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Should You Close Your Church After ReOpening? ReThinking Your Church Growth Strategy.

Every time you think 2020 is going to get easier, it just gets more complex.

So here’s a question: “Should you close your church after reopening it?”

While that sounds like a terrible question, what if it was your best church growth strategy?

I know that probably sounds like heresy and you may be too annoyed to read further, but just hang on for a second more.

As the coronavirus resurges across the US, and even areas that thought COVID wouldn’t impact them are breaking all-time infection records, clearly this is a time to ask all the questions.

But this is a deeper question. In Canada, our cases have slowed to almost a trickle, but I think it’s a live issue here too…if you really want to reach more people.

As much as we say it’s not true, there’s a nagging sense among many church leaders than unless the building is open, the church isn’t. If you’re actually going to reach people, that may have to change.

As much as we say it's not true, there's a nagging sense among many church leaders than unless the building is open, the church isn't. If you're actually going to reach people, that may have to change. Click To Tweet

So why would anyone want to close their church after reopening if no one ordered you to do so?

Well, that depends on your mission.

If your goal is to gather people in a building, then keeping your building open despite public health risks and diminished returns makes sense.

But what if that’s not your mission?

Most church leaders (myself included) would say their chief goal and mission is to connect people to the hope of Christ and to each other.

So, if your goal is to reach people, let me walk you through a few strategic points that might help you assess whether keeping your building open at all costs until someone orders you to close it might be actually be harming your mission, not helping it.

Here are 8 things you may want to consider if you really want to reach more people.

If your goal is to gather people in a building, then keeping your building open despite public health risks and diminished returns makes sense. If your goal is to reach and connect people, maybe it doesn't. Click To Tweet

1. Being open is way more complicated than you thought

For the record, I never expected the summer of 2020 to look like this either in the US. While our cases in Canada have slowed to a trickle, infections counts are soaring across the US and in other parts of the world (like Brazil).

Even though Canadian cases are super low right now, things are hardly back to normal.

Let’s be honest. In every context, being open is way more complicated than you thought.

Measures like social distancing, fractional attendance caps, bans on singing, physical contact, and even in some contexts, banning lobby conversations are making regathering difficult. Add to that community outbreaks, the risk of becoming a virus hot spot and the media coverage that comes with that, and the picture gets even more complicated.

Add to that the fact that the return to church attendance numbers are abysmally lower than anyone expected and the environment is sub-optimal, and you have to at least ask if the time, energy and money invested in keeping things open is worth it.

It’s not the difficulty of being open itself that’s the problem. Often in life, the hard things are the best things.

It’s the combination of the difficulty, the high level of risk and really low returns that make the question at least worth asking.

In every context, opening your church is way more complicated than you thought. Click To Tweet

2. You May End Up Succeeding At Nothing

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 significant challenge.

Namely, that many churches have the highest level of staff and budgets invested where they’re seeing the lowest returns.

Many churches have the highest level of staff and budgets invested where they're seeing the lowest returns. Click To Tweet

The question to ask (as hard as it is) is why do church leaders spend the vast majority of their time, budget and human resources on in-person services that very few people attend?

Why do church leaders spend the vast majority of their time, budget and human resources on in-person services that very few people attend? Click To Tweet

With reopening being so complicated and the returns so low, many churches are diverting 90% of their resources (people and budgets) into a strategy that is producing very low returns, while thinking of church online as an afterthought.

As a result, you end up doing in-person and online poorly, or at least not to the level either could be.

I’m just not sure how that’s a great strategy.

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.

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. Click To Tweet

3. Manufacturing Energy is Exhausting For Everyone

Everybody’s already tired, and please hear me, I’m a huge fan of hard work—throwing your heart into the mission is critical.

But there’s a big difference between throwing your heart into the mission and throwing your heart into a method.

Maybe you’re exhausting yourself and your team more than you need to be.

For reasons I outline here, I’ve heard of a few churches (large, successful churches pre-COVID) that have reopened with 10-20% of their former in-person attendance. That’s just hard.

Years ago Andy Stanley gave an amazing talk about momentum in which he asked this question: “Is there anything you’re currently doing that for which you have to manufacture energy?”

You know exactly what he means. That Tuesday morning group that’s been around for 25 years that no one wants to go to but they keep asking for new members. Or that Saturday night service that was already 3/4 empty that you just don’t want to preach at anymore. Or that standing meeting you just hate going to week after week.

Long term, manufacturing energy to do things that aren’t helping a lot of people are exhausting, for you, for your team and for your organization.  And surprisingly, it’s usually exhausting for the people who are supporting the failing venture who are looking for a way for you to lead them to a better future, not a declining present.

Instead of manufacturing energy for something that isn’t working, ask yourself where your approach is working and throw more time and energy behind that.

For a lot of churches in 2020, you know where that was? Online ministry.

It doesn’t take a leader to stop doing what’s failed. But great leaders will find the courage to stop doing what’s merely good to embrace what could be great.

It doesn't take a leader to stop doing what's failed. But great leaders will find the courage to stop doing what's merely good to embrace what could be great. Click To Tweet

4. Mission Is Eternal. Methods Aren’t

Another reason to ask the hard questions right now is that mission is eternal. Methods aren’t.

The first thing to break in a crisis are the methods.

And the first thing most leaders try to do is to bring those old methods back, whether they were effective or not.

