The impact of the pandemic has been felt in local churches all across the country. From models of pastoral care to changes in giving patterns to the logistics of worship gatherings, every church has had to grapple with how we navigate this ever-changing landscape. For some churches these shifts will lead to closing the doors permanently, others will lean into innovative ways of ministering, and many will view themselves as a restart, of sorts, focusing on fresh opportunities to reach people in their communities with the heart of a new church plant.
David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, shared that up to 20% of churches could permanently close as a result of the challenges of the pandemic by early 2022. While it remains to be seen if this prediction will hold true, there is ample evidence that churches are struggling with both keeping people engaged in God’s mission and reaching new people, two critical elements of a healthy church. In the most recent Unstuck Church Report (Q4 2020), churches reported being only slightly down in small group involvement however they showed a 56% decrease in the number of people baptized and a 44% decrease in the number of new people being added to their ministry databases. While tending to the needs of congregants was vital and appropriate at the outset of the pandemic, and ongoing pastoral care is needed, we find ourselves over a year later drifting from the missional call to reach others with the hope of Jesus. Yet it is precisely that life-transforming hope that our neighbors need, and not just need, but it is what they are seeking in these times of uncertainty.
So, where does the church go from here, when “here” is still awkward and anxious and “there” is unfamiliar and unknown? This is the question the pandemic has given us; a question which cannot be answered with sweeping statements, as the context of every local congregation is unique. However, there are some signposts, broad indicators, and common ground—rooted in the very nature of the church herself—which together provide a way we can all begin to approach the near future of the church.
The Mission of the Church Has Not Changed.
Jesus made it clear that his followers were to be witnesses of the gospel message, introducing people to Jesus and engaging in the relational ministry of making disciples. This was the mission of the early church and this same mission has been handed down, generation after generation, across the globe, as the clarion call of the church. Over her history, the church has endured a number of pandemics and other crises, both local and global. Throughout, the mission has remained the same: Point people to Jesus, invite them into Christ’s community, and walk with them through a life of discipleship. Regardless of what is happening all around us, we are called to reach new people and invite them into God’s family.
The Most Effective Way to Grow As a Christ Follower Is to Engage In His Mission.
Over the centuries, many books have been written and talks have been given attempting to uncover the best way to approach spiritual growth. However, what has been shown to be true is that the surest way to develop as a disciple of Jesus is to follow him by living on mission. As pastors and ministry leaders, the greatest service we can give to the people God has entrusted to us is to challenge them to engage in Jesus’ mission to a hurting world. Encourage them to step out and start a spiritual conversation, even if it simply begins with an invitation to join them at church. These provide opportunities for Christ followers to lean on the Spirit, sincerely pray for those around them, offer their own stories as they listen to the stories of others, and ultimately, introduce people to Jesus and his church, where they can find true community and spiritual renewal.
A primary concern pastors have been voicing over these months is their uncertainty as to whether or not the people of their church are really engaged any more, and if so, to what degree. This has become difficult to sense, especially when so many are viewing online worship from afar. One way to reinvigorate a local church and discover where people are is to encourage them to embrace a missional challenge. This directly addresses the two great questions—how do we reengage our people and how do we reach new people—as well as aligning with the very heart of the early church.
The Missional Challenge Meets the Current Hunger
Lifeway Research recently released a study revealing 91% of Protestant churchgoers are planning to return to in-person worship and attend at least as much as they did pre-pandemic, if not more. In fact, nearly a quarter of that group (23%) indicated that they intend to attend more than they did before COVID. Many were surprised to see that the largest group (43%) of those desiring to attend more than pre-pandemic levels was young adults aged 18–29. There is a hunger for the church attendees to get back to church. As pastors and ministry leaders, we can connect this desire to return to face-to-face worship with the opportunity to live on mission and make a powerful impact in the weeks, months and years ahead. We need to pay careful attention to ensure the interest for in-person worship does not become self-serving and insular, because there is a danger of being driven by nostalgia rather than driven by mission.
Hope Is Here: Back to Church and On Mission
People are struggling, and their struggles cannot be overlooked. A recent Gallup survey found that Americans rating their mental health positively decreased by nine percentage points, reaching the lowest it has been in the past two decades. People are seeking hope, and the church can help them discover that hope in Jesus and provide a safe community to work out their struggles and experience the freedom that comes from Christ’s forgiveness. But that same survey also revealed another fascinating result that relates to worship attendance. The subgroup that indicated the highest percentage of excellent mental health—even above marital status or income—are those who make attendance at weekly worship services a priority. In fact, this was the only subgroup that actually posted a positive gain in rating their mental health as excellent. Every other subgroup saw a decline.
But what about those who have been dropping off when it comes to regularity of worship attendance? The Gallup survey reveals they are reporting a double digit decrease in excellent mental health ratings, representing a significant drop. An invitation back to church has the potential to make a meaningful positive impact, both on those who have wandered away and those who have never yet attended.
As churches are looking for effective ways to respond to the challenges of the pandemic, there are helpful resources and opportunities to assist. The National Back to Church Sunday movement provides a simple, focused way to reengage those who may have withdrawn while simultaneously reaching new people and introducing them to Jesus and his church. National Back to Church Sunday is celebrated on the 3rd Sunday of September every year, and over 40,000 churches have participated with more than 5 million invitations being shared, inviting people to learn about the hope of Jesus through local churches. Appropriately, the theme for 2021 is “Hope is Here!” and there is much anticipation around the potential for an incredible celebration—perhaps the largest ever—considering all our world has been through and the expectation that many churches will be safely reopened by this fall. Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, shares:
“There has never been a more important year for a unified effort to invite people back to church. Most of us closed our doors last spring for the sake of our communities. Since then, church reopenings have been staggered and people unsure. In all the places that we can, let’s declare on Sept. 19th that our churches are open, safe and ready to share good news with our world. This could be the most significant Back to Church Sunday ever.”
By tapping into the existing hunger to regather for worship and providing those who do with a missional challenge to reach their friends, neighbors and co-workers, we can witness one of the greatest kingdom impacts as we build relationships and introduce people to Jesus and the messy-but-beautiful family we call the church.