Positive trends, social realities, and the future of the post-COVID-19 church

April 28th, 2020
This article is featured in the Offering Hospitality issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Editor's note: For more information about the lifestyle groups and leadership styles described below, see "Sideline Church: Bridging the Chasm between Churches and Cultures." For leadership coaching and resources related to church and culture data, visit https://www.thrivingchurch.com/.

Many churches have at least temporarily adapted to COVID-19 restrictions, and the conversation among church leaders has moved on to ponder what the church and its ministries might look like after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted (or at least eased). My concern is that most churches are asking good questions… in the wrong order.

Much of the post-COVID-19 conversation is about whether worship attendance, pastoral care, Sunday school, small groups and financial giving will return to normal or whether there will be a “new normal.” The order of thinking reveals the hidden habit of “attractional” thinking. Church leaders habitually start “inward” and work “outward.” It seems logical to seniors and boomers. Get your house in order and then welcome the guests. However, younger generations, marginal publics, and singles and starters will consider this as institutional self-centeredness. They don’t care if the house is messy. They want you to bring your sacredness outside.

In order to anticipate post-COVID-19 realities, we should start with what will emerge in the community context and not the church context. Community needs and evolving spiritual yearnings of the public will dictate adaptive ministries, and not membership habits or preferences. The churches that survive and thrive in the new world will be those that consider outreach first.

Social Trends and Opportunities

Pay attention to shifting attitudes and behavior patterns. Lifestyle patterns that were once fixed are now fluid. Lifestyle groups that ignored each other are rediscovering each other. There is, at least temporarily, a greater empathy in the air. Can the church make it last?

The New Neighborliness

Perhaps the most inspiring images of the COVID-19 Crisis are those of neighbors standing on balconies performing music for one another, or on doorsteps applauding emergency and health care workers, or reaching across six feet to deliver food packages. People are meeting neighbors they never recognized previously. Even lifestyle segments that have traditionally been aloof from one another are exchanging at least respectful greetings. It is heartwarming, for example, to see white, professional, Booming with Confidence people (Lifestyle Group C) interacting with multi-racial, blue-collar Family Union people (Lifestyle Group I). The new neighborliness is even bridging ideological and political divides.

"Sideline Church" by Thomas G. Bandy. Order here: http://bit.ly/SidelineChurch

The new business mantra is: We’re here for you! Yes, some businesses and banks are just marketing themselves differently and offering discounts they would have offered anyway at other times in the year. But many other businesses are taking the mantra seriously. They are retooling manufacturing, giving away necessary household items, and slashing interest payments and deferring payments without strings attached.

Churches have the unique opportunity to keep the “new neighborliness” going. This is more than just radical hospitality. It is about making friends, forging new partnerships among both non-profit and for-profit organizations, and emphasizing personal reconciliation over public policy.

The Recovery of Lost Relationships

Social distancing and subsequent isolation has made internet conferencing a popular pastime. People are reconnecting with friends from afar and friends from the past, and reconnecting with relatives they haven’t seen (and perhaps refused to speak to) for a long time. There is a new spirit of forgiveness and acceptance in the air. The phone rings, the number is unrecognized, and there is a cautious delay in answering… and suddenly a surprised gasp and the words “How wonderful to talk to you again!”

This is particularly significant for churches that have been on the fringe of urbanization. As singles and young families seek affordable housing from which they can make ever longer commutes to the city, established lifestyle segments in small towns and rural areas are being displaced and uprooted from the churches of their childhoods. But during the COVID-19 crisis, they are reconnecting.

The feedback from churches of all size, shape, and tradition is that internet participation in streaming worship is higher that their average attendance for the past several years. People who have dropped out of the church for whatever reason, or who are on the mailing list but never attend, or who are just friends of friends without a church connection, feel compelled to come to God. At a time when every traffic light and parking problem is another reason not to go to church, people are delighted that they can participate in their pajamas and share their breakfast with the Holy Spirit. The message to churches is clear. Now that you have ventured onto the internet, stay with it. Indeed, invest more money and energy to make internet participation ever more personal, interactive, confidential, and inspirational.

The Breakthrough in Generational Differences

Social distancing has been particularly hard for aging baby boomers and seniors who rely on the church as the primary way to connect with friends. Yes, there is the internet, but they are unfamiliar with it and uncomfortable using the technology. The breakthrough is that children and grandchildren are coming to their rescue. People from younger generations are coaching people from older generations, often sitting beside them to navigate the streaming worship service.

This is particularly true for the lifestyle segments called Boomers and Boomerang (C14) and Generational Soup (B07). Even before COVID-19, this lifestyle segment composed of multi-generational households (parents and young adults) was growing. During COVID-19 it has been exploding because young adult singles and young adult families have been forced to move back with their parents due to financial stress. Surprisingly, the feedback is that these generations get along quite well. Perhaps the most astonished are the parents and young adult offspring themselves.

