to follow you back to the building. They may or may not. Continue to make online options a viable means of participation.
Stay visible. Don’t retreat into your office once the doors are propped open. Your current partnership in the community is more necessary than ever. Look for new opportunities to serve and new ways to be engaged. Likely you won’t have to look far. Listen to what people say to discern the next need. While you’re at it, ask how you can serve their spiritual needs as well.
Stay vigilant. Crises generate both chaos and miracles. Be sharp in navigating the clutter so that you can tap into the blessings the pandemic has opened up. To help you stay vigilant, give yourself the gift of claiming all that you have learned during the pandemic, and celebrate your newfound capacities.