As you know, these are some of the most complex times in church leadership in decades.
As churches reopen their in-person gatherings, there’s one particular trap to watch out for.
The initial indications for churches regathering in person are that in-person church attendance is lower than anyone expected. Most leaders are seeing only 20-70% of their former in-person attendance. A few outliers have seen a full return, which is awesome. Just don’t miss this: the current average is 36%.
And of course, some churches have reopened but then had an outbreak and had to close down again.
While this could very much be a temporary trend, I’d think twice before assuming everyone’s coming back the way they were before.
In the early days of the pandemic, the hope was first Sunday back would be like Chris Farley’s famous entrance on Letterman. That hope has given way to the tough reality of social distancing, the current inability for many to offer full kids ministry, at-risk adults understandably staying away until vaccine is available, and the emerging trend of more people seemingly open to digital church or non-attendance rather than in-person attendance.
Which leads to a very real trap that’s emerging for church leaders. Most churches will do both in-person and online services into the future.
The trap: what if you end up doing neither well?
Regardless of your church size, that’s a very real trap for at least three reasons.
1. COVID Probably Accelerated Trends That Have Been Happening for Decades
While the full story of what happened to church post-COVID has yet to play out, I suspect that the disruption has accelerated at least two trends we’ve seen for decades.
First, declining church attendance has been intensifying for decades.
So what does that mean?
Maybe the low numbers of in-person worship attendance isn’t just COVID related. Perhaps it’s an acceleration of the non-attendance trends the church has seen for decades.
I certainly hope I’m wrong. In fact, I’d be delighted to be wrong.
I also realize I’m stepping on sensitive ground for church leaders who are already tired. But wise leaders don’t let their fatigue make decisions for them.
Whenever I suggest people won’t rush back to church, I get a string of comments and messages from church leaders who deny it, are angry about it, or argue incessantly that online church isn’t going to work in the future.
But denial isn’t a strategy. Or at least not a good one. Neither is anger.
And if this is, in fact, an intensification of trends that have been happening for decades, perhaps it’s time for a new strategy.
I outline some broad strokes for the future church in this post where I outline 7 new disruptive church trends.
Just know this (as hard as it is to admit): adopting a ‘they’re all going to come back just like before” mindset can land you right in the middle of the trap.
2. You’re Currently Staffed for Where You’re Seeing Low Returns
If it’s actually the case that in-person attendance numbers will continue to be lower even after COVID is completely a non-issue (which could be months or years from now), then that creates a challenge.
Namely, that many churches have the highest level of staff and budgets invested where they’re seeing the lowest returns.
Sure, in-person worship and gathering isn’t going away. As long as there are people, people will want to gather in person.
But in the same way almost every CEO is rethinking how much office space they really need in light of how well their teams are working from home, church leaders may want to rethink why they’re spending the vast majority of their time, budget and human resources at in-person services that very few people attend.
If this is indeed an acceleration of in-person attendance trends that have been in play for decades, you could easily end up behaving like the CD salesperson in the age of Spotify or like a mall owner in the age of Amazon.
If your mission is to fill buildings, then keep going with your current strategy. But if your mission is to reach people, it might be time to rethink things.
3. You’re Deeply Understaffed for Where You’re Seeing the Highest Potential
The vast majority of churches pivoted to online quickly in March 2020 and saw a large attendance spike over previous levels.
After leaders figured out how to count more accurately and the novelty of online church sagged for leaders and congregants, most churches then saw a drop off in from their initial online attendance numbers (I share reasons as to why that happened here).
Consequently, when the option of resuming in-person worship again became available, many leaders put all their effort back into that.
A few notes on this.
First, it’s probably wise to see where you’re currently getting the highest reach. My guess is that for many re-opened churches, the higher reach remains online.
Second, even if your in-person numbers are higher than your live-stream audience, take the time to add in the number of on-demand views you get for a message or service within the first week a service goes live. My guess is it at least matches your in-person attendance, and in most cases will be higher.
What’s strange is that experiencing higher online attendance than in-person attendance has been true for many churches long before COVID hit. It’s just that nobody was really paying attention to the trend or knew what to do with it if they noticed it.
