Avoid This Big Mistake: Stepping Back Into the Past When You Step Back Into Your Building

So you might already be thinking about what life and ministry will be like when you step back into your building.

A few of you might be heading back into your facility this weekend.

As America and other parts of the world begin to open again (faster than many expected), there’s more at stake than just access to buildings, the resumption of some semblance of normal life and the big reunion everyone is longing for.

Here’s the biggest mistake many church leaders will make: they’ll step right back into the past the moment they step back in their building.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the in-person church is here to stay.

But the biggest mistake most leaders will make is the emotional rush to get back into a facility, to see everyone again, to assemble their teams and get back to ‘normal’, they’ll re-embrace a model of ministry designed to reach a world that no longer exists.

You’ve learned so much and your church has learned so much in this disruption so far that to simply re-embrace what was will destroy what could be.

So what’s the danger as you get ready to reopen your facility, whenever that is?


Thinking that when you walk back into your building things will go back to normal. In other words, you don’t really need to change anymore.

Which is the fastest path to irrelevance. 

Things have changed. Radically.

The world has changed. Radically.

Irrelevance is the gap between how quickly things change and how quickly you change. 

And even as the world slowly reopens, you’re not re-opening to normal, but to a new normal.

Here are 5 things that you’ll miss if you step back into the past when you step back into your building.

1. Your innovation curve will come to an abrupt stop

The coronavirus disruption forced you to change.

I realize that kind of change and the damage the virus has caused has been deeply painful. It has been for every leader in 100 different ways.

But the crisis has shown us that while some churches struggled deeply, others started thriving. In fact, the disruption has shown us three basic of leadership approaches: frozen leaders, hesitant leaders, and agile leaders. (See which one best describes you here).

Crisis is also the cradle for innovation.

Most leaders pivoted. Most set up online services, got a Zoom account, figured out how to live stream on YouTube, started shooting more personal videos and got way more active online.

And most leaders saw their online engagement soar.

You figured it out.

But walking back into your building can kill your innovation curve if you let it.

It will feel great to see some people again (even if people have to wear masks and sit six feet apart), and to get back on the familiar platform, and see the team, and connect.

And before you know it, you’ll stop innovating.

Look…I get it. Change is hard. I’m tired too. But don’t waste this season. Don’t waste the progress you’ve made.

Don’t let a sudden lack of creativity around methods limit your mission.

Crisis is a cradle for innovation. And the future belongs to the innovators.

2. You’ll Stop Pivoting

Closely related to innovation is pivoting.

Almost everyone pivoted since the crisis, and those who didn’t have already disappeared or are on their way out.

But pivoting is probably here to stay for a while (see point 4). If you study the history of change and progress, you quickly realize the future almost always belongs to agile leaders who adapt and change.

Stop for a moment and write down everything good that’s come out of the pivoting you’ve done since the disruption started.

Now think through how many of that traction never would have happened had you not pivoted.

The moment you walk back into the past and into comfort, you lose all that.

So if that’s all the growing you want to do for a while, stop pivoting.

If you want to keep pivoting, here’s how to do it quickly and well to move your mission forward.

3. You’ll see online as an add-on, not the future

As you settle into old patterns, all your energy will go back into in-person ministry.

And don’t get me wrong, a lot of energy, passion, prayer and effort belong in in-person ministry. The gathered church is here to stay.

Eventually you’ll look up and realize you haven’t posted much to Instagram or Facebook recently, and that your teams is so busy they haven’t really followed up on comments online or checked out who’s new.

Online church will become an add-on again, something you tag onto the most tech-savvy person’s job description hoping he or she will get to if they have the time (which they seldom do).

And you’ll completely miss the future.

And in the same way remote work will become the new normal for many people in the wider economy, online church might become a default option for many people. Hating that doesn’t make it go away. Leaders, just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Everyone you want to reach is online. It’s time for the church to finally act like it.

If you see online as an add on, not the future, you’ll miss most of the very people you’re trying to reach.

So what should you do?

Move more actual staff/volunteer effort into your online ministry when you move back into your building, not less.

Staff online as though it’s real, because it is (I have more on digital church here).

Just know this: You can’t have a massive impact online when you spend 1% of your staffing resources on it.

4. You’ll get Crushed by Unpredictability

If only we were going back to normal.

By almost every account, the world we’re stepping into is a new world. A new normal. And a highly unpredictable one at that.

