One Year Later: What Has the Church Learned?

“One year later.” It’s strange for those words to sink in. I write them while working from home, two days after receiving my second COVID-19 vaccine—none of which I ever would have imagined I’d be doing. Here we are, one year after those last moments of sitting together in worship, hugging, eating out at restaurants, holding carefree playdates with multiple households. “Where were you when everything shut down?” It’s a question many of us are asking, a question of reminiscing but also of pain and loss and whiplash from all that has happened. The church also remembers where we were a year ago—when, for some, digital worship was not even considered an option, when large ministry conferences and annual meetings were in the works, when the pandemic was believed to last a couple of weeks or months, at most. As in the rest of society, little did we know that what would happen over the course of this past year would cause a historic shift not only in the life of the church but ministry in general—perhaps an acceleration into the future, ten years ahead of time.

But what have we learned? It’s an even more important question than asking where we were in March 2020. Looking back, what would we have done differently? Our answers to these questions may be some of the Holy Spirit’s words to us and possibly some of the most fertile ground for the “new thing” God is calling us to in the coming months and years, both corporately and as Christian leaders. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Never waste a good crisis.”

Asking these questions to ministry leaders from a variety of denominations, congregations of different sizes and ages across the United States, I discovered nine themes. This is in no way an exhaustive list, and it intends to be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

  1. Many still believe the church is a building

Pastors and church leaders across the board shared this struggle. A year ago, church buildings around the world sat empty, including for Easter. Some churches discovered that their entire (or close to it) existence WAS an hour in a building on Sunday. Without that, who were they? It was as if the pandemic served as a mirror in which to see your true self.  Even as many churches adjusted to online, small group, and outdoor worship, for others an antagonism to “reopen” emerged, as if the church had never been “closed” at all. Some pastors even flaunted health and safety guidelines by holding worship as normal, communicating their rights to assemble and sending a confusing message about the Christian faith to the world. The church building has continued to hold a holy magnetism even now when government guidelines no longer stand in the way. Youth pastor Chelsea MacAdam shared how difficult it can be to teach members that God is active outside the building, even right now. I have experienced how groups that have been gathering in homes, outdoors, and in public places are now itching to get back into their classrooms instead of embracing where they’ve been sent. We’ve taught and told people that they are the church, not an address, but the pandemic has revealed in many ways, we still are building-centric. We’ve taught and told people that they are the church, not an address, but the pandemic has revealed in many ways, we still are building-centric. Click To Tweet

  1. We have more than we realize

In some cases, the pandemic helped us take inventory of what we have and how we might utilize it. It’s the story of the loaves and fishes—do we see scarcity or abundance? One such story was that of Jason Burkett, who serves with YWAM Black Forest and is also a greenhouse manager. He and his ministry had an abundance of lettuce and wound up serving their community by giving away 10,000 heads of it. Other ministries’ food pantries took on an even greater need and propelled congregation members to serve. Some churches utilized their empty buildings to serve students with free wifi and supervision when school went virtual. We learned that Jesus can do something with all of it.

  1. The nimbler you are, the less pain to pivot

“Pivot” is a word that has been added to our vocabulary as we had to change what we were doing in a short amount of time. When states were put on lockdown overnight, many of us had to make some quick decisions. In some cases, policies, committees, and just plain lack of planning paralyzed decision-making and experimentation. Several churches I know were also in the middle of a pastoral transition during this time and were unsure of how to do voting and preaching in the absence of being physically together. Those churches who struggled with pivoting or were discouraged from pivoting either were bound by hierarchical relationships, rules, and bylaws or discovered how entrenched in one style, method, or way of doing things they were. In turn, churches that burst into a sea of imagination and experimentation tended to have more freedom to do so; their processes were simpler and their leadership more permissive (and ready to endure risk and failure). The Center for Faith and Leadership in Fredericksburg, Virginia was one of these; this ministry to college students and young adults had to cancel their weekly dinners, and instead, small groups of young adults began eating together outside, even in parking lots. Nimbleness has nothing to do with size and everything to do with structure.

  1. Discipleship reaps what it sows

Many of the pain points of the last year in the church are symptoms of the discipleship that has or has not taken place over the course of many years. Just as psychology shows us that emotional processes, relationships, and health practices of an individual before a tragic event often have a greater effect on a person’s coping than the actual event, the pandemic’s emotional uprising brought to the surface the unhealth we had been practicing before, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Discipleship is more than Sunday School or Bible study; it is a life-on-life, transformative process of growing in the way of Jesus.

