This thought must have crossed the minds of every business owner with an empty store. Data from the Center for Bible Engagement suggest pastors are pondering it as well.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new reality. For years, church attendance in the United States has been trending downward, along with people's identification with Christianity. According to the Pew Research Center, only 45% of American adults attend church monthly, compared to 54 percent in 2007.
Yet the model for how we "do" church largely remains the same. Weekend services, small groups, and vacation Bible school in 2019 looked much as it did in 2009, or even 1999. Yes, some churches utilize technology more now.
Nearly all have a web page, most use Facebook and some even have their own apps. Sermons often get livestreamed or uploaded to YouTube.
But have we just retrofitted today's tools to yesterday's ministry methods?
Enter the pandemic.
According to our national survey of pastors, even small churches ramped up quickly to offer congregants a live, online worship experience. Finding a digital, socially-distanced alternative for small groups—where much of the relationship-building happens—proves to be a more difficult challenge. Pastors also feel concerned about how this crisis will affect relationships within the church and giving. In fact, two-thirds of pastors we studied expressed at least a little concern.
As the weeks roll by, we are all being changed. We are learning in our personal lives how to do things differently, how to go without, how to make substitutions and how to adapt and endure. Pastors and church leaders need to do this in their personal lives and in how they think about and do church.
Pastor Greg Laurie of Harvest Christian Fellowship was quoted recently as saying:
"Although the doors of the church building are closed for the foreseeable future, the door of opportunity for the church has been flung wide open. For example, we already had an online version of our church service that was beginning to grow. Before the COVID-19 crisis, around 8,000 people viewed it each week. The first week we went exclusively online, that number skyrocketed to 250,000. The following week 350,000 tuned in, and the one after 634,000. Last Sunday we had 1.3 million people watching our livestream!"
We initially surveyed pastors at the beginning of the pandemic when most were just getting their digital strategies launched. When we surveyed them again a few weeks later, most were happily witnessing the same trend: online worship attendance is better!
Laurie's statement emphasizes a reality that has been true for a while—each of us can choose to virtually attend any church with an online presence. This choice can be an add-on to our active participation in our local church or a substitute for it. Online worship with the mega church across the country can be a "yes, and" or an "in lieu of." As behavior scientists, we believe the "in lieu of" scenario is the more likely one. How church leaders plan and respond now will make the critical difference in whether and how the church continues after the pandemic.
We have found there are five reasons why many church members won't come back to the pews:
- People are creatures of habit, and now they have new ones. If you've ever tried to start working out every day or to stop eating sweets, you know that changing habits is hard.
- People have lots of reasons for going to church, from being nurtured spiritually to family tradition to setting an example for their kids. They now see that many of those reasons can be met online. And even the Christmas-Easter visitors have weathered an Easter without entering a church building.
- Livestreamed sermons are interactive ... and we like interactive. We can comment in the chat, send thumb up emojis and even ask questions.
- Churches excel at Sundays. Faith is lived between Sundays. To stay relevant, churches need to connect with people between Sundays.
- Our culture has taught us to expect all aspects of our lives to be custom and on demand.
From Spotify to Netflix to our coffee order, we are used to having exactly what we want, when we want it.
So, what should church leaders do?
Meet people where they are. Greg Laurie can share the words of Jesus with 1.3 million people. He (or even his staff) can't be the hands and feet of Jesus to 1.3 million people They won't be the ones to organize a meal train when you break your ankle. They can't cry with you when your mom dies. They can't celebrate with you when you land that new job.
Minister to everyone every day—outside your walls. Relationships take time to build. Many of us have time right now. Invest that in building those relationships every day. It's more than sending out your daily thoughts on Scripture. It's understanding the struggles each is facing today. It's responding personally to those struggles and celebrating the victories.
Don't worry so much about Sundays. Concentrate on the six days between Sundays. The difference between a lukewarm Christian and an engage disciple-maker is what they do between Sundays. Help them stay connected with God each day.
In these unprecedented times, we can see the seismic shifts taking place in American churches—shifts brought on by changing family life, the influence of technology and evolving attitudes about church. Current social distancing restrictions have required churches to think even more creatively about how to keep people engaged.
If churches are to survive and thrive after this pandemic, leaders must meet their congregants where they are and adjust programs and communication techniques to better serve their flocks.
Dr. Arnie Cole is an author, speaker and the CEO of Back to the Bible. Dr. Pamela Caudill is the executive director of the Center for Bible Engagement. For more information visit backtothebible.org.
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