Shopping and restaurants won’t be the same again. Work won’t be. Neither will international travel. It’s not that they’re not coming back, it just won’t be the same, for perhaps a long while. Or ever.

And even viral hotspots will make the future uncertain and unpredictable.  You may be able to travel to one city but not another.

The mayor or governor might make one decisions this week and a different one the next week.

There may be a second wave of the virus down the road (hopefully not).

While it’s amazing to think about the re-opening as a universal, permanent change, it’s more probable that it will be different than we think, more unstable than we think, and perhaps involve reversals more often than anyone wants.

That kind of unpredictability will crush those looking for stability.

But if you keep your agility and are willing and able to pivot, you can thrive.

5. You’ll Miss That Legal Permission is Different than Social Behaviour  

A final factor to consider (and last reason not to step back into the past when you step into your building) is that legal permission is different than social behaviour.

Example. Let’s assume all legal restrictions for any gatherings anywhere are lifted as you read this post.

Suddenly your church can be jam-packed. Football stadiums and concert venues can accommodate crushing crowds. You can fly anywhere in the world.

Let’s imagine restaurants can have long lines of people waiting to get in for the latest, and you can pack 28 people into your surfer van for a fun Instagram shot.

Question: what if some people don’t want to do that anymore?

Do you want the middle seat on a flight to LA tomorrow (sure, you really didn’t want the middle seat before either, but you know what I mean)? Airlines, apparently, are even taking out middle seats now.

Do you want to be next to the guy at the NFL game who just sloshed his beer all over you and coughed through the second quarter?

Will you want to walk into the crowded bread aisle in the supermarket and stand painfully close to people at the checkout?

One of the interesting trends leaders will monitor in the upcoming months is this: even if people can gather, will they want to? Or at least gather the same way?

And to get really practical, for those who lead multi-generational or older congregations, what if a good chunk of your church shouldn’t gather for a year or two

Which toggles us back to all of the other points.

In an uncertain world, online is a life-line. Agility is a super-power.

The more you care about people, and the more you want to reach them, the more true this is.

It’s hard to go back to normal when normal disappeared.

Crisis Blog Series and the Future Church

I also have a free blog post series on the current global crisis and how the church can respond:

Crisis Leadership, Christian Leadership and the Corona Virus

How to Lead Through Rapid, Unexpected Change

8 Ways to Lead in the New Digital Default Church

5 Ways The Current Crisis is Accelerating The Arrival of the Future Church

My Top 7 Rules for Leading a Digital Team

3 Simple Ways To Make Sure You Don’t Break In the Crisis

8 Early Tips for Producing Digital Content During the Current Crisis

Why Motivation Alone Won’t Get Your People (Or You) Through This Crisis

The Three Kinds of Leaders You See In A Crisis

5 Predictions About the Future Church While Everything’s Unknown

5 Quick Things That Can Make a Long Term Difference During Your First Digital Easter

Half of All Churches Are Instantly Growing. Here’s Why And Here’s What To Do.

The Top 7 Reasons Everyone Ignores the Online Content You Produce

Hope this helps you and your team lead well in a very challenging season.

What Do You See?

I don’t want this post to be discouraging…I really believe the future is bright.

But I do think if we just run back into our buildings we can end up running right back into the past.

What other things are you considering as you move into the future?

What’s on your radar, and what are you going to do to keep innovating and reaching more people?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

As America and the world reopen, churches will too. Here are 5 ways stepping back into your building might make you step back into the past & miss the future.


  1. Dan Renton on May 13, 2020 at 3:07 pm

    I could seeing fostering a “Humans are toxic” culture Think about it every messaure is being taken to keep people clean, separate, It’s not the first time Christians lived in that kind of culture -” Don’t touch people for they are unclean” What I find interesting is that Jesus lived in the same kind of health culture we do now and yet to heal people he touched people…. The great challenge for church is not only to keep people from being sick but understanding, that finding healing requires touch….

  2. Andrés on April 30, 2020 at 3:36 am

    Thank you! Every word resounds!

    Just before lockdown I was called to pastor a small church consisting almost entirely of retired pensioners. Close to 70% did not go online for anything other than their emails, or a Skype chat with grandchildren.

    WhatsApp, Zoom, even subscribing to a YouTube channel were alien to them. Within 3 weeks we – that equals my wife and I plus an iPhone and a computer – set up a WhatsApp Group, produced a website, filmed and loaded videos onto YouTube, and started Zoom meetings.