History just isn’t kind to leaders who confuse the mission with the methods. Just ask the buggy manufacturer who refused to embrace the car and missed that the mission was transportation.

It’s doubly hard when 100% of your training, hiring and experience is geared to one method.

The future has been digital for a long time anyway, and trying to recreate the past probably doesn’t help you prepare for the future.

The future has been digital for a long time anyway, and trying to recreate the past probably doesn't help you prepare for the future. Click To Tweet

The digital revolution is here to stay. And it’s an exceptional opportunity for churches. Church leaders have options right now that aren’t available to most restaurant owners, airlines, hotels or even organizations like Airbnb.

We can do what we do virtually…both in terms of content and connection. And we can do it well.

There will be a time for returning to in-personeeeee gatherings in facilities when things can thrive again.

We’re just not there yet. And no one knows when that will return.

Churches that overfocus on their buildings run the risk of becoming like shopping malls in the age of Amazon, taxis in the age of Uber, or cable TV in the age of  Netflix, Disney+ and YouTube.

Churches that overfocus on their buildings run the risk of becoming like shopping malls in the age of Amazon, taxis in the age of Uber, or cable TV in the age of Netflix, Disney+ and YouTube. Click To Tweet

5. The church was never a building anyway

I saw a pic on social recently of church leaders serving in their community wearing t-shirts that said “The church has left the building.”

Super clever, and also maybe a bit historical and prophetic.

As much as it’s easy to say the church was never a building, for centuries we’ve behaved as though it was.

As much as it's easy to say the church was never a building, for centuries we've behaved as though it was. Click To Tweet

Theologically, there’s almost no Christian who would seriously argue that the church can only be a church if it meets in a building, but we have had a facility-centric approach for centuries.

Please hear me…gathering Christians is critical. We are not a group of random individuals who believe a set of propositions and go about our daily lives out of community.

But Christians can gather in homes, neighborhoods and other spaces, often in ways that don’t break limits on gatherings or even make gathering nearly as awkward as deeply restricted masked public gatherings.

It would take ingenuity and work to mobilize your congregation locally in their homes and communities rather than centrally in a facility, but the church could actually emerge stronger post-pandemic if leaders did that.

Christians who realize they are the church will have a much bigger long term impact than Christians who simply go to church or consume content.

Christians who realize they ARE the church will have a much bigger long term impact than Christians who simply go to church or consume content. Click To Tweet

6. The World is Watching

The good news is the world is watching how different leaders and organizations are responding to the prolonged crisis.

The bad news is the world is watching how different leaders and organizations are responding to the prolonged crisis.

Some church leaders who got loud about reopening buildings have been relatively silent on racial reconciliation or even on the surge in viruses this summer.

Some church leaders who got loud about reopening buildings have been relatively silent on racial reconciliation or even on the surge in viruses this summer. Click To Tweet

Not to go all spiritual on you, but Jesus said Christians would be known by our love.

Sometimes love requires you to speak, and other times it requires you to show restraint.

When it comes to reopening your church, you may want to think about the witness it’s communicating in the community.  Sometimes the greatest way to love your community is to protect them, or to come to them in new ways.

Being in the news as the source for another outbreak is probably not how you want to be known.

Restraint takes a great deal of courage.

Wisdom often shows itself in the form of restraint. Click To Tweet

7. The Decision Might Get Made For You

As anyone in leadership knows, people vote with their feet (and with their wallets).

If you keep trying to force an approach that isn’t resonating with people, all the while manufacturing energy to support it, eventually the decision may be made for you.

The landscape is littered with congregations and even entire denominations that have collapsed because of a refusal to change.

Ultimately in leadership, your unwillingness to make a tough decision means the decision will be made for you. And that’s rarely a great moment.

I don’t know your context or situation, but I do know that you probably want to get out in front of the decision rather than have it made for you.

Ultimately in leadership, your unwillingness to make a tough decision means the decision will be made for you. And that's rarely a great moment. Click To Tweet

8. Your Church Was Never Closed

As many leaders have pointed out, the church was never closed.

Exactly.

If the church was never a building, it was never closed anyway.

The future is going to require new methods and new strategies to embrace a changing world with the love of Christ.

Whether your facilities toggle between open and closed is irrelevant.

Your church is very much alive. Leaders who fuel, fund and celebrate that will have a much stronger future than leaders who don’t.

Whether your facilities toggle between open and closed is irrelevant. Your church is very much alive. Leaders who fuel, fund and celebrate that will have a much stronger future than leaders who don't. Click To Tweet

I Realize This Is A Lot…

I hear you. These are highly unusual questions and observations, but then these are highly unusual times.

Thanks for reading this far. And please know I’m 100% committed to helping you through this.

I realize every leader needs some deep rest this summer (more on that soon), but coming back rested to an ineffective strategy is ultimately more exhausting than embracing the changes you need to make to move your mission forward.

And I think that’s one thing we’re all committed to.

Simplify the Changes You’re Going To Make…

 

Yes, there’s a ton of change happening right now. And it’s exhausting.

As complex as things are, having a simple framework to navigate the change will make the task ahead much easier.

If you want to position yourself for the future, my brand new online training, the 30-Day Pivot, will show you how to develop your agility as a leader and as an organization to position yourself for growth.

The 30-Day Pivot is a simple 3-step process you and your team can utilize every as often as every 30 days to respond to the change around you and capitalize on it.