In some cases this cross-generational help has exposed younger generations to Christian faith in a new and hopefully beneficial way. Perhaps more importantly, it has created opportunities for prolonged conversation that has long been missing. They have more empathy with each other’s preferred technologies, and not just for what they do, but for what they symbolize. The new world does not seem so frightening, and the old world does not seem so baffling.

Social Realities and Challenges

Despite the opportunities emerging from the current fluidity of lifestyle groups, there are new social challenges as the short-term COVID-19 crisis transitions into long-term economic recession and recovery. The fluidity of lifestyle interaction may disappear, and inflexibility or even hostility may re-emerge if churches are not prepared.

The "Haves" and "Have Nots"

Already there is rising anger among younger, poorer, and/or less educated people who cannot work at home toward those older, wealthier, and/or more educated people who can. Social distancing in some form and to varying degrees will continue long after the immediate COVID-19 panic because treatments and vaccines will take time and hot spots will re-emerge. If unemployment remains high and government support diminishes, that alienation will grow.

A positive response for churches will start with greater empathy for the “have nots.” Few churches have financial resources to offset their dire financial situations. Instead, churches can develop more personal support groups and collaborate with non-profits regarding housing, food distribution, and neighborhood safety. They can also strive to include more community volunteers in every aspect of the church to help people sustain self-esteem and feel they are making meaningful contributions to community life even if they are unpaid.

Racial Tensions

Already there is rising anger among African-American lifestyle segments that are disproportionately sick and dying from COVID-19 and have less access to medical help. The same can be said about access to food, sustainable housing, and support for other necessities of life. Some school systems have provided free computers to facilitate online education, but many have not. The hidden racism in American society is once again glaringly visible. The dream of multiracial churches and community reconciliation ministries is even harder to realize.

A positive response for churches will include proactive efforts by church members to build friendships across racial boundaries. Go beyond helping to befriending. There will be opportunities to offer practical help in home and family wellbeing, child care, online tutoring for children’s education, and assistance to navigate complicated social assistance and health care programs. But it is the personal touch that counts most.

Controversial Cultural Diversity

Already there is rising bigotry toward Asians and Hispanics. Immigration was already a hot topic, and it may become even hotter. The controversy is no longer about illegal immigration; it is about any immigration. Cultural stereotyping is again on the rise, and xenophobia will become an increasing concern in local congregations as it is already in the community. Yet it is not just that culturally diverse churches will be harder to grow, but that lifestyle diverse churches will become more difficult to sustain. The tendency in a crisis is to retreat into a closed community, and this is often done around demographic markers like age, income, family status, language, etc. Claims to be a “friendly” church will be severely tested.

A positive response for churches will include more lifestyle-sensitive hospitality strategies and trained hospitality leaders who can connect spontaneously with lifestyle segments under-represented in the church and over-represented in the community. The environment of fellowship, worship, and education space — and the signage and access to entrances and hallways — will become more important. Members may no longer notice, but visitors immediately recognize decorations, images, symbols, languages, and other details that make them feel welcomed and respected.  

Relational and Mental Health Issues

An economic recession may cause spikes in addictions, child abuse and domestic violence, anxiety and depression, suicide, and other mental health crises that impact personal and social well-being. More people will have to patch together multiple part-time jobs just to survive, leading to physical and emotional exhaustion and a sense of hopelessness. A few relationships will become extremely, even overwhelmingly, intense, while many more relationships will become superficial and competitive.

A positive response for churches will be outreach ministries and the non-profit partnerships that have more to do with personal interventions than pastoral visitations. This not only reprioritizes clergy continuing education and volunteer training, but it also raises the bar for leadership accountability. Social services and non-profits that are under-funded today will face even more severe challenges in the future, but they will need more than just financial support from the church. They will need personal commitment that may entail greater personal risk.

Spiritual Malaise

Internet conferencing is great for the short term, but long-term dependence will undermine our sense of humanity. Human beings rely on touch to confirm their humanity. This is particularly important as society experiences a kind of collective post-traumatic stress disorder that will endure in the subconscious for a long time. Anxiety and fear will be triggered by innumerable events that in ordinary times might be considered trivial. Therapists understand the healing power of hugs, embraces, cuddles, and kisses.

A positive response for churches will be to render faith more “touchable.” The power of devotional objects and tactile symbols or talismans will have more power than mere words from a book, worship bulletin, newsletter, or recorded sermon. Protestantism has much to learn from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Coptic traditions that have long used rosaries and religious objects, icons and devotional images, to reinforce faith. Protestants also have much to learn from Pentecostals, for whom faith is more heartfelt and experiential than rational and abstract. The habit of social distancing is certainly wise now, but it can become the phobia of the future. The day will come when churches may have to take the lead in renewing human contact.