    Triple challenges: – introduce the radical innovations; – educate the precious – often nervous – people in how to use them; – nurse them through these new things with constant encouragement.

    The challenges awaiting when we return to a building are as you say. We continue to follow your messages with anticipation and gratitude.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 30, 2020 at 10:21 am

      Wow! That’s a lot of change. So glad I’m able to help you through this process. 🙂

  3. Anne Kane on April 28, 2020 at 7:43 am

    Not a minister, but in agreement with these principles. About halfway (or so I think) through this wrinkle in history I let go of the “oh-no-things-are-changing-better-get-things-back-to-normal” and began to realize that life has changed in a kaleidoscope of dimensions and that it would be good to make peace with and even rejoice in that. I don’t do this perfectly every day — I am no Pollyanna and I think it is reasonable to grieve the past which was the present until it was suddenly ripped from us — but I am enthused about the many goods that I believe will come from The Big Pause, as I have come to call it.

    It has been a source of joy for me to connect with people in videoconferencing. I can sense that the professed religious in my parish are dismayed and saddened by the lack of ability to connect in person but I am delighted that they have stepped up and rolled their ministry — and the rest of the parish — online in no time. That’s good discipleship!

  4. Jen Ervig on April 27, 2020 at 4:44 pm

    Sorry. I’m just now catching up on your emails. I wanted to draw your attention to Angela Craig, The Northwest Ministry Network’s first Online Church planter and head pastor. She’s been doing online church for awhile. She just came out with a book, Online Jesus (just don’t read it before Sarah gets you mine – HAHA- I’m joking!) Here’s a link to her book:

  5. Writing: Really Intriguing Business? on April 27, 2020 at 2:01 am

    The construction of a new platform involves changes in the charter. Returning to the old building will not bring the expected satisfaction to anyone

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 27, 2020 at 3:49 pm

      So true!

    • Bobby Jones on April 30, 2020 at 7:59 am

      Thank you for helping me understand and describe the tension that I’ve been feeling as our staff has discussed re-entry! “Returning to the old building will not bring the expected satisfaction to anyone.” Spot on!

    • Shannon S on May 16, 2020 at 2:21 pm

      I absolutely disagree. I believe people will find great satisfaction in returning to the physical church. A church sanctuary is just that. A sanctuary. A place of peace, comfort, home, and hope. Yes things will be different, but I believe the joy and love and support and care and laughter that once filled our hallways will do so again and with the same if not more exuberance as ever.

      • Juno on December 27, 2020 at 5:09 am

        Thats what the article said.

  6. Thank you Eric, this was very informative and thought-provoking!angela Quinn Linn doughty on April 25, 2020 at 3:47 pm

    Thank you Eric, this was very informative and thought-provoking!

  7. Jonathan on April 25, 2020 at 10:23 am

    I think the one thing that is forgotten is the encouragement to be in person with the people of God as the Bible calls us to do according to Hebrews 10:23-25. Yes, we must take precautions to ensure a safer/cleaner environment at the church. We should also take heed to alot that was said in this article, which was very well written and thought through. However, when orders are continually lifted and life gets back to a sort of normal then how will pastors encourage their members who are not interested in coming back to the Sunday gathering to come? My conviction from Scripture is that if a Christian is not willing to gather with the local body publicly then there is a sin issue. It could be fear of sickness, it could be the comforts of home and online church. I understand and agree with the wisdom in re-opening the buildings slowly and having a really thought out game-plan for resuming worship services in the building. However, we also must think to the future and how as pastors we will encourage people to see the necessity of being in person with the body of Christ.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 26, 2020 at 7:12 am

      For sure our buildings need to be clean and the gathered church is here to stay. But I worry that this kind of thinking elevates the method (buildings) far above the mission.

      • Jackie on April 29, 2020 at 6:46 am

        I’m a pastor and have been feeling this way for years – – that the church has been self-serving and STUCK in that mode. This Big Pause, as one previously commented, I hope and trust has opened our eyes to this truth, but also created an open door of liberating us to get out of our buildings and living the Gospel beyond them.

  8. Joy Ziegler on April 25, 2020 at 8:58 am

    I resigned from my church and have not found my next place to land. This is what I have been thinking about and praying about how I should engage. It really takes the church OUT of the building and reminds us that we are all ministers. We can engage in online Bible Study and accountability groups, ect. Holding online question and answer hour for anyone to pop on and engage. This is exciting and could start a wave of micro church planting.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 26, 2020 at 7:13 am

      It certainly could Joy!