In the 30-Day Pivot, you’ll learn:
  • A simple 3-step process your team can use to arrive at your next pivot in 90 minutes or less.
  • An approach that fosters team-generated innovation.
  • An implementation and evaluation framework that will help your team move quickly and accurately.
I’ve led teams through multiple pivots, and in the 30 Day Pivot, I show you the strategy and framework you need to make quick, accurate and responsive moves that can position your organization for growth, even in the midst of deep uncertainty and change.

Some organizations and churches will thrive in the new normal.

Others won’t.

While the future is uncertain, yours doesn’t have to be.

Thoughts?

What’s your experience been in reopening or keeping in person services closed?

How are you rethinking your growth strategy?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

Should You Close Your Church After ReOpening? ReThinking Your Church Growth Strategy.

49 Comments

  1. James Casella on July 7, 2020 at 2:47 pm

    Pray to the Lord of Harvest… the people will step in if asked to help.. Get the young adults involved

  2. David, Lead Pastor Orlando area on July 7, 2020 at 6:30 am

    Thank you again Carey! It will take courage, boldness and a Biblical OS for church leadership to navigate the meaning of missional behavior as a church. Is GATHERING the mission or is EQUIPPING & SENDING so that every man, woman and child has a repeated opportunity to see, hear and respond to the greatest news of all time? Innovation + love for God and others = 2 thumbs up

  3. Gary Clark on July 1, 2020 at 5:59 pm

    Just a thought, who has some thoughts on the communion of the saints, the royal priesthood of believers, the responsibility and the authority of the body of Christ to administer God’s means of grace in person when their regularly called pastor is unable to meet in person for reasons such as… okay let us use the word Covid-19?

    Can’t wait to hear some biblical thoughts on these questions. I will check back after our Live Stream worship tonight which is introducing us to people in our community who have not yet found their way into the place we gather to worship.

    God bless and keep you all in His perfect care,

    Pastor Gary Clark,
    http://www.stjohnep.org

  4. Liz on July 1, 2020 at 3:21 pm

    Thank you for this today Carey. This was perfect timing for my heart as I continue to discern next steps for our faith community. Sometimes we just need permission to do that which we know is the right next step. We have created Small Church Worshiping Communities that meet via zoom or in person (no more than 10 households per community) and they have been amazing. We want to keep that momentum going and feel the pull toward “getting back to normal” even though we all know normal is gone.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 1, 2020 at 4:23 pm

      Amazing Liz!

      I’m so glad to hear that you have pivoted to that model.

      I’ll continue to try to help however I can.

  5. Kevin K on July 1, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    I think as several have mentioned we would do best if we would go to the Word of God and stop confusing the “Mission” or Purpose of the Church with the “Purpose of Gathering”. (Yes there is a difference between the two!) According to the N.T. There were primarily 6 main reasons the early church met together (YES in person!)
    1. To share the Lord’s Supper (Hard to do “on-line”) Acts 2:42, 11:26-31
    2. To use our spiritual gifts to edify the body of Christ (1 Cor. 14:12,26, Heb. 10:25 (Definitely hard to do through a screen)
    3. To Worship God – Psm. 34:3, Acts 2:47, 1 Cor. 14:16
    4. To be equipped for ministry – Eph. 4:11,12
    5. To fellowship with other believers Acts 2:47 (Once again so hard to do without seeing someone in person)
    6. To Pray together – Acts 2:42, 1 Tim. 2:1, Luke 19:46
    In addition to all of this there are so many “One another” scriptures in the N.T. that are so hard to carry out if we don’t actually have “in person” community. Pray for one another, (If any one of you be sick let the elders of the church pray over him, anointing him with oil…..(So hard to do online)
    Meeting in person fulfills a command NOT to forsake the assembling of ourselves as the manner of some, but ever so much the more as we see the day approaching. (Heb. 10:25)
    I’m really getting weary with people confusing our meeting together (Assembly, Corporate meetings) with the purpose of the church. (Going in the all the world to preach and make disciples) The early disciples needed each other, and just as others have mentioned the Christians of China and Vietnam and other persecuted countries don’t do “Facebook Live” for church. No they risk their lives to be with other believers because that is absolutely a Biblical command and one in which they find courage, blessing and strength. Online church can be a great way to reach the lost and help people become familiar with your church but it will never serve as a healthy way of discipleship because you cannot grow as a disciple of Christ without relationships, and fellowship with other Christians. So though it may sound real “trendy” to say “in person” church is over or dead or somehow going away, it is completely unbiblical and in the long run will have detrimental effects on the churches who decide to embrace it. Yes methods may change but God’s Word will not.

    • Colleen on July 1, 2020 at 1:40 pm

      I agree there is need to meet together and I appreciate your outline of the reasons to meet together. I’m an introvert and have loved working from home, but I’m at church on Sunday for time to be together with those who feel able to meet.

      I want to make 2 points. First some people can’t meet together – health reasons, jobs that involve travel, transportation etc – so adding online options opens the church up for those people and might get some new people interested who will eventually come to meetings.

      Secondly, I’m a sign language interpreter and have been doing that at home as well – it’s video phone calls that Deaf people have been doing for years. Recently I interpreted a church Bible study. They were meeting through some video or phone system, in this particular case I could only see the Deaf person and hear all of the other people talking. They had a great Bible study on putting on the whole armor of God, they had wonderful prayer time with multiple people speaking out in prayer, and there were people speaking words of prophesy and others speaking in tongues with interpretation. That may or may not be the kind of church you attend, but my point is, they were able to use many gifts of the spirit even in that unusual situation.

