If the COVID thing has taught us anything it’s that our systems can get messed with very quickly and easily. Our illusion of control comes crumpling down rapidly when a pandemic reshapes the entire world.
Like many people I am longing to go back to ‘normal’, to be able to go to eat out for dinner, travel interstate or overseas (I may not do these things – but I’d like to be able to do them!) but it seems like it’s going to be a while before life returns to normal – if it ever does.
Carey Nieuwhof has written a provocative post exploring the post COVID church and many of his reflections are worth considering.
Crisis, after all, is not just a disruptor, it’s an accelerator. Some of the changes that were likely arriving in 5-10 years (like the normalisation of remote work) arrived in days.
He suggests that the future we were always likely to have has descended on us with dizzying force and now we are being forced to comprehend what it means. Perhaps step 1 is accepting that the way things were is gone. For the most part I don’t think we are doing that. I feel like we are waiting – even if it takes a while – for the dust to settle and for the familiar to come back.
What if it doesn’t?
How long will we wait?
Below is a photo from a Darwin church’s facebook page of one of their first Sundays back in the building – also a Sunday when the authorities came to check they were appropriately spaced. That’s where we are headed for quite a while…
Nieuwhof makes a number of confronting points which we need to pay attention to. I won’t comment on all of them, but just a sample that I think are salient for us here in Oz.
Drawing on Barna’s research he observes that in the US 48% of churchgoers say they have not watched any church online in the last 4 week. Only 40% watched their regular home church online. 23% said they streamed a different church.
Ok so you can make stats say whatever you want – I get that. But people’s normal patterns are being disrupted. His thinking is that The Church will prevail, but along the way ‘churches’ (small c) will be closing their doors. Unless a smaller church is able to find its niche then it will not be able to compete in the new playing field. And that means for the medium sized churches the aspirational journey to growth just got a whole heap harder because the behemoths of church world will be able to deliver a product that is so much better than any medium church could deliver.
In the words of the late Dickie Fox ‘The key to this business is personal relationships’. If we don’t have genuine personal relationships with the people under our care then we are in for a tough time.
If there is anywhere the small church should excel it is in this arena, but it’s not always the case. My sense is that in this time larger churches have better systems for keeping people connected while smaller churches are continuing fairly organically – for better or worse. I see that our own systems need tightening as we no longer have the weekly catch up to keep us in each other’s presence.
Nieuwhof reminds us that gathering again may be less inspiring than we hope, firstly with the hoops that need jumping just to make it happen, but also because some won’t take the risk, some will have jumped ship to another church during COVID and some will have decided that online church is now their thing. He paints a fairly gloomy picture, but it is one worth pondering as a possibility. Perhaps we are going to be ‘starting over’ in a whole new landscape and we would do well to be aware of the challenges that go with that. Not bad – just different.
He goes beyond seeing the emergence of ‘online’ as a real alternative to seeing it as the primary gig with the physical presence secondary. He writes:
Churches will become digital organisations with physical presences, not physical organisations with digital presences.
I find that one hard to swallow, but what if its reality? He argues that we do have meaningful relationships online and for some that will be enough. The bottom line is that the rapid launch into digital church is not something we will leave behind in 6, 12 or 24 months time. It is here to stay in some form.
I can accept that, but I’m grappling to get my head around the digital being primary. Perhaps its because we are a smaller church where in person contact is so important. Will that change? Maybe, but I’m hoping less rather than more. The upside is that if digital church gets taken up as primary and some of our regulars defect to that mode, my hunch is that we will pick up a heap of digital church refugees looking for a bunch of real humans to love, wrestle with and share food with.
He notes agility will be important – nothing new there. Adaptability is always important and the ability to discern what the spirit is saying in all of this will be key. Perhaps smaller allows for greater adaptability, but I sense leadership matters more here than size. Leaders who are discerning and courageous will trump the sheer smallness of a church.
He goes on to write of working from home being a new normal with online meetings seen as the preferred option. I get that working from home can be efficient, and I know lots of people for whom this is a real win, but I’m not convinced online meetings are a long term proposition. The walkie talkie nature of Zoom doesn’t allow for serious debate and argument. It takes the heart out of meeting and I sense it will only be good for those who want to ‘rule’ rather than debate and discuss. We zoomed for a bit but we have given it away for the incovenience of being in a room together. Last week I drove 30 minutes in and 30 minutes out for a 45 minute meeting. Bad use of time? I don’t think so.
The return of the home as a place of spiritual formation isn’t new. It’s just that we are doing it on Sunday rather than Tuesday night. On one hand I am a fan of making church less Sunday (big gathering) centred, but on the other I have come to realise that most people don’t feel like its ‘real church’ if it hasn’t been in a building on a Sunday with a regular format. I am for helping people move away from being Sunday dependent, but less so than I was 15 years ago. I realise that for some the Sunday is more a place of spiritual formation than a home could ever be but I’m unsure if that is just a psyche thing or a real thing. Either way perception is reality here.
I liked his final thought about leveraging the bank of old sermons we have stored that no one ever listens to – seriously no one! But if we brought out a few goodies, compiled a ‘highlight reel’ or re-ran some that had a special focus then it would serve us well. I remember giving an intentionally X rated message on sex and only 30 people showed up. Probably our lowest attendance since the ‘dark days’ (that’s another story). Maybe it was just going to be too awkward – but I imagine a much greater number would download a message around that subject… A few years back I spent many hours preparing a message on divorce as I researched, read and reflected on the subject. It was one of my own times of great learning, and challenge to communicate with clarity and compassion, but 70 people heard it once and then we moved on. He’s on the money with that and I can see us simply posting an archived message once a week for those who would like to dig deeper into some old subjects.
Neiuwhof’s tone is quite ‘strategic’ and ‘stat based’ which end up feeling pretty clinical in places, but his observations are great food for thought as we move forward.