    • Chris on May 13, 2020 at 1:50 pm

      Hello, Joy. Everything you said is true, yet there is a missing component that is very, very important. Certainly people could visit online, sip from the classes and worship, even get involved in Bible studies and participate in Q&A sessions. Yet, who can depend on you? I see the attraction of consuming the labor of others’ studies, but church is more than learning. How can churches truly minister to those who will not share themselves with the church? This is not a criticism, but a sincere question. We will, I’m sure, experience more and more such “virtual visitors” and we need some sort of strategy for actually engaging them rather than virtually engaging them (keeping in mind the label “virtual” carries a definition of “unreal”).

  9. Robert Dodge on April 25, 2020 at 8:49 am

    Back in the early fifties as television came into America’s living rooms , a Leader in the Catholic Church from New York , Bishop Sheen had a show that aired on Saturday nights, often number one ,and two in the ratings. Reaching out to Catholics as well as non Catholics, and the unbelievers. When he beat out Milton Berle for an Emmy in 1952 , he credited his writers, Matthew, Mark , Luke, and John . His humor reached many as he used scripture to spread The Gospel of Jesus, I know my parents watched him every Saturday night. You can still find him on YouTube to this day , and as on television, his message is now on social media a must see , and his message is the same what many Pastors are saying today. Look him up , and he was way ahead of his time , often as his church said that he would never be able to take his show to the American people thru television The Gospels of Jesus our blessed Lord .

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 26, 2020 at 7:13 am

      Did not know that. Funny and wonderful story.

  10. Mark on April 24, 2020 at 7:15 am

    Some need to see who is leadership was a hindrance and who was nimble and adjusted quickly. The world today requires even the biggest companies to be nimble and have a “crazy division” that is allowed to experiment and who is allowed to have something fail. Competition is everywhere and disrupters arise out of thin air.

    That said, churches that become relational need to maintain it.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 25, 2020 at 8:08 am

      Agility is a super power. 🙂

    • Dr Wilberforce Oti on December 28, 2020 at 6:57 am


      Once more thanks so much for using your write-ups to inspire many of us and prepare us ahead of time.
      Here in Nigeria, 70% of our population dwell in the rural areas where many people don’t even have phones much more getting zoom. During the lockdown, so many of them didn’t even know why they were asked to stop going to church. I told one of the pastors in the village to use zoom for Bible Study but he laughed and told me that only he and his wife have phones hence they can’t teach their members via online method. However those of us in the State Capital, we learnt BY FORCE who to live stream our messages.
      Am thankful to you for making me to know that online church is not an option to use but it is the future where the world is heading to. I have made up my mind to redesign our church service and invest more in our media team to have a significant presence online. Am positive we shall keep adjusting till our relevance becomes sacrosanct.
      Thanks so much. Permission to repost to all my ministers’ friends…

  11. SAMIR STEPHAN KUJUR on April 24, 2020 at 2:28 am

    Thank you for the post. It is beautifully articulated.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 25, 2020 at 8:08 am

      Thank you Samir!

  12. Melody H on April 24, 2020 at 12:47 am

    I was just trying to communicate this idea to our staff pastor’s in a zoom meeting today. That when we DO go back, we cannot abandon the online presence we have rushed to develop and are ironing out the wrinkles of every week. We cannot throw away this new part of the mosaic. It must become part of the big picture.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 25, 2020 at 8:07 am

      Completely agree. 🙂

  13. Katie on April 23, 2020 at 1:22 pm

    As a worship leader, will we sing again? Seems like risky behavior to sing in a large group now. Also feels weird to all sing in masks. What will be the role of church music in this post Covid world?

  14. Mark Holmen on April 23, 2020 at 10:03 am

    Good discussion starter article. I would add a few…
    Faith at home needs to remain our primary focus and not go back to what we do at church as primary.
    We need to continue to equip parents to be the primary influencers of their children and not go back to church programs being primary.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 23, 2020 at 10:03 am

      I hear you Mark. This is a great shift to see.

    • Oliver Kiondo on April 24, 2020 at 5:28 am

      I concur totally. The church is not a building you go to on Sunday. Church is the people who make up the congregation. And the family unit has to be at the core of that. The sad truth is that a lot of Christians are “Sunday Christians” – they attend mass/service on Sunday for a couple of hours, dresses in their “Sunday best,” but then go back to living a carnal life the rest of the week.