      This whole conversation has me thinking of a both mentality rather than either/or. If church has to be 10 am on Sunday morning, in a building, we are leaving out a lot of people. We’re saying once you go into Assisted Living like my brother did recently, or rehab, or the hospital – then you are relegated to having church once a month when some group (maybe not your church) comes in. You can no longer choose where you worship, how often, or with whom. But if there were online/video options for services and Bible studies at your church, you could still choose to be a part of your church family even if you couldn’t physically be there.
      You all have me thinking!!

  6. Mike Fackler on July 1, 2020 at 11:43 am

    🙂

  7. Gary Clark on June 30, 2020 at 11:06 pm

    I just finished a read through Acts 15 this week and was amazed again as I listened and imagined what the people who were following Jesus were feeling, fearing and anticipating. Their big revelation, that many were not ready to deal with was the fulfillment of God’s original promise to bless all nations and tribes with His savior through His people of faith. WOW.

    And then the superb desert of reading through the same kind of feeling, fearing and anticipating thoughts and questions all centered on what is the most important things required to be a follower of Jesus. Do you remember the letter they scribbled and sent to the new sheep of a different flock that Jesus had promised He would bring into His one fold?
    I will let you read it and weep with your own eyes and know you will be blessed again and again.

    We have been on a learning curve that would threaten to break us if the Lord had not and does promise to carry us when we think we can go no further. Rich Mullins was spot on when he wrote the song We Are Not as Strong as we think we are.

    Neither am I and I am so glad and grateful and privileged to hear through this written conversation scribbled on modern technological parchment our God given ability to share our individual truth found in following Jesus, in love.
    You have all warmed my heart tonight as I was able to put the faces of the sheep I have been called to shepherd since June 2003.

    The church that Christ built and continues to build is working things out in God’s power and strength. This is the first public forum on one topic that I have not sensed that one person would like to stop another from speaking their faith , fears, frustrations, or anticipation about the most important things required to follow Jesus. God has honored Himself again and in our day, today.

    I thank God for you and will continue to each time I remember your faith in action in my prayers. God is opening the eyes of our understanding and He has just demonstrated again through His people that we are fully and inescapably dependent on His power and might to render the gates of hell impotent to tear down or overcome His church.

    God bless you all and I believe you you be praying for a way to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace as we learn daily how many ways God can send us out into the fields in whatever shape of method and bring us again to gather in honor and praise of His glorious name.

    God bless and keep you safe in His care and until we meet again.

    Peace,

    Gary Clark, Pastor, St. John Lutheran Church, Eagle Point OR
    http://www.stjohnep.org

    • Robin Dugall on July 1, 2020 at 11:02 am

      I know Gary…and he is 100% correct that God is teaching us all new lessons about leaning on the Lord’s guidance, power, and strength. The Church isn’t ours but His…His Church won’t fail no matter what happens because Jesus never fails!

  8. Mary on June 30, 2020 at 10:22 am

    Hi Carey

    I’ve wanted to leave a comment to occasional past posts but you do get good responses and some reflect much of what I’d want to say. However, this time, I’m jumping in. My hat’s off to your encouraging and relative leadership podcasts and articles. This one included. Thank you.

    I have a new neighbour, directly across the street from me. Ms D is a recent widow at 78yrs. The nearby home farm was sold and she had a new house built in the Village. Her church, like all others, has been closed since mid March, but is not likely to reopen. The writing was already on the wall with just a handful of elderly members (mostly widows) and a parade of interim ministers leading them before the pandemic hit.
    Ms D has been inviting each member of her church – one at a time, to come and social distance on her porch since the warmer weather has arrived. She makes her own bread and offers her guest some refreshments to go with that, greets them with the warmest smile and a comfortable porch chair to relax in. Then she asks them how they and their families are doing, what they think of the recent news, comments (always) on the weather, and then she brings up the church – asking what they think God might be telling us in all of this, and if the conversation continues, she tells stories about Jesus. It’s amazing how so many know so little about Jesus, in spite of lifelong attendance at church!

    Here’s the thing. Ms D knows more about the members of her church than any minister in recent years. She abhors gossip so you can imagine the wonderful caring conversations they have. This wouldn’t be happening if the pandemic hadn’t happened. Though to be reflecting on this…..it should be the mission of members of God’s family; simply caring for each other. Ms D is an immigrant from Switzerland. Her English is impeccable, though she speaks slower, with an accent and chooses her words carefully. There is no doubt, she is delighted to have you come.

    Carey – I’ve been the Director of Music at a number of small churches over the years and have heard too many ministers preaching because they like the sound of their own voice. Ms D has the voice of Jesus. If churches open up – as some cautiously are, at this time, I’d rather be sitting at the feet of Ms D.

    And might I add that I resigned from my position last fall after much prayer, insight and encouragement from your posts particularly with Thomas Rainer. I couldn’t cut through the toxic politics. I’ll go where God leads me when that time comes.

    Hope to make it up to Barrie when things open, now that I’m not committed to play for a Sunday morning service. In the meantime, the posts, blogs and podcasts are much appreciated. This shut down has given me MORE TIME to listen!

