4 Predictions for the Post-Pandemic Church
We are rounding the curve into the reckoning phase.
When disaster strikes, people (or communities, or nations) often move through three stages: crisis triage, reckoning/ regrouping, and finally redirecting. Crisis triage looks like keeping the ship afloat and surviving till tomorrow. Shell-shocked faces try to cope in the immediate. Once people catch their breath, and the fight or flight adrenaline subsides, the mind can turn toward reckoning with the crisis and its aftermath:
- How could we have been better prepared?
- How do we come back stronger?
- What is truly important—what things have proved surprisingly helpful, and what things have I clung to which should have been discarded long ago?
On the basis of this reckoning, each person, or group, or community redirects, and charts the best course forward.
The term "new normal," though not lacking for air time, is hardly useful here. Six months from now, we will all be facing a new normal, both in our personal life and collectively as a society. And there will be another “new normal” six months after that. Reckoning and redirecting must happen continually, or one faces extinction. To use the business maxim: “adapt or die”.
The tide of the pandemic has now receded to the point where can see more of the ground in front of us again. Now is the time to prudently reckon with which trend lines are rising and which are disappearing. I offer four predictions of what American church will look like in a post-pandemic age.
1. The death of adult Sunday school.
The pandemic has brought about some new situations, but it has done far more in accelerating those that already existed. One such development is the increasing availability of high-quality digital resources. Sunday school, on the other hand, is didactic and largely non-interactive. You may have highly committed members who love Sunday school, or are committed to attending out of habit, or who have a special love for the teachers leading it. Perhaps you are in one of the churches blessed with a dynamic and engaging pastor who could fill an auditorium with a lecture on pond scum. But many who have survived on a digital lifeline for several months may begin to ask: "Why would I now get up an hour early and sit in a classroom to listen to material I can receive from a superior teacher through the comfort and convenience of my phone?"
2. The death of the multi-campus, simulcast-preacher model
Many of the same arguments from above hold true here. I have in mind churches who have “campus pastors” who, on Sunday mornings, act as glorified emcees. There may be a live worship band on this campus (though not nearly as spectacular as the one on main campus), but the preacher is patched in through livestream, or perhaps in a recorded sermon. Physical campuses cost a good deal of money, and now that people have become much more comfortable with the option of at-home streaming, it is unlikely that vast numbers will trek back out to a location that offers a similar experience to the one they get at home, only on a bigger screen.
True, in both the above cases, there remains the draw of the corporate-communal, but this either plays a subservient role (Sunday school) or has a diminished force (multi-campus) which must be compensated for. The corporate-communal is a byproduct of the above ministries, not its center.
3. Resurgence of the small, local church and church plants
During a time when large crowds and amphitheater spectacle has become anathema, the smaller, local church has a real opportunity. It may only be a window of time, but for now, it is open. People have suffered dreadful loneliness in this past year. You add to that the fear of contagion, the difficulty of re-opening large churches, and the increased challenge of forging new social connections within those megachurches, and you can see that small, emerging churches have some uniquely attractive features.
4. The strength and resilience of the "lean church"
The term “lean” does not denote any particular size, but rather approvingly remarks on a church who rigorously disciplines itself to maintain its flexible and focused energy. The lean church’s philosophy of ministry is a single, well-aimed arrow, rather than a catapult of pebbles. Churches who pursue the next greatest strategy of neighborhood publicity, who multiply ministries, and who exhaust countless man-hours and money to pull off extravagant events, will find it much harder to find answers during this stage of reckoning. The lean church centers its health on the means of grace: the ministry of word, prayer, and fellowship. Specifically, this means content creation. Leaders should be preaching, teaching, writing, and speaking to their people, not multiplying meetings, trying to resurrect dead ministries, and posting other people’s resources (primarily).
It also means an unwavering commitment to a culture of developing disciples and leaders. This includes a robust small group ministry, among other things. If people are not known, loved, and cared for personally, it’s hard to make the case why they should attend your church instead of online streaming in pajamas while making pancakes. The lean church who harnesses its strength around these core disciplines will emerge, and even enjoy a glowing refinement through the fires of endless new normals in the years to come.
Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL.
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