by Dale Sellers
I was recently doing a conference with a pastor who made an interesting comment about the effects of the pandemic on churches. He said, “The impact the pandemic has had on churches is that it dramatically sped up the path that they were already on. Today, we’re at a place in our ministry where we would have otherwise arrived in seven years.” As I thought about his statement, the reality came to me that all of this happened in about seven weeks.
Wow! His observation made a lot of sense to me. I’ve said for some time that the pandemic was an “accelerator” for every church. If you were already moving in the direction of healthy growth, you could better handle the challenges you faced. However, if you were in a state of unhealthy activity, then navigating all of the decisions required by the pandemic likely brought confusion, stress, and even hopelessness.
Many of our leaders are at a loss about what to do next. While it seems like most people are comfortable going to football games, concerts, and other large gatherings, the attendance numbers at church are still suffering. The implications of this have left many of us scratching our heads. What should we do about these issues?
Here are some of the questions I’m hearing:
- How did we get to this point in such a relatively short time?
- Why are churches that were filled before the pandemic now finding themselves unable to reclaim their former attendance levels?
- Where are many of our key volunteers who faithfully served in the past?
Let Go of the “And Suddenly” Moment
Have you ever heard a sermon where the topic was built on the phrase, “And suddenly?” Acts 2:2 says, “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.” (NKJV, emphasis mine)
Many messages like these suggest that when someone is going through a difficulty and things are at the point of no return, the breakthrough (or the “and suddenly” moment) will come right in the nick of time. The problem with this message is the focus on the timing of the events. Going back to our verse in Acts, the Spirit did come into the house at just the right moment! But His coming had been foretold for centuries. While it’s true that a breakthrough can happen in a split second, it’s also likely that there’s been a long period of time and lots of experiences that led up to that “and suddenly” moment.
I think this concept is partially responsible for what’s leading many of our churches to experience a form of paralysis. Before the pandemic, we were progressing through life with our normal routine. Suddenly, pandemic-related issues arose that left us unable to understand where we were and how we got there. To me, this is why we’re experiencing the results of the “seven years in seven weeks” phenomenon.
When we first went through the shutdown, most churches used the upcoming Easter holiday to focus on and distract themselves. However, once Easter was over, a vast majority of us assumed things would return to normal relatively quickly. So we made a few temporary adjustments “for the time being.”
But returning to normal didn’t happen, and it still hasn’t. We ended up spending our time waiting on an “and suddenly” moment to happen instead of seeking clarity and casting a vision for the new future of our churches. The need for mission and vision clarity existed long before the pandemic caught us off guard. We were just able to ignore it back then. But that’s not the case anymore!
Decide Where You’re Going
Carey Nieuwhof recently interviewed Simon Sinek for his weekly podcast. During the interview, Simon made this statement, “It doesn’t matter what route you take if you don’t know where you’re going.” Boom! That simple sentence jumped out at me because I believe it describes most of our churches today.
As the church ages, we need to reevaluate our concept of how it impacts the local community. I grew up in the era of attending church because it was the culturally accepted thing to do. You went to church because it was expected of you by society. However, the days of going to church just because you’re supposed to are gone.
Now, as much as ever, there has to be clarity about what the church is here for, where it sees itself going, and how being an engaged member is beneficial to people.
Lack of mission and vision has brought many of us to a standstill. Before the pandemic, we most likely knew that defining these two areas needed to be addressed. However, a built-in group of worshippers showing up every week allowed us to keep kicking the mission-vision can down the street.
Sure, we’d been hearing statistics of waning weekly attendance numbers even before the pandemic. Folks like Thom Rainer told us that our consistent churchgoers attending 3 out of 4 Sundays would change to attending 1 out of 4 Sundays within ten years. Yet, in most cases, such warnings didn’t prompt any effort on the part of the leadership to act. Comfort surpassed the need for urgency.
Update Your Assessment Strategies
As we process the consequences of moving forward seven years in seven weeks, there are two ways of measuring impact that I’d like for us to address. We need to discontinue one form and initiate the other.
First, we’ve got to stop evaluating success simply by counting people in pews and passing the plate. I once had a pastor tell me, “New York City is big. But that doesn’t make it Godly.” His point was that attracting warm bodies to a room isn’t a great way of measuring impact. Most pastors will admit that attendance and giving numbers are the matrices they use to gauge success. And indeed, we do need manpower and money to continue.
But what if we dive deeper? What if we start evaluating the effectiveness of creating Christ-followers instead of counting heads and contributions as a measure of success? After all, Jesus didn’t call us to make converts…He called us to make disciples. It’s obviously much easier to measure manpower and money. However, true discipleship will produce believers who are equipped to walk in maturity, stability, integrity, and community.
It’s with this shift in mind that we embrace the second way of measuring impact. We’ve got to start honestly evaluating engagement. I believe with all of my heart that the Bible speaks to every issue known to man. However, the end goal isn’t just to download a semester’s worth of information into our members’ brains every week. I’m concerned that most churches view discipleship from a purely educational point of view. The main objective is to help people become more like Jesus in their everyday lives. We need to encourage people to hide God’s Word in their hearts to the point that it guides how they live each day.
Get There Effectively
If you need assistance in effectively communicating the mission and vision of your church, then I want to share a couple of resources we’ve created to help. First, we have VisionBox, which covers the topics we address in our Healthy Growth Engines One-Day Conference.
Second, our new Small Church Strategies Bundle offers 14 different 30-minute teachings that speak to many of the issues we face today. Each instructional video tackles an area that will help you effectively articulate your church’s mission and vision.
Another resource is my book, STALLED: Hope & Help For Pastors Who Thought They’d Be There By Now. It addresses these specific areas of gaining mission and vision clarity:
- Why Can’t I Get There?
- What Will I Find There?
- The Fulfillment of Living There.
There are too many souls in the balance for us to stay stalled at this point in our ministries. Maybe you feel like you aged seven years in seven weeks. If so, the time has come for you and me to step up and step out into the calling that Jesus has for us as leaders. As I’ve mentioned several times recently, it’s no accident that you’re alive for such a time as this.
95Network has created several great resources designed to support your leadership and strategic development. Be sure to visit the Online Store to learn more about VisionBox, From STALLED To Freedom Box and the Small Church Strategies teaching series.
We also provide a service to individual churches called VisionDay. This is one day event where we facilitate the VisionDay process with your leadership team. VisionDay is designed to bring to the surface the one “action item” that you focus on for the next 12 to 18 months that will bring clarity in your mission and vision. Click here to learn more details about VisionDay.