  9. Frank on June 30, 2020 at 7:15 am

    How about looking at the Word of God for some thoughts. The “Church” is described as a body. If you take an arm off the body and tell it to go home and listen to a sermon, do you still have a complete body? No, the arm has to be attached to the rest of the body. And, what if your system shuts down where you are Zooming, etc. won’t you have to go live again in your buildings? If I was an enemy to the Church, I would convince you that new is the only answer, because it is working for the business world. I would try to fragment you so that you could be convinced that the “assembling of the saints” is just for those old people. I think every Christian could use a trip to countries who have been restricted from assembling as a church and report back. Get that device to go hug someone when they are hiding in their home desperate and depressed. That takes an active body. I appreciate all the NEW ideas, and I flow with most of it, but “be careful, lest you too be tempted”

    • Justin Klatt on June 30, 2020 at 9:34 am

      Amen Frank, love this. Great thoughts and insight!

    • PJJ on June 30, 2020 at 10:12 am

      Once again… another over-spiritualized comment. The “body” metaphor is a spiritual one. You can be spiritually connected without being physically together!! Using your line of reasoning, if the “arm” attaches itself to the body for 2 hours on Sundays, it must be healthy (and for the remaining 166 hours that week, it’s disconnected… but praise God for that 2 hour fellowship time… just to keep the blood flowing). Lol. Hilarious!! The problem is when the arm catches Covid during the week, and during that 2 hour fellowship time, spreads the virus to the rest of the “body.” SMH!
      Don’t get me wrong, I love fellowshipping with the saints, but until YOU’VE experienced the death of a loved one from Covid, I guess you won’t understand, and instead, will take Paul’s metaphor of the body out of context. No hate here. And no fear either… just genuine concern for “the body” at large.
      Still love ya and bless you in the Lord!

      • John E Thompson on June 30, 2020 at 7:02 pm

        Your analogy breaks down as well. Your appeal to your loss is unnecessary but demonstrates his argument. Your loss is your inability to be in the presence of the person you lost. They are not dead if they have died in Christ you will be with them again. some would say that they are a part of the cloud of witnesses that surround us. We were created by God as body and spirit, it is not enough to have a “spiritual;” connection. That is why those in countries where it is illegal to gather do so at the threat of certain death. No marriage lasts where the spouses have no contact.

        I am sorry for your loss and know that the hope that you have in Christ for that day.

  10. Colleen on June 29, 2020 at 10:05 pm

    Right now, with COVID-19, online may be the only option for some churches. Our church is 90% older people but many of them already know how to use FaceBook so they watch services there; so we do need to learn to do online church well. But post COVID-19 I don’t think Carey is suggesting that digital is the only way to go. I loved the comment ” Christians can gather in homes, neighborhoods and other spaces, often in ways that don’t break limits on gatherings or even make gathering nearly as awkward as deeply restricted masked public gatherings.”

    We will be able to be back in the church building and have many kinds of services and activities. However, the church isn’t the building so when it becomes easier to gather again, maybe we need to think outside the building! This time has been a struggle, but we have also learned so much! We know we can do online services, maybe post COVID-19 some of us will go back to traditional services, but also keep doing a different kind of service online as a second outreach.

  11. Justin Klatt on June 29, 2020 at 7:40 pm

    Love, love, love this post Kari. You are the man. I agree 100% with every single word that you wrote. Thank you for thinking outside of the box and for validating churches who Have been doing everything digitally.

    • Justin Klatt on June 29, 2020 at 7:42 pm

      Wow, so sorry that i spelled your name wrong. I was speak texting while driving and did not see that! Hahaha. Carey now Kari! Sorry sir

  12. Mark on June 29, 2020 at 6:02 pm

    While our church has only been open for two weeks.. and yes, our church of 1200 has only attracted about 160 people in person on Sundays… what we have found is that as pastors we have more engagement and energy speaking to live people – and our online audience has mentioned that they like this new energy and watching the personal engagement too! Having our live audience makes for a better online experience. Also, for many there is a huge difference between being in person and watching it at home. Very hard to engage and stay focused at home. So far, we are able to offer in-person service and online and on-demand, and it seems to be doing okay. People do need to be together, that is church, not just sharing information, but sharing the life of Jesus together. What an incredible challenge! Glad we can all strive to learn from one another. 🙂

  13. Michelle on June 29, 2020 at 3:09 pm

    I was a little hesitant about speaking out but I shall. Digital connection is not the same as human connection. We were not created to be isolated, and that is exactly what has occurred. There is no “we are in this together.” God said it is not good for man to be alone. We need each other to build each other up and for Fellowship. This is lacking with all digital content.

    Another point, what are churches who chose to remain digital going to do when the messages become deemed as hate speech? That is coming and on the horizon. If you don’t think so, read the Bible. We are relinquishing control. Be cautious as to how much you conform to the world church!

  14. Rob on June 29, 2020 at 2:54 pm

    Interesting article. Thanks Carey. One thing that is missing in the online service is engagement. I hope we aren’t exchanging exercising our God given spiritual gifts and service for pajamas and pancakes. Scripture is very strong on us all using our “SHAPE” to edify and build up each either in our walk with Jesus. This becomes more complicated if we don’t see each other. I agree that if families are hesitant to meet in large groups then they may also be hesitant to meet in close quarters in a home. Over the past number of months I have seen the value of the online ministry but I am not quite there yet on seeing it replacing the in person large group weekly gatherings. Thanks for making me think.

