Louisville, Illinois. 1984.
I was about half-way through my first year of teaching history at North Clay Jr. High School. I was twenty-two. It was time for parent-teacher conferences and I needed some advice. I had never been on this side of things before. I dropped by the room next door for some counsel from a teacher who knew the ropes. He looked at me and drawled, “Be the arrow and not the target.” The lesson was over. It remains one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received.
There are a lot of people speculating about the future of the church right now. I read most of it because like many of you, I am looking for insight. These are challenging times but they are also extraordinary; even miraculous. If someone had told me a year ago, we would not have on-site worship services for several months and would remain effective and financially viable, I would have told them they were crazy. We did not have on-site worship service for months. We remain effective and viable. Glory be to God!
Now for a reality check:
Here is our current reality as I see it:
- There is no foreseeable end to the COVID pandemic
- Churches have shown great resiliency during the pandemic
- Things are going to be different on the other side of COVID
- Most churches were not doing well before the pandemic
- Almost all churches have strengthened their on-line presence
- Some former attendees are now used to the convenience of on-line worship
- We have no idea who will or won’t eventually return to live worship (once it is offered)
- Finances were strong early (often aided by government PPP’s) but are weakening
- On-line viewership is down
- Churches who are open are drawing about 30-35% of their previous live attendance
- Everything about our situation is unsustainable
While this assessment might not seem to be brimming with optimism, this is our currently reality. The temptation for churches is to pour 100% of their time, effort and energy into a “week to week” survival mode but I believe this to be a bad play. It is exhausting, it puts churches in a reactive mode and you are a permanent target. You spend all your time waiting for the next arrow to fly at you. That is not leadership; it is survival.
I want to suggest seven questions for your church leadership to consider that will put you in a proactive mode (at least some of time). Hopefully these will allow you to “be the arrow and not the target.”
Question One: What is our clear and unique message to our community and region? Who are we? What do we have to offer? Why would anyone want to be a part of your faith community? Much like a good mission statement, this should boil down to a single sentence. Re-branding in a way congruent with your core values is a good idea. Freshen it up.
Question Two: How do we get people back on-site? Professional sports will have the same problem next year. We have made it easy for people to not come to church. We have turned them into consumers of content. How do we get them back to church? We are going to have to do more than give away free bobbleheads.
Question Three: How do we disciple people who access us on-line? My guess is that most people will come back to church but attend less often and opt for on-line church once or twice a month. Others will never return or live too far away to attend. On-line church offers content without any corresponding intangibles. How do we turn the fire hose into a warm stream? How does content become community? How do we turn viewer into disciples?
Question Four: What is our business model? Churches are not businesses but if we don’t take care of business, we will soon be out of ministry. My guess is that most churches will have too much building, too much debt, too much budget and too much staff once we get on the other side of this. Where can we lower expenses? How do we attract more resources? Do we have the courage to de-fund ineffective things? The correct answer is probably reoccurring giving for most churches. How do we make that shift?
Question Five: What does future evangelism look like? Growing a church post-COVID will be identical to growing a church pre-COVID. You have to make new Christians, turn them into disciples and send them out to make new Christians. What is your strategy for doing this? How do people hear about Jesus, find Jesus, give their lives to Jesus and get on a discipleship track? What is your process? Churches have an opportunity right now to live or to die. Dying will be easier. It always has been. If your church was already declining or on a terminal path, COVID will greatly exacerbate your pre-existing condition.
Question Six: What will future staffing look like? Most churches (especially large ones) are going to find they are improperly staffed for the post-COVID reality. They will be overstaffed for on-site ministry and understaffed for on-line ministry. This will be a major challenge and necessitate some hard decisions. It is good to start thinking about it now. And don’t forget that volunteers are staff as well. How do we get them back?
Question Seven: How do we budget for the church we will be? The financial forecasts for churches were partly cloudy (at best) before the pandemic shut downs. They are worse now. Most churches will have less financial resources available as attendees do not return, baby boomers pass away and no one is in line to replace them. Budgets will have to be laser focused and hard questions need to be asked.
Asking these seven questions of your leadership team right now will toss some energy your way, get you thinking in the future tense and may enable you to paradigm shift from “target” to “arrow!” These are good things.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997.