My senior year of football, we stunk. Our preseason goal to win every week shifted to a goal to just win once. Which we did—the final game of the season.
As church leaders, it can be easy to watch all the loss from this pandemic and think we need to lower the bar of what makes for successful church ministry. We need to just win once.
But instead of lowering the bar, what if we raised it to allow for new opportunities this season has given us? This pandemic has taken so much from us, but one thing it has given us is all kinds of opportunities to look at church and ministry with new eyes. How can we adjust to better reach people and make disciples? If we are going to find success, we have to redefine what success is going to look like in the near future. Here are four ideas:
1. Exit old ways that didn’t work. Often, the methods that helped our churches reach people in the past become the very obstacles that keep us from reaching people today. When I came to our church in 2007, we still made guests stand up. I’m guessing that worked at one point. But today, that practice pushes people away.
In many ways the pandemic has provided a free ride to change. The whole world has changed and people know churches have to adjust. Let’s not waste this opportunity. Here’s a principle to consider: Do not revive what was not alive. If something we did before COVID didn’t work in making disciples, don’t bring it back. Why would we? Exit from old ways that didn’t work.
2. Make engagement, not attendance, the goal. None of us like to admit this, but attendance has long been the big success metric of ministry. Everyone asks: “So what are you running?” I’m not anti-attendance. Numbers represent people, but attendance doesn’t show how many people we are truly reaching. Attendance only shows us how many people are showing up.
Church leader Dan Reiland recently wrote, “Attendance will always matter, but engagement will be the new rule of measure.” Our goal is not for people to show up in the building or show up online. Our goal is to get them engaged in the process of becoming disciples.
Anyone can attend something, but real discipleship begins when people engage. Attending is simply participating; engaging is committing. Committing to what? Growing as a disciple. Engagement means making sure our people aren’t just coming, but taking the next step to grow as Jesus followers.
3. Make gatherings and content about equipping. Probably the hardest part of COVID for me and you is that it attacked gathering. We couldn’t gather in person for months. And even almost a year later, the average church has only 37% gathering. That should bother us, because we were made to gather. But gathering isn’t success in and of itself.
Creating content is king these days. Whether it’s streaming services, podcasts, social media, or church, the big goal seems to be creating more content. Content is needed, but creating content in and of itself is not the goal.
Rather, gathering and content are only successful when gathering and content equip people for ministry. If people aren’t being equipped when we gather, we are failing them. If people aren’t being equipped to serve when we put out content, we are failing our mission. Scripture says the church exists “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-12).
4. Return to the priority of the Great Commission. For years, we’ve been focused on getting people back to evangelism, back to sharing their faith and making disciples. After all, that is what Jesus left us here to do. It’s the mission of every church and every believer.
I believe God has used this pandemic to remind us of the simple things in life. People emptied out their calendars and suddenly had lots of time with family. Even our church event calendars were completely blank.
Maybe it is because God wanted us to remember a simple message: go, help people follow Jesus. God has destroyed our church calendars filled with stuff for those already saved. Let’s fill it now with reaching new people!
Paul Cooper is pastor of Marshall Baptist Church.