    • Justin Klatt on June 30, 2020 at 6:35 pm

      Hello Rob, You can totally integrate connection and discipleship in your online services. We have had a full, face to face interactive, community discipleship, digital church for 2 years now. With communities of people all over the country who go to church with each other every week, interact and discipleship each other either the built in discussion questions we build into the middle of our teachings and worship together.

      Covid came along and nothing in our church had to change. Everything you said in your comment can be achieved in a digital format. We have people fully apart getting disciples and make it to their service every week who are bed ridden (can not go to typical church even if they wanted), full time RVers, Full time traveling bands and musicians, people who do not want to walk into a church building and many others.

      Please email me if you want more info or help moving things to this model.

      Justin at Imagine.church

  15. @austtinnwhite on June 29, 2020 at 1:59 pm

    Incredible stuff Carey. Thank you for your wisdom and prophetic voice! I think in particular your point about everything already being online is crucial. We need to not flee from technology but shape it. The church should be so excellent that the culture learns from us, not just the other way around!

  16. Michelle on June 29, 2020 at 12:43 pm

    While I do understand your frustration, especially for the older generation who are struggling to get online, what our church has learned to do is to meet them halfway. After being in quarantine for almost three months, many have learned to embrace technology, not just to access live streams, but to stay connected with their families. We’ve built our services to be available on social media, as well as youtube, and on our church website. Even those in the older generation who may not be on Facebook have access to a mobile phone, and we have staff members and volunteers who have walked them through the steps of accessing the live stream. We have reopened our church (going on three weeks now), and notice that our older members are reluctant to attend in-person services. We will continue to offer both in-person and online services. Our in-person attendance is nowhere close to what it was before, which is good to prevent the spread of the virus. What has been successful for this generation from experimenting with different ideas was the drive-through service we tried. They felt safe in their vehicles and appreciated having that sense of community.

  17. Dale Simmons on June 29, 2020 at 12:39 pm

    Good thoughts. My congregation is old, but I continually look for ways to stay in touch. I see this as a challenge. I have found a few and I’m still looking. I am asking others for input. My biggest concern is that we have become complacent with church as usual and are not willing to look for new ways for young and old. Personal relationships (to be together) will never end. We must continue to be creative. A seminary professor said it this way. We use Men, Methods and Message. The Men and the Methods change. The Message never will. Thank you Carey. I appreciate you being honest. That is what makes a good relationship.

    • Ben DiStefano on June 29, 2020 at 12:58 pm

      excellent

    • Mary on June 30, 2020 at 10:28 am

      Dale – please read my message about Ms D. She has changed the METHOD, and kept the MESSAGE. (June 30, 2020), Mary

    • Justin Klatt on June 30, 2020 at 6:33 pm

      Pastor Dale, old people can figure out how to find community in a church service. For 16 months now our church has been mostly online on zoom calls with a recorded message with discussion points built into the middle of our messages (face to face discipleship and church, even before Covid). We have people who are in their 70’s at church every week. Some are bed ridden. One with MS, a few with Cancer, some in their 70’s have jumped into a zoom interactive service from their hospital bed. It is glorious.

      If someone from your church can just walk them through getting into service. People can go to church with their kids or grandkids across the country.

      One of our ladies who is 75 goes to church with her daughter every Thursday in our Thursday community. Her daughter is a flight attendant and is in a different city and
      State every week. It is crazy and awesome at the same time.

      Please email Me if you want to talk further:

      Justin at Imagine.church

  18. Rob on June 29, 2020 at 12:03 pm

    Interesting article. Thanks Carey. One thing that is missing in the online service is engagement. I hope we aren’t exchanging exercising our God given spiritual gifts and service for pajamas and pancakes. Scripture is very strong on us all using our “SHAPE” to edify and build up each either in our walk with Jesus. This becomes more complicated if we don’t see each other. I agree that if families are hesitant to meet in large groups then they may also be hesitant to meet in close quarters in a home.

    • Ben DiStefano on June 29, 2020 at 1:04 pm

      I agree that engagement is hard in an online service. If that’s all we have though, we do need to find creative engagement opportunities … probably off of Sunday and throughout the week via email, text, a letter, a card, calls, and social media interaction. Spiritual gifts don’t need a building or a day and time of the week. They are for us as people to use at all times, places, and ways. I’d argue this disruption challenges us to use our SHAPE even more creatively and purposefully … it is complicated but we are creative people. And what’s wrong with pajamas and pancakes? 🙂

      • Rob on June 29, 2020 at 3:06 pm

        Nothing. I love the both. I, being a kids pastor, thoroughly enjoy doing our online services with my wife without having to run off and make sure that all is well with the various aspects of our Kidmin. I think you are right that we will all need to get creative on how we build each other up. I just hope that the online services will always be a feeder for our in person services. We belong to a strong life group which we highly value. but we still miss the large group. Thanks for the interaction.

    • WK on June 30, 2020 at 2:28 pm

      My wife & I have only gone back to live church once over the last month since the virus subsided, but now that it is ramping back up again it’s very likely we won’t anytime soon. We’ve watched the live stream, but it doesn’t have the same effect as the in person touch. From a leadership standpoint I was disappointed that my church never offered nor mentioned face mask as an alternative to be worn during gatherings. I find that this would send a message that it’s not welcomed, so while we were there we didn’t wear ours because no one else was wearing one. I believe God protects us, but he also gives us wisdom to protect ourselves.

