Carey Nieuwhof explains that churches must respond to a culture that has become even more digital, mobile, and home-centered since the COVID-19 crisis. He predicts growing churches will focus less on place-based ministry and packed rooms and will adjust budgets and attitudes to fit a new reality.
This article was originally published on October 6, 2020.
You’ve probably learned a lot about yourself in the last year. Crisis does that to you. Crisis isn’t just an accelerator, it’s a revealer, showing you some surprising things about yourself — some good, some not so good. Since COVID-19 struck, church leaders have seen more than a few addictions, wants, and preferences revealed.
As the culture becomes more and more digital, mobile, and home-centered (think work, school, shopping, and more), the church needs to respond to keep reaching people. If the people that you are trying to reach change, your strategy needs to change with them. Otherwise, you lose touch and become irrelevant. And while the Gospel is never irrelevant in a fast-moving culture, outdated models of church get old fast.
If the church is going to thrive in the future, here are 5 addictions church leaders need to overcome.
Probably the first dependency to be revealed by the crisis is how facility-centric most approaches to ministry have been. For a lot of pastors, losing access to a building felt like losing access to their ministry. If you look at the filter through which almost all ministry has been run for decades (or centuries), it’s this: ministry happens in a central facility where people gather. A very good question to ask is “Why?”
While I completely agree the church needs to gather in person as well as online, gathering can happen in homes, smaller venues, and a whole variety of places. The emerging idea that a church can be a church with hundreds or thousands of locations (i.e., people’s homes) is a really liberating idea. While we will need facilities in the future, the idea that ministry needs to happen in a public building and be officiated by church staff feels increasingly restrictive and anachronistic. I’m not suggesting we should move to the house church movement as it has existed in North America, which is disproportionately filled with insider-focused, disgruntled Christians who actively resist affiliating with others, but I do think it’s worth rethinking a more distributed and released church model that can be more effective at reaching friends, neighbors, co-workers, and communities. In 2020, if coming to Christ means coming to your church in a set location and at a set hour, you need a new strategy.
2. Packed rooms
Look, I’ll lead with a confession here. I love packed rooms. Packed rooms at church. Packed rooms when I’m speaking somewhere. I’ve spoken to empty rooms and to full rooms, and I’ll take a full room any time. Communicating without a crowd is a different art and science than communicating in front of a crowd. And there’s something about a sermon that gets richer when you’re interacting with real people. Sermons are more than just content drops. But packed rooms don’t always mean full impact.
What if God’s plan for your church is bigger than the size of your room? What if the number of people you’re called to reach don’t fit in a room, no matter what size room you build? If the size of your vision shrinks to the size of a room you can fill, you’ve missed the church’s mission.
3. Our own egos
Ego is a real struggle for most of us in leadership. Some leaders’ pride springs from narcissism. Far more leaders grow proud because of insecurity than because of narcissism. I know what you’re thinking. “But I’m insecure. I feel bad about myself. How can that be pride?” Well, if pride is an obsession with self, then (surprisingly) insecure people qualify as proud. After all, insecurity makes you think about you all the time. So, let’s apply that to this moment. The future is so uncertain, and so foreign. And you’re asking yourself, “Do I have what it takes to lead into tomorrow? All my gifts and skills have been honed to work for what was, not for the future that’s emerging. If I can get us back to where we were, I’ll feel good about myself again.”
You know what that is, right? Sure. It’s your ego. That’s all about you, not the mission. As a Christian leader, you know that self is something you need to die to. I have to die to self daily. Hourly. Minute by minute. But on the other side is a trust that is the only thing that can supplant the fear of the deep unknown. When you die to yourself, something greater rises.
4. Budgets and staffing centered in the last era
If you want to see someone’s idols, just look at their bank account and calendar. Regardless of what you say publicly, your bank account and calendar reveal what you really value (and what you don’t). The same is true for churches. Look at most church budgets though and try to find some line items related to digital ministry. You’ll come up empty-handed. The vast majority of churches spend 99 percent of their staffing dollars on in-person gatherings. Online outreach and ministry are usually tagged onto someone’s job description as an afterthought (if it’s listed at all), and the budget for digital ministry usually has to be scrounged from other line items. The point here is that’s probably not a wise 21st-century strategy.
Increasingly, this will be the year many churches realize you can’t have a massive impact online when you spend one percent of your staffing resources on it. The internet is the venue in which the entire community you are trying to reach lives. If you want to reach them there, spending one percent of your resources on it is likely not the smartest strategy. Do you know of any church near you that’s spending 30 percent of its resources to reach people online? Didn’t think so. And we wonder why we don’t see more direct results from online outreach. Mystery solved.
5. Creating your own truth
So many leaders have started spinning their own truth. As a former U.S. president once said, “In my presidency, people were entitled to their own opinion. They were not entitled to their own facts.” It seems pastors are increasingly falling for creating their own facts in this post-truth era. It’s so strange that church leaders who profess adherence to truth try to create their own truth when they don’t like the situation they’re facing.
You can’t make up truth, but we try. I’ve had so many pastors tell me “Well, the coronavirus just isn’t an issue here” when thousands of people around them are infected and others hospitalized. I have had others tell me that people will return to church in droves, when the evidence points in the other direction. Look, I hope they’re correct. I’m just not holding my breath. Here’s why. Truth is hard. But wise leaders don’t deny the truth. The smartest leaders realize their approach isn’t working and they adapt. The more you deny reality, the crueler reality is to you. Just ask people who went bankrupt or whose spouses walked out on them because they just couldn’t handle being treated that way anymore.
The truth is your friend. Even the truth you don’t like. Especially the truth you don’t like. There’s a lot of hope for the future. This is the church, and the mission is eternal. The fastest way to get to a more hopeful future, though, is to respond to reality, not to try to change it or deny it. Leaders who do that get to a better future so much faster.
This article is condensed from 5 Addictions Pastors Need to Overcome to Grow their Churches in the Future at CareyNieuwhof.com. Used by permission.
- Digital Church Is Here to Stay by Carey Nieuwhof
- Committing to a Hybrid Model of Ministry by Tom Berlin
- Hybrid Evangelism: The New Reality for Congregations, a Lewis Center webinar recording