Third, despite the fact that they’re reaching fewer people than ever in-person, many church leaders are pivoting back to putting 90-95% of their time and attention into in-person services.
To make it even more complicated, the necessary requirements of disinfecting, social distancing, touch-free experiences and a highly safe and secure environment mean that unprecedented levels of effort are going into in-person worship.
The big question is if the future is digital, why the lop-sided investment? Everyone you want to reach is online, and digital ministry scales in a way that physical ministry does not.
Again, I think in-person worship is here to stay. I think it’s necessary both theologically and practically. And yes, your physical gatherings may still grow once all the dust settles. All that being true, in-person services will still likely be your smaller footprint moving forward.
So…why invest the vast majority of your time, energy and money into the platform that has the lowest return and the lowest potential?
You can invest for the past or invest for the future, but personally, I’d be investing for the future.
Your Digital Ministry Is Just Getting Started
So what do you do?
As much as you have dreams, hopes and prayers that seem infinite, you and I both live within the constraints of limited time, energy and resources.
To really positions yourself well for the future, here are three suggestions. (I outline more inside of parts 2 and 3 of the free 2021 Church Leader Toolkit here.)
1. Staff Your Online Ministry Like it’s Real Ministry Because It Is
First, staff your online ministry like it is real, because it is. As I outlined here (long before COVID) it was probably wise to start investing 30% of your staff resources in online ministry. Today that’s even more pressing.
You probably won’t have a big impact online when you spend 1% of your staffing resources on it.
2. Treat Online People Like They’re Real People, Because They Are
Second, treat the people you’re reaching online as though they’re real people, because they are.
The people watching you for the first time are real people. Sure, the algorithm can jack your numbers artificially high and 10 second views don’t amount to much. But some of those people are sticking around. Following you. Watching. Engaging.
In the same way you wouldn’t intentionally ignore a first time (or third time) guest in your lobby, don’t ignore the people engaging you on line.
If you want to expand your ministry next year, work as hard at cultivating community as you do on creating content in 2021.
3. Put Some of Your Physical Church Resources Into Digital Church
Finally, put some of the money you were going to put into physical ministry into better digital ministry. (Hint, digital ministry doesn’t come even close to costing as much as physical ministry does. Here’s why.)
It’s not just new dollars that are needed. You can redeploy existing resources and staff to have a better reach.
My guess is, that like the rest of life (like it or not), more people will access your ministry for the first time through a screen than through a facility.
Churches that behave as though that’s true will simply reach more people.
The Real Innovation Lies Ahead
I hope that like me, you see the future as a time for real progress. The methods we used broke, but the mission has never been more important.
So here’s the thing about online church and online ministry:
You haven’t even really started yet.
The ‘innovation’ that happened in the first year of the crisis wasn’t really innovation. It was adaptation.
After a month or two of online church, a lot of church leaders settled into a pattern that would get them through the next few months and stopped experimenting.
Which means the innovation hasn’t even started yet.
If you’re really going to grow your mission, serve your people and reach new people, it’s going to take a lot of innovation and experimentation.
Which means you’ll need to stay curious and agile.
Positioning your church for strong digital ministry positions your church for the future. And if you really want to reach people, it may be the best strategy you have.
Position Yourself to Thrive in 2021
I know, that sounds crazy, but like most things, it’s crazy until it’s not.
2021 can be a great year for you and your team, and I’d love to help you make it happen.
That’s why I created the 2021 Church Leader Toolkit.
Inside, I cover:
- How To Produce Content That Actually Gets Read & Watched
- 5 Keys To Better Digital Preaching
- How To Keep You And Your Team Out Of Burnout
- 7 Strategies To Deepen Digital Engagement
- 3 Key Pivots For Every Organization In 2021
I’ll be releasing 5 parts of the toolkit throughout December. And it’s free.
What’s In Your Future?
I realize not everyone will agree with these ideas…but what do you think about the future?
What’s the best investment for your time, energy and resources moving forward?
What are you experimenting with that’s working or not working?