Decelerating Church Growth

Even if solutions for COVID-19 are discovered, testing expanded, and vaccinations readily available, the anxiety over pandemic will continue. People will become more cautious about the large gatherings they choose, and priorities for church attendance may fall further behind family festivities, vacation plans, recreations and sports, political rallies, etc. Some megachurches will grow, but mainly at the expense of hundreds of smaller faith communities that become unsustainable. The body of Christ may experience congestive heart failure. All the Christians will collect in one place, united more by ideological conformity than spiritual journey. They will experience shortness of breath (as the Spirit is constrained) and show signs of coughing and wheezing (as they shift blame for the ills of society on anyone other than themselves).

A positive response for churches will be to embed a new attitude among clergy and denominational leaders. The church growth mantra “Go Big” will be replaced with a church depth mantra “Go Deep.” Healthy megachurches will shift to multi-site ministries, sacred properties will be replaced by sacred practices, and “going to church” will be replaced by “coming to God.” The real issue is not the freedom of the religious institutions to do what they want, but the freedom of the Spirit to blow where it wills.

Rejection of Judgmental Church Attitudes

Already the top reason for community non-participation in the church (and for members considering dropping out of the church) is that the church is too judgmental. It doesn’t matter if the church claims to be liberal or conservative. They are all guilty of exclusivity in the eyes of the public. The more churches allow themselves to be used as instruments of ideological warfare, the more people will distance themselves from the church. Even church members are getting fed up with churches telling them what to do, how to think, what to believe, and who to vote for. Therefore, personal religion will accelerate even faster. People are already borrowing from various religious traditions and customizing or privatizing their spiritual habits.

A positive response for churches will be to build conversations and not confrontations. Empathy, not charity, will become the effective road to reconciliation. The truth is that everybody is customizing rituals and faith convictions around personal hopes and contextual needs, and church people can no longer assume they have all the answers because, after all, they don’t know all of the questions. Preachers will need to exegete the community before they attempt to exegete the Bible. Members will need to remove the log from their own eyes before they attempt to do surgery on the speck in their neighbors’ eyes.

Future Ministry Adjustments

Once the social opportunities and challenges of the future are clearer, churches can finally consider how to adapt their programs and train their leaders.

Yes, church outreach will become even more vital to meet the social challenges to come, but church leaders can no longer afford to fritter away resources on the pet projects of members. Outreach funds will need to be concentrated into capital pools and focused in just one or two significant missions, and leadership must find compatible non-profit partners to help them train volunteers and boost credibility in the community.

Yes, the internet will become increasingly important for worship, but worship designers will need to make it more interactive and dialogical if they are to adapt to the short attention spans and sense of urgency among the public. Success in online worship cannot be measured in “hits.” because people may well “surf” worship services just as they surf websites. Success needs to be measured by tracking further participation in online small groups, online donations, and real-time service.

Yes, the internet will become increasingly important for the sacraments and other lifecycle celebrations, but not just to post images to preserve memories and videos to accumulate likes. Clergy need to encourage online participation in Holy Communion and Baptism, and allow people to join and share emotions in funerals and memorials, weddings and anniversaries. Holy spaces like chapels, chancels, sanctuaries, and even cemeteries must become technologically sophisticated for two-way audio/video communication.

Yes, the internet will become increasingly important for Christian education and fellowship, but educators and caregivers will need to find or develop social media platforms that encourage real conversation and ensure confidentiality. Unbridled Twitter and shallow Facebook postings won’t work. Church people have the reputation for being “late adopters” of technology, and that must reverse 180 degrees. There will be a whole new layer of training for Sunday school teachers and church counselors in the future.

Yes, group participation will still matter. However, large groups based on age and gender will likely decline, and small groups based on urgent needs and shared enthusiasms will grow. Fewer people will commit to food, fellowship, and fun; more people will look for short-term self-improvement opportunities, volunteer training, and social service opportunities.

Yes, online meetings and financial giving options will become more important as social distancing persists and financial challenges grow. But this means higher expectations among volunteer administrators for technical aptitude to ensure smooth and uninterrupted communication. It also means that the disproportionate budget priorities between maintenance and mission must be reversed if the church is to compete for the diminishing non-profit dollar.

Yes, clergy will still have an important role for leadership. However, there will be fewer full time jobs and more bi-vocational spiritual leaders. Clergy will need to rebalance work and family and find self-esteem through community respect and personal spiritual habits rather than through office-holding and preaching. Success will be determined less by how many programs they can manage and more by how many laity they can mentor.

Yes, organized religion will still be important to reinforce shared spiritual practices, deepen communion, and build community. However, the critical mass required to sustain church independence will be even harder to achieve, and mission-driven church mergers must become a denominational priority. Trust building is the essence of covenant, and vision only emerges from a context of accountability.

In many ways it is harder to choose change when you feel you do not have to do so, and it is easier to adapt to change when you have no other choice. I hope the church will discover that it has a bigger and clearer role meeting the social challenges of the future and that the new norms for ministry are more beneficial than we could have imagined.

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