One of the responsibilities of leaders is to see and prepare for what may lie ahead. That’s a double challenge because we are not given infallible foreknowledge, we are dealing for possibilities and probabilities. That means we have to be ready for multiple scenarios. It also means that we will need to be ready to think and plan at a time when others simply are not in a place to get their head around things.
So, with that in mind, we need to be thinking ahead for what might be the case when we are fully out of lockdown. I suspect for churches, it will probably be this time next year before we are really able to take stock and know what the situation is and there will be quite a significant amount of churn in the meantime. Things that will distort the picture up until then will include
- Not being able to run fully functioning church services as we knew them due to social distancing and other safety constraints. There will also be limits on outreach activities.
- The potential for economic consequences post lockdown including the unknowns of Brexit mean that there will be continued uncertainty. Remember as well that people will also have been postponing other significant life decisions around career changes, moving house or getting married.
- That some churches will still not be able to meet at their usual venues for sometime, particularly those who rent which may mean that some other churches will see an increase in visiting Christians for a time, just as those who were ahead of the curve in providing online content had a high number of such guests in the early days. Similarly, the closure of some other churches will have been hastened and there will be Christians looking for new spiritual homes.
- Note additionally that churches in University contexts may find that their student members are still being offered online teaching and so remain at home. If that accounts for a large proportion of the active congregation then that will create challenges.
So, once we get to then end of that uncertain, transition period what are the possibilities? I try to think in terms of best, possible and worst scenarios. So, here goes.
I think that the best case scenario is that the optimism we have seen from those pointing to surveys and viewing figures prove right and that we see a revival of sorts with lots of new people seeking out our physical venue after engaging with us and meeting Christ on-line. We will then have the delights and the challenges of providing for baby Christians.
The possible scenario for quite a few churches is that things won’t change much. We will have lost some members to the virus and there will be some fringe people who have started to disconnected but the core membership, especially in smaller churches with a stable membership will be there and will have stayed with you.
However, the worst-case scenario is that a lot of churches are going to discover just how big a proportion of their weekly attendance was made up of people on the fringe, that they could lose as much as 2/3 of their congregation from their weekly gathering. I have suggested in the past that the virus may have the same impact that the wars had on church attendance in the early/mid 20th century. This will have other knock on effects, the accompanying economic instability is like to hit a lot of churches financially. This will affect staffing and major building projects.
I think it is always best to be prepared for the worst-case and surprised if things turn out better. I also think that there are good reasons to prepare for the worst. These include:
- Only a gut feeling but my view from the start was that a 1-2 month lockdown would lead to some great Gospel opportunities and bring people back refreshed and re-envisioned. However, anything longer was likely to expose cracks.
- That the fringe in many churches is larger than assumed. Yet when it comes down to who is really part of the core it is only a few. This is not just about people’s attitudes but reflects the nature of transient populations in many places and also that there had been a significant level of evangelism and church planting over the past decade meaning a lot of people are still just at the stage of engaging.
- That because of those factors, it is not just about the people we may lose but the loss of 4 months is a loss of time when new people would have been joining and getting more involved.
So how do we prepare for that? Here are some suggestions. The starting point is that we may need a church planting mindset. We may find that our churches are much closer to needing to be replanted than to simply reopening their buildings.
This means in practical terms that we prepare for financial uncertainty and do not assume that the funds will be there for staffing and projects. It means that we need to rethink our strategies in terms of evangelism. It also means that this is a good chance to re-evaluate ministries, traditions and rotas. How much had always happened v how much is really needed. I think a lot of churches were experiencing fatigue as a small core group were increasingly carrying the burden of larger but less engaged congregations covering welcoming, setting up, children’s work and music rots. Can we redesign our church life to give a greater sense of joy and rest in the Lord through all we do?
We need to have active trust in God’s promises, knowing that he is sovereign and building his kingdom even when we can’t see it. This means that finally, our church planter mindset will include the priority of prayer as we discover renewed dependence on the Lord of the Harvest.