  15. Jason Pence on April 23, 2020 at 9:51 am

    When this all started many of us decided to not try and cut/paste regular Sunday morning experiences. Instead we went relational. We set things up as everyone sitting together talking on couches in your living room. Lots and lots of online messaging during the live-streams. Very happy with that result. However, here is an arising question now. Can you perhaps give us some thoughts on expanding the online connection/relation community while also expanding the less connective in person one when streamed on Sunday mornings. If we just livestream the Sunday morning service we will have lost lost much of this positive online community presence that has developed over these weeks.

    Is it as simple as live-streaming a relations/connective type service on a different day or night than Sunday morning? Perhaps lots more emphasis on hosts/hostesses in our communication boxes on Sunday now to connect with people? Thoughts? Ideas? Insights?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 23, 2020 at 10:01 am

      I love your questions. I wonder if there’s a future model shift in the making where perhaps you do your Sunday live-stream but also the relational piece, and eventually that latter eclipses the former. Mission v. methods.

  16. Rick on April 23, 2020 at 9:43 am

    It’s possible this could happen, or maybe not. It’s possible we’ll become more digital, or maybe the exact opposite will happen. It’s possible people will live even more online, or that people will reject online out of fatigue or a realization that online presence is a poor replacement (almost impossible replacement) for true community. It’s an interesting point of view, but I think maybe misses the part where people are probably realizing how much true community is important (I would say that online will always be an addition and never a replacement, and certainly never a true replacement).

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 23, 2020 at 10:03 am

      You may be right. But I do think dismissing online is behaving like Sears in the Amazon era. In person is a permanent part of the future, but on online generation of pastors will probably eclipse the current generation and do most of the future ministry.

    • Joah on April 23, 2020 at 3:31 pm

      Agreed Rick. There’s seems to be two trains of thought (and likely more subsets) from church leadership observations on what the Coronavirus means for church. For those churches who were more accustomed to large online audience and a produced approach to weekend gatherings, the online option seems almost as good if not better. The assumption for those is that the community at large is looking or even expecting for there to be more online presence for churches. That’s just not what I’m seeing within our congregation and local community. Instead, the pendulum culturally is swinging back heavily in sentiment towards the importance of corporate gatherings. If anything, it will be easier for pastors to encourage many of their most engaged people to commit to not skipping gathering than before, not flake out on their commitment to serve, and not assume someone else will lead or give to the mission of the church. While there will be some in the community at large who are afraid and not willing to join any large gathering, there are many others who are starving for in person connection. Growing churches will see even smaller gatherings grow as more people looking for that connection join due to their need for community. Beyond that, from what I’m seeing, the most engaged Christ-followers are pretty done with the whole “online replacement” attempt already, and while the mission is always about and to be focused on non-believers, those who lead on Sundays or go out and make that mission happen are the Christ-followers who seem to be more hungry than ever for in person worship. Simply put, even the most authentic, well produced, well published, and well presented online content is seen by many to be hollow and a pale comparison no matter their spiritual background. Large churches will struggle as then months creep on with this shift for practical reasons, but the most effective and healthy small churches will thrive because they face fewer of those practical constraints on gathering sizes and figuring out social distancing.

      • Jason Pence on April 24, 2020 at 7:51 am

        I was having this discussion with some leaders a week or so ago. Here is the dynamic we were finding. To our “core most committed people” the physical gathering has become far more precious. Having lost it for a season it is now valued highly. If they were a two time a month attender before they will become an every Sunday person for a while. Conversely those who were more marginal may well attend a physical gathering far less. The once a month couple may become Creasters now as they are totally content with online. They might also engage in an online small group but rarely enter the building for a good long while. Mothers are not nearly as afraid for their babies if those babies are not in the church nursery exposed to others. It seems to me that there is a plethora of questions and angles that will have to be addressed if we are to successfully pivot into the next phase of this.

  17. Steve Smith on April 23, 2020 at 8:05 am

    Thank you

  18. Joe jansen on April 23, 2020 at 8:04 am

    Good stuff. Are people going to want to gather in large crowds is a great question.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 23, 2020 at 8:20 am

      I think it’s a really active question. We’ll see, and it will change over time, but still…it creates challenges for a while. I didn’t even really touch how many people will prefer online church either. I think that’s a factor.

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