  19. MM+ on June 29, 2020 at 11:53 am

    This is NOT good news for congregations that have lots of old people who can’t or won’t get online and the teeny handful who do are are becoming lazy spiritually. Your post ASSUMES everyone is digitally minded and that a building, physical space is not important to our faith. Not everyone is fed and nourished by online worship. It a weekly pain to make these ‘productions’ of weekly worship to ‘tune in’ each week. I cried from the sheer frustration of all the digital work and the folks who can access nothing each week but who would and could attend a small service. Our spiritual lives seem to be crumbling with the ease of just watching online worship. How can we expect people to regain the discipline of gathering together, which is one reason for a sacred space, when the practice has been suppressed, criticized even? Without opportunities to learn how to live post Covid, there could be an even deeper learning curve after if we don’t begin to learn now. I realize my position is unpopular.
    So be it.

    • Brian on June 29, 2020 at 12:11 pm

      Not unpopular at all. I agree completely with everything you said. My family is tired of the online services and the zoom calls. Our post worship zoom meeting is a mess because the the older folks can’t operate the technology. Please keep speaking out because we need more people to point out the fallacies of these so called new strategies.

    • PJJ on June 29, 2020 at 12:27 pm

      I’m sorry, but it comes across as though the safety & health of the congregation take a back seat to “meeting in person.” If your congregation is aging and aren’t tech savvy, they are the very ones who shouldn’t be meeting in person. They are the most susceptible to Covid.
      In a perfect world without the virus, of course we’d strive to be meeting in person. But that’s NOT the case right now. And we’ve seen plenty examples of pastors “living by faith” who have literally enabled the death of their congregants by insisting in having in-person gatherings. Apart from the pain of losing loved ones, what kind of testimony is this to the world? I agree with Carey 110% on every point he makes. If you truly love people (both your own congregation, and the community around you), show restraint, and look for alternate ways to “fellowship.” We Christians, and especially pastors, are called to live by faith and to use good judgement.
      (Continue to meet in person with an aging congregation, and you won’t need to read many more of these posts in the future).
      I appreciate your care for the folks – I just disagree with your perspective.
      Bless ya

      • MM+ on July 1, 2020 at 5:18 pm

        If anyone hears my comments as not having faith as a pastor you are sadly mistaken and do not know me nor the heart I have for my flock. To assume I am pressing in person worship at the peril of members in your comments is wrong and hurtful.

    • Ben DiStefano on June 29, 2020 at 12:53 pm

      I’m not sure it has to be good or bad news; it’s news. Gathering in person right now is hard and in some places not allowed … that’s the news. What are we going to do about it? Carey offers suggestions. If those don’t work or we don’t like them what are the alternatives we’re coming up with? And can we not offer “this AND that” as options for people?

      We have a large population that is elderly and rural (poor internet connection). So we repurposed some resources (financial and volunteers): we bought a 1 hour time slot on the RADIO and we began making DVDs of our service that we upload to online. We are trying — something — to reach people as best we can, with the resources we have, in our context. I think that’s the greater point — don’t get lost in the “online” issue.

      We need to provide the opportunities for people to worship, grow, connect, etc. Whether they take advantage of it or not is up to them — even when the building was open — or was my church the only one where some people showed up and sat in the lobby chatting away for the entire service, you know after they counted people in worship service and kids classes. :).

      People inherently want to gather together with other people. It’s who we are. Evidence: bars, spring break, concerts, protests, sporting events, etc. People will gather, and they will want to gather to worship again — but here’s the hard truth — it might not be at my church and that has nothing to do with COVID or online issues.

      Where’s that data at how lazy people have gotten spiritually and their spiritual lives crumbling with the ease of just watching online? I don’t think just because people gathered in a building at a certain time and a certain place ensured their spiritual growth. Paul said in 1 Cortinthians that God causes growth. We plant the seed and water it, God causes growth. So as Carey quoted Andy Stanley: “Instead of manufacturing energy for something that isn’t working, ask yourself where your approach is working and throw more time and energy behind that.”

      Again, “online” isn’t the only answer. It is ONE answer and a good one, but not the only one. Come on, what else do we have to offer to “plant and water” in people’s lives?

    • James on June 29, 2020 at 4:07 pm

      I Disagree with this response. Our older congregation has adapted easier than I ever dreamed. I have been surprised that our 80 and 90-year-old people have learned how to navigate their smart TV. That group has been thankful for the ability to feel safe and encouraged at the same time. I find that it is the upper middle-age people who are between 60-80. They are still very active and determined not to have their view of the Church destroyed. They all have cell phones, Ipads, and laptop computers that they use to make their social media posts every day. This age group tends to have the same rebellious spirit as teenagers who are not going to allow anyone to tell them what to do. I do not get it.

      While I understand it is challenging to have our life altered by disease, I think we must think about this article in thoughtful ways. The Church in China continues to flourish even without a building. They do so by some of the very suggestions that Cory makes in this article. We need to realize that each problem allows us to respond in ways that will lead people to Christ or to turn them away. As Christians, we shouldn’t need to be FEED? That is our responsibility with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. One observation with this view is that people demanding that the Church be open to gather for them is to make that group of people feel more spiritual than those people that do not go to Church.

