Surprising culture shifts for the church from COVID-19

April 26th, 2020
This article is featured in the Acting Missionally issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

For decades all signs have pointed to the decreasing role of religion in American life. Then came the pandemic.

Churches, uniquely suited to provide meaning in uncertain times, quickly moved worship online. In the process, congregations filled a sudden need for community. Amazingly, worship attendance surged. Church-hopping became popular once again. This uptick in worship attendance is just one of the surprising gifts of the pandemic. Elsewhere I write about how to turn this quick shift into a sustainable culture shift.

Today I am going to highlight another quick shift and unexpected gift the pandemic has brought and how you can anchor it in your congregation’s DNA. Just as importantly, and maybe more so, I’m going to tell you about a special set of three one-hour classes I’ve created to support your resilience, so you can continue to lead your congregations on the front line of change.

To fully appreciate this quick shift and unexpected gift, let’s take a look at one of the church’s pre-pandemic mindsets.

Pre-pandemic mindset: Wait until “they” tell us what to do.

For the last several years, United Methodists have been waiting, rather impatiently, for the General Conference to direct their future. Those quadrennial global proceedings would have answered the question: Will the denomination split into smaller denominations in order to pursue divergent visions? Or will the denomination stay united, at least in name? Many decisions, including key missional initiatives, have been delayed until this urgent question could be addressed.

This isn’t just a national dynamic. The wait-until-they-tell-us-what-to-do approach has hampered congregations at the local level for decades. Congregations often slow down decision-making as they await the arrival of a new pastor. For churches that receive a new leader every three to five years, all this waiting creates two problems. First, the church itself slackens as it defers responsibility for sharing good news. Second, the community is daily ­­­­­impoverished as ministry is withheld.

The pandemic has changed that. Not only has General Conference been postponed until 2021, meaning there is no one else upon which to foist decision-making responsibility, but churches have been thrust into a “decide now” dynamic.

Mid-pandemic mindset: The decision is ours to make.

The rapid changes wrought by the need for social distancing have created an immediacy in the church. There is no time to wait for “them” to decide. Instead, churches have sprung into action, all hands on deck.

Not only have you offered online worship, online giving and online Bible studies, but you have creatively reached out to health care workers, children, parents, the lonely, the sick, and the just plain bored. Church members are moving into action, seeing a need, and filling it. All around you, the community has responded beautifully.

At last, the church has taken ownership of its own direction, its own ministry, its own gospel. It is no longer waiting on some other authority to grant it permission to be an agent of change. It’s as though the church has taken up its mat and walked. It’s a delight to behold.

Necessity is the mother of invention. And this newfound new sense of authority has been invigorating. But will it last?

Turn this quick shift into a culture shift

I will be curious to see if this quick shift turns into a culture shift. Not only has General Conference been delayed by a year, but many annual conferences will be delayed as well. This is a good testing ground. In the meantime, churches are free to do what they are called to do: love, pray, worship, minister, lead and connect.

To anchor this quick shift into the DNA of the congregation, take these three steps:

  1. Celebrate the courageous ministry of the local church. Acknowledge the congregation’s rapid response and decisiveness. Over the next three to twelve months, as you emerge into the new future, don’t let these days and months of ownership go unappreciated. Tell and retell your stories of action, compassion and bravery. 

  2. Discern where else you have been “waiting on them to tell us what to do.” Ask God to show you how you can bring to bear the new mindset of “the decision is ours to make.” You’ll be surprised how renewing this can be. Especially on the heels of this season of effectiveness. 

  3. Strengthen the mid-pandemic mindset of ownership. Do this by leading the church to be “response-able” in ways large and small. Exercising responsibility is like working a muscle — the more you use it, the stronger you’ll get, and the more comfortable you’ll be going forward. 

Leader, this season is more marathon than sprint. To help you go the distance, I have created a new online workshop called Leadership Resilience. These three one-hour sessions, May 6, 13 and 20, from 8:00 to 9:00am MT, will boost your spiritual, emotional and financial resilience, empowering you to pivot with grace and energy. I hope you’ll join us.

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