So much has changed during the pandemic. How and when we worship. Who shows up in person and who doesn’t. All these changes lead to an important question: Has the mission of the post-pandemic church changed?
The problem with this topic is that there are two answers. Not only that, these two answers are diametrically opposed. First answer: no. Second answer: yes. Let’s dive into this conundrum, starting with the “no.”
As Christians, we take our marching orders from Jesus’ Great Commission. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
It’s pretty clear: we are to go far and wide to make disciples, baptize and pass on what we have learned from Jesus. This is a word-of-mouth endeavor, authorized by Jesus himself. In all the centuries since Matthew first wrote these words, these have been our marching orders. They have not changed.
What has changed, though, is how we make disciples. Because in light of the pandemic, and all the changes it has wrought, how we interpret the Great Commission has most definitely changed.
The Myth that Nothing Should Change
Now don’t get these changes confused with the eternity of God. Just because Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forevermore, doesn’t mean that how we share the Gospel remains the same. It has to change with the times. In the early days of George Whitefield and John Wesley’s preaching, they took their message directly to colliers or coalminers to preach to folks in the open air. Today, people watch YouTube videos or Facebook Live for spiritual sustenance. In those days, Whitefield and Wesley gathered people in bands and classes to grow in covenantal Christian relationship. Today, we need to find new ways to touch and organize people so they too can grow in the knowledge and love of God.
It’s Not about Making Your Church Better
Today, many congregations live out disciple-making by focusing their efforts on strengthening their church and trying to attract people to it. In this model, a big, busy, active church equals disciple-making and is seen as the fulfillment of Jesus’ Great Commission. I call this model the church improvement plan.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this model. In years past the church improvement plan of disciple-making worked well. Those years, however, were pretty well over even before the pandemic began. The steady decline of active participation in churches over the last five-seven decades points to that reality.
But because this model has been so ingrained in the culture of many congregations, it has been hard to let it go. Or to envision what is next. But if you don’t spend time discovering what is next, you will be neglecting new ways of implementing the Great Commission.
How Do We Make Disciples Post-Pandemic?
Let me share three ways to move forward with the post-pandemic mission of the church: Develop fresh expression, keep hybrid connections alive, and refresh your leadership.
Develop Fresh Expressions
Before the pandemic, church leaders had begun to recognize “Fresh Expressions” of mission as a viable way to disciple people. “Pub Theology” or “Bible and Beer” initiatives were popping up in many locations. This is an ancient/new practice of meeting people right where they are to deepen their spirituality and lead them into discipleship.
Different from mission trips to assist people in rebuilding their homes or communities—which are often seen as more charitable outreaches, and where the primary recipients of spiritual growth were the missioners—these Fresh Expressions are expressly about connecting with and discipling new people in unique ways, and through methods different than sanctuary-based worship or building-based Bible study.
Keep Hybrid Connections Alive
The Fresh Expressions movement has prepared us for the surprising and unexpected revelation of the pandemic: we don’t need buildings to be the church. Unlike Fresh Expressions, we found that we didn’t even need to be in the same room with each other to be in community. The use of technology through online worship, bible study, and prayer has brought people together across the miles, across the country, even across the world. Keep this hybrid option alive and well as you continue to journey forward.
We’ve done it too, in the Creating a Culture of Renewal community. We moved our three-day retreats online. We found that with thoughtful planning and creative execution, 30-50 participants at a time could worship and learn together and grow bonds of fellowship that allowed for vulnerability and transparency. Without getting too Zoom-numb or distracted. This online format also allowed us to introduce cohorts from different regions who never would have been able to meet otherwise. We connected people across state lines, regional boundaries, denominations, and leadership roles. Each of us from our living rooms, home offices, often surrounded by pets, children, and the accoutrements of home.
During the pandemic, people realized they could work from home, worship from anywhere in the world, and learn from unexpected sources about the world, God, and faith. Now that we know this, we aren’t likely to forget it. People will want more options going forward.
Refresh Your Leadership Skills
In these changing times, it’s important to refresh your leadership skills, learn new ways to navigate relationships, and up your emotional intelligence. Just as the world is changing, so must we. All so that we can adapt to meet people where they are now.
As you find new ways to reach people post-pandemic, keep in mind Fresh Expressions, hybrid forms of connection, and refreshing your own leadership skills.
Adapted from the upcoming book: Growing the Post-Pandemic Church: Rebuilding and Recreating Your Congregation (Market Square 2022).
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