5 Critical Mistakes Church Leaders Should Avoid In the Post-COVID World

Finally, it seems like the post-COVID world is finally coming into view.

While different countries, regions, provinces and states will emerge out of COVID at different times, 2021 appears to be the year we will be able to move into a post-pandemic world.

So, as you get ready to embrace the new reality, what should you be focused on?

It’s obviously a tough question to answer because neither in-person church or online church is a panacea. Each has its unique challenges, promises and limits. In-person church attendance has been declining for decades before the pandemic, and online church hasn’t solved all the issues the church is facing either.

That said, here are some guidelines that can help moving forward.

Here are 5 critical mistakes it would be so easy to make right now as a church leader.

1. Taking Your Foot Off the Digital Gas Pedal

There will be a real temptation to once the world moves past COVID to think of digital ministry as an afterthought or something that’s no longer necessary.

You’re certainly free to make that decision, but in many ways that would be a mistake.

Barna research shows that 7 in 10 churched adults agree that, post-pandemic, churches should use digital resources to reach and engage their neighborhoods. In addition, 21% of US unchurched adults are open to watching an online service alone. For those unchurched adults with a high digital openness though, that percentage climbs to 87%.

While in-person church is here to stay, to back off on digital now is to back off on the future and to back off on outreach. If you care about reaching people, that’s a mistake.

Hybrid church (churches offering great in-person experiences and digital experiences) will be the future because everyone has lived a hybrid life for years. One moment you’re on social media, the next you’re having coffee with a friend in real life. .

If you want more on the interplay of physical and digital church in the future, including how your online presence serves as both a front door and side door, I wrote more here.

Treating digital as something interesting or nice to have may have been an acceptable strategy in 2011. But this is 2021.

2. Allocating Most of Your Staff and Volunteers to Ministry In the Church Building

Not much has changed since I wrote this post last year arguing that too many church leaders will step into the past as they step back into their buildings. The same dynamics are very much in play right now.

While it’s true that most churches feel short-staffed and under-resourced, the pre-COVID habit of assigning your online ministry as one line in a job description to your tech person or creative person is history. Or at least if you want a future it’s history.

As distributed gatherings, micro-gatherings and online ministry continues to grow, dedicating a meaningful percentage of your staff, budget, and volunteers to ministry that happens outside the church building is critical.

How much of your resources should be allocated to online and distributed gatherings?

I talked to one leader who said that post-pandemic, 40% of his team, time and energy will go into online.

I think that’s a healthy percentage.

While that might seem like a complete stretch for most churches, gradually increasing the resources you devote to online and off-building ministry is possible for everyone.

Don’t have staff or feel understaffed?

Look for 15-25 year old volunteers to help you with your online presence. They see the future because they are the future. And the present.

3. Resuming In-Person Services Exactly As They Were Pre-COVID

The jury is still very much out on what’s going to happen to services once the world is re-opened.

But many church leaders are considering running two kinds of services: in-person and then a separate one devoted to online.

In other words, online will become something other than just a live-stream of whatever is happening in the auditorium or sanctuary on Sunday.

While this presents challenges from both a time and resource standpoint, this approach makes sense for a few reasons.

First, almost every church leader has come to realize that online services are best when they’re shorter.

Second, nobody has really figured out what to do with worship music online. The four or five song set that works in church just doesn’t translate online.

Third, preaching to a crowd is great, but it feels less personal when you’re watching on a device. Direct-to-camera preaching (including different camera positions and even the use of DSLRs) can make the online experience much better.

More than a few pastors I talk to are shooting an online version of their message and service mid-week for broadcast on Sunday and for access on-demand, but then doing a different experience in the room live on Sunday that doesn’t get streamed. By different, it could be the same message, just delivered live (or via video), but more music and other elements that may not translate as well online.

This IS a lot of work. I get it.

If you don’t have the resources for it, at least consider doing something different online that’s direct to camera…something like a 5 minute devotion, talk or something other than just the stream of your Sunday morning in-person gatherings.

I have a full training session and application guide on how to create great online content inside The Leader’s Circle. You can get instant access to a free trial of The Leader’s Circle on-demand training for you and your team here.

Finally, when it comes to your in-person gatherings, make the experience more…personal.

Many re-opened churches that are seeing some traction are making the in-person experience different than online by offering food, coffee, parking lot or side room gatherings for people to connect. And they’re providing kids experiences that provide something other than a carbon copy of what you can get online.

The principle here is clear: if everything your church does in the future feels downloadable, probably all you’ll get is a lot of downloads, not a lot of gathered people. (For more on that, read this.)

4. Posting Every Thought You Have On Every Issue Online

Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk less about how and more about what.

This deserves a post of its own, but it’s becoming clear that one of the reasons people who don’t go to church don’t want to go to church is simple: your social media posts.

