Tailgate season will be different this fall across the Upper Midwest. The Big Ten’s decision to postpone its college football season means empty stadiums will be devoid even of fans gathering in the parking lots. In the South and elsewhere, teams plan to play, albeit to smaller crowds in socially distanced arenas.
This is a season of mixed signals, when teams are challenged to weigh the data available in the moment and make high-pressure decisions. Those decisions vary, depending on the team’s goals and how leaders try to get them there.
The same is true of church leadership teams, who have made constant pivots to deal with surges of COVID-19 in their communities. Add to that the uncertainty of what “normal” is now, and if churches will ever get back there (see column at left), and leaders can easily feel this game of inches has them, and their churches, moving in the wrong direction.
In this season of flux, though, some trends are emerging that point to how successful ministry teams can manage the ebb and flow of church life in the COVID era. Ministry leaders are advising churches to:
1. Create new goal lines, since they’ve moved anyway.
2. Put all options on the table for groups relaunching this fall.
3. Invest in upstart ministries that may not have even existed six months ago.
It’s a new season, and in many places, a whole new ballgame.
Who moved my goalpost?
Pew Research released the encouraging news in August that 89% of people who attended church at least monthly in person prior to the pandemic say they expect to go back to church as often or more so, once the COVID-19 outbreak is over. Currently, though, many churches are seeing lower attendance numbers. Smaller crowds will be an adjustment for leadership teams looking to rev up momentum for the fall.
Then, there’s the sobering reality that some previous churchgoers may not come back.
“At least 20% of those who attended before the pandemic will not return to church,” Thom Rainer predicted on his Church Answers blog. Some, he said, will attend online, but most won’t attend at all.
Strange times may mean new metrics by which to measure growth and effectiveness—and a renewed commitment to the fundamental ministries of a church. In O’Fallon, Ill., Doug Munton’s church is meeting in two worship services on Sunday morning, utilizing every other row of seating and some mask-only sections. With the gathering limits and physical distancing in place, the church isn’t quite back to half of their previous worship attendance, Munton said. The pastor of First Baptist Church said his team sees challenges and opportunities in the season ahead.
“I don’t know what things will look like for us in the days ahead, but I do know we want to focus on evangelism more than ever,” Munton said. “We want to do a better job of evangelism training and of reaching people who don’t know Christ as savior.”
Those goals are in line with what Rainer sees as a coming wave of churches focused on conversion growth—people coming to Christ—rather than the transfer growth that happens when churchgoers move from one congregation to another.
“Church leaders are becoming increasingly convicted that they must lead their churches to reach those who are not believers in Christ,” Rainer said. “Church members are reflecting that same conviction and commitment.”
Huddle up—from a distance
During a recent IBSA webinar on jumpstarting groups this fall, Sunday school expert Ken Braddy shared from first-hand experience as a minister of education at a church in Tennessee. (He also manages adult Sunday school and discipleship training for LifeWay Christian Resources.) At his church, Braddy said, leaders prepared for a return to Sunday school by leaving classroom chairs in place, but putting paper signs on the ones they didn’t want anyone to use.
The first thing people did on entering the classroom was to move those signs. The lesson, Braddy said: move the chairs.
That’s just one consideration church leaders will make as they bring groups back to campus this fall. The good news is that most groups can come back, Braddy said, with precautionary measures in place. They key is to look at all the options available for small groups, and to let those groups be as nimble as they’re designed to be.
Small groups can spread out in larger spaces in the church building, or they can meet there on a different day of the week, Braddy said. And if a group isn’t yet ready to return to the church campus, don’t forget the option to meet in a home or a backyard. A home-based small group is a great opportunity to share Jesus with the neighbors.
Churches with a strong groups ministry have been better able to weather the COVID storm, Braddy said.
Play the long game
When Arthur Southern Baptist Church shut down in-person services in March, they had a virtual option already in place. The church had been streaming services for several years, but the increased focus on remote worship gave Pastor Doug Davis a new opportunity to look at the church’s online product. They made some changes, and built connections with online worshipers.
Davis told the Illinois Baptist last spring he had no idea God was going to use the lockdown time to expand his presence in the hearts of people who weren’t attending church in a physical building. Fast forward to August, and Davis’s church has continued to see their online viewership expand, especially during Bible studies recorded for Wednesday and Sunday evenings.
Those studies had 10-20 participants at the church building before the pandemic. Now, the church is averaging 75-80 on Sunday nights, and more than 100 devices logging into the Wednesday study (which likely represents many more actual viewers).
“I was blessed and surprised to find out there was a hunger for people to study the word, and that in small part, we would get to help with that,” Davis said.
Church growth expert Carey Nieuwhof encouraged churches to embrace the opportunity to invest in their online presence. Nieuwhof wrote recently about characteristics of churches he predicts will decline in the next five years. One of their traits, according to him: online ministry is seen as an afterthought or a lesser ministry.
“You can see online church as an obstacle or an opportunity,” he said. “Since everyone you want to reach is online, though, that makes it a pretty big opportunity.”
Meeting in-person will always play a role in the church, he said, “but wise churches will realize there is much opportunity beyond that.”
IBSA’s Church Helps webpage, launched to help churches navigate the pandemic, includes links to a long list of resources on virtual worship and discipleship. Those and other resources related to the current season may be accessed at IBSA.org/church-helps.