A little while back, I noted that I believe one of the biggest challenges ahead is for medium sized churches in urban areas. I think there will be a lot of excitement and a lot of opportunities for church plants the other side of COVID and I think that larger churches will in the end be able to cushion against the shock but I believe that there are challenges ahead for conventional churches..
This week, the Church of England announced plans to cut staff and churches in response to an expected drop of 1/5 or 20% in church attendance. Some people have picked up on this as further evidence of the decay we are seeing in terms of established, liberal Christianity but before we get ahead of ourselves, we should remember that people like Thom Rainer were warning about the possibility that some people would drift away and simply never return after COVID. His view was that COVID was simply speeding up a drift from the fringes. The sort of figure he was expecting to see lost from churches -and we are talking evangelicals here was 20%.
Speaking from personal local experience and talking to others, I don’t think that is far off. Until December I was on the pastoral staff of such an evangelical church as I said might face challenging times above. We had grown from around 70 -80 in regular attendance to somewhere between 170-190 (occasionally getting close to 200). We’d planted a new church, multiplied congregations and were helping with a revitalisation. We had a busy schedule of outreach and had increased our staffing by adding a families worker as well as a trainee pastor who was self-supported. Yet those encouraging signs were not matched in a growth in financial resources due to the kind of context we were working in. COVID hit us and exposed our fragility in a ruthless manner. We saw the kind of attrition warned about and our finances took a head on hit. By the summer, the warning signs were there and by the Autumn redundancies became inevitable so that both paid staff positions were made redundant.
However, at the same time, all through COVID we’d seen great encouragements. Our viewing figures for our facebook service were good and we had additional people interacting with our week-day online programme. I had people from outside of the church tell me that they had been watching and that they’d found it interesting. Clearly things have been happening. Does that mean the church will see all of those people turning up as soon as lockdown lifts? I suspect not. The work remains long term and stepping through the building front door will be a significant move for people.
So, I suspect that a lot of churches will face similar risks, unable to employ staff and with other huge bills creeping up on them, they may find that the difference between a healthy situation and being in danger of closing isn’t that big a margin. Yet, if we go down the C of E approach of making cuts then that will be a mistake.
Therefore, I have some recommendations to make and I want to encourage Affinity, The EA, The FIEC, Grace Baptists and others to seriously consider them. The first is this. They need to get a feel for what the situation is by surveying churches. Then they need to respond appropriately. Here are some suggestions.
- It may be necessary to provide bridging support to churches over the next few years to help the bills get paid. If possible these should be repaid. This might be something for Stewardship and Kingdom Bank to look at.
- Larger churches who have still been recruiting onto already large staff teams might want to consider ways of partnering with other local churches to provide support.
- Just as the NHS has relied on workers who might otherwise have been retiring, we should ask retired pastors to join church staff teams as volunteers. They can then provide a lot of pastoral support freeing up other leaders to follow up on the outreach during the pandemic.
I hope that these types of suggestions are picked up. I believe there are many reasons to be hopeful of fruit ahead but to see that fruit in the longer term may require some short and medium term action now.