According to a recent Barna survey, only 30% of non-Christians have a positive reaction when they see people post things about their Christian faith on social media. (45% don’t have a positive reaction, and 25% indicated they don’t know.)

I am increasingly concerned about the number of church leaders who feel the compulsion to post their opinion online about everything. From negative rants or arguments on vaccines to politics, to legislation, to climate change, to some grievance against a neighbor or celebrity, whatever else they happen to have an opinion on in the moment, the daily tirade I see on my social feed is exhausting.

You know the world is watching and listening right?

Even if you’re posting from your personal account, you’re leaving an impression on the unchurched who follow you.

Influence takes years to build and seconds to lose. Church, we’re losing a lot of influence right now.

5. Resenting People Who Aren’t Doing What You Want Them To Do

One truth you’ve consistently faced as a leader is this: people rarely do exactly what you want them to do.

That’s going to get more intense in the post-pandemic era.

People won’t follow the patterns you want them to follow. Maybe people will come back in droves. Maybe they won’t. The early evidence hasn’t been encouraging.

The question is this:

How do you interact with infrequent church attenders who don’t seem to be embracing the mission of your church the way?

I think it’s simple.

You embrace them anyway.

I chose the word ’embrace’ on purpose. Because I know there’s something deep-seated in many of us that wants to reject people if we sense they’re rejecting us. And people who don’t come out to church much on Sunday can feel like rejection if you’re an insecure church leader.

Grow up. Be more secure.

Rather than judging them, why not love them? Judgment is a terrible evangelism study. You run from people who resent and judge you. Why should you expect any different from the people you lead?

Ultimately, people gravitate to where they are valued most. So value people.

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What Do You See?

Those are some potential mistakes I see on the horizon.

What do you see? Scroll down and leave a comment!

The post-COVID world is within sight. As the world reopens, what should you be focusing on as a church leader? Here are 5 critical mistakes to avoid.

21 Comments

  1. Dr. Barry F. Cosper on April 14, 2021 at 9:41 am

    Thank you for the outstanding leadership articles.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 15, 2021 at 4:06 pm

      Glad to help!

  2. Rene Steiner on March 17, 2021 at 5:44 am

    Hey Carey, thanks a lot. Your posts are very much appreciated over her in Switzerland as well :-). What do you make of this study that found: “Young adult churchgoers, those 18 to 29, are the most likely to say they will attend church more often after COVID-19 than they did before (43%).”

    https://churchleaders.com/news/392004-post-pandemic-get-ready-for-the-church-boom.html

  3. Nate on March 4, 2021 at 10:10 am

    I’m curious in seeing if there are churches that begin their livestream at the point of the sermon starting, and stream only the sermon.

    To be honest, few, if any churches, do the music well enough to make it look great live on an online stream. Since COVID began, I’ve watched a lot of “online concerts” from some of my favorite musicians, and it just doesn’t feel the same… and the online audience is the ONLY audience. In a hybrid scenario, you have two audiences. And keeping your online audience engaged is tough.

    Before we resumed live services, our church simply linked people to a YouTube playlist of some worship songs to sing along at home (from what I gathered, very few people did this). We stream the music live, but do so mostly for our members at home who can’t be in person, for whatever reasons (health, travel sports, work, etc.).

    Are there churches that stream only the sermon and if so, how do they do it well? How do they make sure people know *when* to tune in?

    Curious on those thoughts.

  4. Yanik Gammampila on March 3, 2021 at 8:31 am

    Great content. Very helpful from a Youth Pastor (UK) perspective too! Thanks for sharing.
    “if everything your church does in the future feels downloadable, probably all you’ll get is a lot of downloads, not a lot of gathered people.”
    This was a real highlight for me.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 3, 2021 at 5:15 pm

      So glad to help!

  5. 2048 on March 3, 2021 at 1:57 am

    Judgment is a terrible evangelism study.

  6. Walter Swaim on March 2, 2021 at 3:14 pm

    Great article Carey – the hybrid is something I have been wanting to do for a while and still not sure how we will. If there are changes to make now’s the time. As of writing this our governor is lifting state mask mandate and more next Wednesday March 10 – so it is now at our doorstep. We will lift our mask recommendations, and more, as of the following Sunday.
    On number 4 – honestly, that discouraged me – especially after responding to the call to use online more and better – I just started a YouTube channel, to bring a biblical truth response to theological and cultural trends (and yes, including the vaccine – which I have in my body, btw). I’m in it now, too invested and ask God’s wisdom to do it well and do it right.
    On number 5, I do love them all – but after 35+ years of ministry, have learned that I have to move on with those who are invested and looking to go into the future – and leave the Spirit to do His work in those who have strayed and have no interest in spite of our best efforts to love them into being faithful.
    Thank you and keep on sharpening us all,
    Walt