  20. Lisa Gaston on June 29, 2020 at 11:53 am

    Thank you Carey. As a pastor in Iowa where the county cases are almost doubling daily, we will not be in the sanctuary for who knows how long. Our Covid Task Force made the choice to hold off until the R value is less than .75 before having 50+ in the sanctuary. Aside from how hard/exhausted we all are, it is an opportunity for our 180 year old congregation to truly move in a new direction. We are online – with very little resources, my minimal tech ability. We zoom bible study and coffee hour. And so much to learn! I am so grateful my friend sent me in your direction in March. I have hope, am engaging in pivoting, and looking forward. I look forward to continuing to learn about how we keep moving forward. I echo the questions of Danny Rager above. Again, thank you.

  21. Ben DiStefano on June 29, 2020 at 11:27 am

    Thanks Carey, this article is hitting right where my thoughts have been all along. I’ve been thinking that people are missing the “opportunity” to gather not necessarily gathering every week; because what I think I know is that after a few weeks the weekly gathering attendance will taper off to what they were before. As we lived through “red” and “yellow” stay at home orders, what people did miss was interacting with other people: having coffee at a shop, dinner at a restaurant, and life groups in homes. Digital is disrupting everything (and for the better) in the church world as we have the courage to redistribute resources to create better online engagement while at the same time in person gatherings resume. It truly can be the best of both worlds, if we can see it that way.

  22. Danny Rager on June 29, 2020 at 10:39 am

    So serious question— if people are too nervous or hesitant to gather for in-person services, what makes us think they are going to be open to the idea of in-home meetings? As a pastor trying to maintain connection during the shutdown, we have been discouraged from even one-on-one visiting and I’ve actually had multiple members ask me NOT to come by. We’ve had an uptake in “views” with our online presence, but in reality how do we know what that even means? If a person checks in for two minutes of a service, isn’t that a view? Is that what we’re excited about? How do we serve one another and our communities in an exclusively online setting? How do we actively love on another? How do we operate in our ministry gifts online? Is it realistic to think that people who are hesitant to gather for worship will be somehow less hesitant to participate in outreach events? I’m all for utilizing the advancements of technology and I’m open and willing to necessary changes in methods—even the hard ones. But I’m struggling to see how the church can be the church, the body of Christ, while sequestered in our homes where accountability is practically non-existent and “spurring one another on to good works” isn’t happening. We’re offering bible studies, fellowship, and prayer times on Zoom, but attendance on those is sporadic at best. When it seems that for decades far too many church goers consider themselves consumers rather than producers, it seems to me that this expansion of online church only exacerbates this problem.

    • Brian on June 29, 2020 at 12:14 pm

      Amen. Your right on the spot.

  23. Angela Lam on June 29, 2020 at 10:01 am

    Thank you so much for this post, Carey. Your content has always been incredibly insightful and encouraging (sometimes by way of provocation), but you’re outdoing yourself during COVID and I’m eating it all up. Today’s post, however, brought me great comfort and began to ease the ache in my chest feeling so alone with the thoughts you’ve outlined here. I know from experience that it isn’t easy to figure out how to say all of those controversial ideas concisely and you nailed it. THANK YOU so much for today’s thoughts – they ring in alignment with what you’ve been saying, but today I needed it laid out like this to help identify that my exhaustion comes from feeling so alone in these ideas. I literally cried with relief.

  24. Christopher White on June 29, 2020 at 9:56 am

    I think this is brilliant and so dead on. Our church full holds 120 people, as of this morning we had 285 views on FB of yesterdays worship and another 10- 15 who listen by phone who dont have internet.
    I was having this exact conversation on this topic with 4 colleagues on Zoom this morning. I was ordained in 1987 and have spent my ministry within a story of a Canadian church in decline and trying to reverse and deal with that. To try and address decline, the wider church focussed primarily on techniques. We didn’t realize or want to admit that the model of church itself was broken. Covid19 has given us the opportunity the redefine and relaunch a new model of church. Its in its earliest stages of development but I believe its a Methodist moment for us all. Wesley preached to thousands in the fields, the internet is our digital field. Methodists restructured and created new forms of church,, just like we are doing right now. I honestly believe that I am doing some of the most important work in my whole ministry at this moment
    . Thanks for this.

    • Justin Klatt on June 30, 2020 at 9:47 am

      Amen Christopher… me too. 20 years of Pastoring and i feel the same. This has Bennet the most important time in my ministry as well. Love this season!

  25. Barry Tresback on June 29, 2020 at 9:48 am

    We have been connecting with people by having Drive Up worship using an fm transmitter. Which has been very well attended. We also connect during the week with all our small groups by email, Facebook, videos and of course Zoom. That has also been very effective. we’re actually doing better financially. I know weird huh? The question is what do we do when the weather turns cold? Our plans are to offer in house worship in September if all conditions are met.

  26. Debbie Gillispie on June 29, 2020 at 9:46 am

    Thank you for bravely placing a reality check before pastors and ministry leaders.

    • Sarah on June 29, 2020 at 10:18 am

      I love this and agree with it fully. The future is digital and there can also be no “sacred cows” in the church.
      We are just out of lockdown and can meet again with restrictions but want to continue livestream. Except our very few production people (all volunteers, only staff are 2 pastors) are already close to burnout from all the work put into excellent online services through lockdown, and now the same few are trying to learn livestream know-how with few resources. Feels like we should focus our energies online but don’t have it to give? Any advice?

      • James Casella on July 7, 2020 at 2:47 pm

        Pray to the Lord of Harvest… the people will step in if asked to help.. Get the young adults involved

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