Josh Cooper of Grace Point Church in Topeka, Kansas said his church has recognized this need, and he has used this pandemic time to begin creating a team to oversee aspects of discipleship in their community. Discipleship has often taken a backseat in the evangelical church; many churches do not have a process to make or grow disciples. Many of the surprising things that emerged from the lips and actions of Christians involving white supremacy, Christian nationalism, reopening churches during lockdown, masks, conspiracy theories, and the issue of personal freedom were the result of people being molded and shaped by popular opinion, friends, and the Internet rather than years of being rooted in the person of Jesus. Also, we saw this when we were unable to meet in person; Barna reports that one in three churchgoing individuals no longer attends. Even with online worship available, some congregants became disconnected from church and faith, perhaps because church attendance had been their only expression of faith. And now, we quarrel over getting them to “come back” to the pew rather than focus on holistic growth in a relationship with Jesus. If there’s anything that this pandemic year has shown the church, it is that we can no longer neglect discipling people. If there’s anything that this pandemic year has shown the church, it is that we can no longer neglect discipling people. Click To Tweet

  1. Connection to the community translates to ministry opportunity

One of the interesting things about the pandemic was the direction that churches turned, inward or outward. Inward churches focused their time and energy on practices of preservation, asking the question, “How do we continue what we’re doing and not lose people?” They hunkered down and in many cases, have been waiting things out to return to “normal.” Other churches turned outward, focusing their time and energy on people not associated with their church and seizing opportunities to serve—whether sending cards and gift cards to healthcare workers, cooking meals for neighbors, holding outdoor community events like movie nights, and partnering with other organizations. What made the difference? Outward churches already had an outward attitude before the pandemic. Many of the ministries they participated in were due to connections and relationships they already had, and thus they were quickly able to see and seize those opportunities to bear Good News in a dark time. Other churches that had not been outward but saw needs often manufactured serving opportunities for a short time, confessing it made them “feel like they were doing something.” But most of the time these were not relational connections, but one-time opportunities.

  1. Sometimes the answer is to grow small

Throughout the 2010s the church world continued to view larger as better. We saw large buildings as symbols of accomplishment, large worship attendances as movement of the Spirit, large conferences as rallied learning environments, and large denominational meetings as necessary to do what we do. This past year changed all that, emptying buildings, dispersing worshipers, moving conferences to video and Zoom, as well as converting meetings to an online, condensed format (after all, nobody wants to spend three full days in a Zoom meeting). This caused many of us to question if larger is indeed better or absolutely necessary—or if small and local could actually be more fruitful. Some conferences took this to heart; the Fresh Expressions US team transformed a conference experience into a team-oriented event for groups to participate in together, with plenty of time for conversation and questions. Some churches took this to heart; One year ago, the Meetinghouse, a mega-sized congregation known for their teaching and discipleship in Ontario distributed their 21 parishes into home churches and have been meeting that way ever since. Moving to a distributed church model may allow for deeper roots to grow in local settings.

  1. The best time to make changes is in the midst of change

It may seem counterintuitive to add more to a seemingly heaping plate of change at hand—you don’t want to cause more anxiety, after all. But many of us have realized that times of upheaval present themselves as fertile soil to make the changes we’ve wanted to or that we’ve previously experienced resistance to. Not only have we hosted mass clean-outs of church closets and fridges; the pandemic gave permission to figuratively clean out the church closet, politely stop some ministries, and start others.

  1. In-person worship is no longer the front door

Many attractional-model churches have been set up for “invitational evangelism,” meaning that someone who is new or curious about faith would first encounter Jesus and our church through a worship service. A year ago, first-time guests would come and check us out on a weekly basis, but now that we have re-gathered in-person, that doesn’t happen much, if at all. Maybe your church has seen a similar trend. But new people engage with us digitally all the time, and they also connect with us through some of the smaller events and expressions of church we have organized in the community. Gone are the days of “build it and they will come.” Many people are still spiritually hungry, in search of Good News in this world, but they will need to be encountered on their turf, in their time. Many people are still spiritually hungry, in search of Good News in this world, but they will need to be encountered on their turf, in their time. Click To Tweet

  1. There is continued tension between online and embodied church

This past year forced us to focus on online ministry—whether through broadcasting, social media, Zoom, online giving, or a whole host of apps. For some, it was the first time. Others had been doing it but now began to focus more on it. Most of us will continue. But a challenge now presents itself in the way of a question: should we expect people to come back in person, and if they don’t, can they fully grow in relationship with Christ and with others completely virtually? Maybe you find yourself in a similar place as Derek Vreeland, discipleship pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri, who says that while his church has re-gathered physically, many local people continue to worship online. He shares how their community values real-live face time, so it’s a struggle that not everyone wants to “come back.” But is connecting with your church solely on a screen spiritually healthy? Can you be fully discipled and missionally-oriented without ever being in the flesh with another member of your church? The answer is, we really don’t know.

Which of these themes resonates most with you? What would you add? Here we are, one year later. We have made it, but there is still ways to go. The good news is that we walk in the footsteps of the One who promised to never leave us or forsake us—and that includes the church. Even through pain, regret, and heartache, Jesus helps his bride find a way.

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