  7. KEVIN RUSSELL on March 1, 2021 at 10:17 pm

    Hi Carey, First of all, thanks for all your inciteful posts. I try to read them every day. Under item #3 in today’s post, you state “… nobody has really figured out what to do with worship music online. The four or five song set that works in church just doesn’t translate online”. I am the music director at our church (mid-size church in Ottawa). I was hired last year in mid-March at precisely the time that our church physically shut down due to the pandemic. And I have been part of the pivot back into the church. Like many churches, our digital congregation (viewership) significantly out-numbers the in-person attendance at this time. For the first 6 months, that I was on board, I recorded all of the worship music from my own living room, keeping to a similar order of services as pre-pandemic (although the services were shorter in duration). Since we have resumed in-person livestream services, we have kept pretty well to the same order but now have a 3 to 4 member worship team on site livestreaming every Sunday. The services tend to be longer, but the music segments are about the same. So here is my question: I’d like a better understanding of your point that the song set provided in the on-site church doesn’t translate online. I don’t refute this, rather I’m interested in knowing some of the reasons and, if you are able, to provide any guidance on what would be a more fitting model for presenting worship music online? Thanks so much.

    • Mark on March 2, 2021 at 8:51 am

      My suggestion is to sing 1 hymn that reflects the season. Also, you could sing the Psalm of the day, Kyrie, Angus Dei, and Gloria (except during Lent). This is how the Episcopalians are doing it, and it seems to work well.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 2, 2021 at 3:57 pm

      Hey Kevin!

      Great Question! Have you listened in to my conversation with Mark Clark that released a couple of weeks ago? We go into a bit more detail about it there: https://careynieuwhof.com/episode399/

  8. Laura Trent on March 1, 2021 at 10:35 am

    I appreciate what you’ve said about preaching to the camera and doing in person worship separately. I’m at a small congregation which is only now together again, but I’ve been doing a “Living Room Worship” on video since August, boosting it in a limited way, and I’m astounded at the number of engagements that have developed…much more than my congregation! I agree that it’s different, better, and more personal. Thanks!!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 1, 2021 at 3:23 pm

      Glad to hear that Laura. I think that’s a great idea…and I think you just have to see what’s resonating. 🙂

  9. John Dobbs on March 1, 2021 at 10:31 am

    Superb. So many good thoughts and ideas here. I am wrestling with offering food … which leads to extended conversations in a continuing pandemic … ideas about how to do this safely are needed by people like me! Our church used to serve food a lot … none since March 2020 … we have talked about how to do it but have been unable to come up with a cohesive plan. Yet we desire the sit down and talk time. It’s a struggle.

    • Andrew Morse on March 1, 2021 at 12:25 pm

      We’ve gone with a drive thru system through one of the windows. Serving a little over a hundred people food that way every week. If you wanna chat get my email from our website Hillcrestsj.ca 🙂 Keep on rockin John!

      andrew

      • Carey Nieuwhof on March 1, 2021 at 3:28 pm

        I’ve always thought of food as a social mixer. It just makes it easy to chat with people. Can be as simple as a coffee and donut. It just relaxes people and makes conversation easier.

        • John Dobbs on March 1, 2021 at 5:22 pm

          So, Carey, my question is how do you do that in our current situation? I love the idea…also what Andrew said above. In Andrew’s scenario, social distancing is not an issue. If you have a room where people are eating (ergo no masks), conversing … this is what we all want to do … it’s also a significant risk. I’d like to hear your perspective on that … not trying to double down 🙂 … appreciate you much.

          • Nate on March 4, 2021 at 10:03 am

            You can still do food events with social distancing. It might require a large room like a gymnasium, and you’d have to limit how many people can come in at once, but it’s possible.

            Our youth group, which is about 30 kids, does it. We just limit how many can sit at a table, we release them to get food and even spread the food around to multiple serving areas, so there isn’t much cross over.

            There might be some who disagree with it, and to be honest, I’m not interested in hearing anyone’s opinion on the safety of it. We’ve attempted to be as safe as possible, and those who feel it may not be safe simply don’t send their kids.

            It’d take a good amount of space and some planning ahead, but you could pull it off.



      • John Dobbs on March 1, 2021 at 5:23 pm

        Thanks Andrew… what a neat idea!

  10. Tom Reusch on March 1, 2021 at 9:35 am

    Thanks for another great article; I think it’s more important than ever to keep reminding ourselves that for many people who worship with us online for our services, they view it as an authentic church experience. If they have that perspective, we honor them as pastors by approaching it that way as well as we prepare. 🙂

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 1, 2021 at 3:24 pm

      Thank you Tom!

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