Although the nation isn’t quite shut down during this national health crisis, it looks like it’s slowly grinding to a near-halt. So far, churches still seem to have a choice about meeting live and in person or not, but it’s pretty clear there’s a lot of social pressure from both outside and inside the church for public worship services (and Bible studies, prayer groups, and so on) to go on hiatus.
For those churches that had embraced technology sometime in the past, we’ve seen them quickly pivot and switch to online options. It’s not been seamless, but these churches have been able to respond quickly and fairly effectively.
For those churches that hadn’t yet embraced technology, the story has been a lot different. Many have tried to go “Live” on social media using cell phones and tablets. Some pastors have opted to park themselves in front of their laptops and create sermon videos to upload. And then there are the rest of the churches, perhaps as many as half, who simply don’t have the ability or the will to make the leap, so they’re essentially closed down completely, depending on phone calls and letters to try and keep connected.
Today’s church landscape looks very different than what anyone might have predicted even two months ago. The Covid-19 virus will perhaps (probably, IMHO) turn out to be our generation’s most potent social disrupter. In other words, I don’t believe “Church” will ever look the same.
So … here are some of my “predictions” about what the church is going to look like on the other side of this (and there will be an other side!).
1. Church Attendance Will Be Seriously Affected
Not everyone who attends church is a committed disciple of Jesus Christ. I know that comes as a huge surprise (NOT!) to our readers, but it’s nonetheless true. I believe we’re going to see a drop in our average worship attendance by at least 20–25 percent. It’s possible we’ll see a short-term surge when the church first re-open their doors, but one of the fallouts from Sheltering In Place is that a lot of church members will have become used to not going to worship regularly … and the sky didn’t fall in on any of them.
I’ve heard the argument from some that “In times of national crisis, the nation has always turned to the church and our attendance has swelled.” And though I realize this is true, the fact is we’re IN a national crisis and there’s no church, as most people understand it, to turn to! So instead, they’re turning to social media and their online friends/family. When the crisis is through, turning to the church isn’t likely to be on their to-do lists.
2. Virtual Church Attendance Will Become Normal For Many
There’s another reason I believe we’re going to see a drop in average worship attendance – virtual worship is quickly beginning to feel “normal” for many.
Now, don’t get me wrong … I’m not referring to those fireside chats being made by pastors sitting in their living rooms because that’s the best tech they could do. Local members may tune into these sorts of “online worshipping” opportunities out of loyalty, but probably not as many as the church leadership hoped. In fact, one of the fallouts for these digital amateur hours is that some of their members are going to discover Craig Groeschel and Life.Church, Andy Stanley at North Point, Hillsong, or any of hundreds of excellent virtual worship services going on during the weekend (and during the week). And when they do discover them, some of these church members are going to migrate away from their church’s pixilated Facebook Live to a full online worship experience. (And probably more will just migrate away from worship period.)
However, many churches put out a quality online worship experience. Indeed, those churches that have been providing virtual worship for some time are finding it pretty simple to make the shift from a worship center filled with people to an empty auditorium – without any loss in the quality or authenticity of worship.
Those providing quality online worship experiences, though, are going to discover the downside of online worship. There’s something appealing about not having to fight with the family to get to the church building for worship on time every Sunday. And attend worship in your jammies with coffee in your favorite mug? That not only sounds divine, we have church members experiencing that reality now. Some of your members are going to really like the “freedom” of not having to “go to church” and they won’t be back very often, if at all. In other words, some of the 20–25 percent losses in weekly attendance are going to be “found” in an increase in online participation. (Which is going to create other issues ranging from financial, assimilation, and discipleship – but that’s another blog for another time.)
3. There Will Be an Acceleration In the Demise of Small and Mid-Sized Churches
Streaming worship, screen technology, and social media are still suspect by many in small churches and in some mid-sized churches, so these weeks (more likely months) of Sheltering In Place is likely to wreak havoc with many of them. To be sure, a number of small/mid-sized churches will do just fine in these circumstances because they have little or no debt, little overhead, and the membership is primarily made up of a few committed families who are fiercely loyal to their church. However, there are many other small and mid-sized churches that can’t rely on the matriarch or patriarch to keep the fires burning.
The loss of 20–25 percent of their average worship is going to hit some of these churches rather hard. Although the financial hit will be negligible (fringe members tend to be poor givers), the demoralization of the remaining membership will take its toll. Some churches will simply not be able to recover.
On the other hand, not every small or mid-sized congregation is financially solid, and this hit in offerings over the next few months will be enough to drain the coffers and sink some ships.
I’d expect to see our national closure rate to spike over the next two years as these smaller and mid-sized churches discover they are no longer sustainable (perhaps leaping from our current 15,000 church closures a year to 20,000 – 25,000 or more.)
It’s Not All Bad News
For those churches that have a leg up in the virtual world, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. During times of major world shifts, like this one, there are always many who see the opportunity and a few are able to capitalize on it. In the church world, I expect we’re going to see a “new world order” in terms of how we connect. The churches that thrive in this environment will be those who learn to implement:
- Excellence in Live, Virtual Worship
– Check out Live.Life.Church – although they have worship many times every day, most of these are “live tape,” that is they’re pre-recorded and streamed. BUT they might as well be live because they have a chat app to the right of the worship video that’s staffed by hosts who respond in real time “as if” the service was live. It becomes an immersive experience.
- Excellence in Disciple Making
–Many churches were doing online Bible studies, prayer meetings, and so on LONG before Zoom became the hottest stock commodity on the NYSE. Online learning isn’t particularly new to education, but it’s been foreign territory for the church. Those churches that leverage this will thrive.
- Friend Development
–It’s pretty clear that online friendships aren’t as superficial as pundits made them out to be. There are many great online tools out there that can be used to build real and deep friendships. This is going to be a critical piece of a thriving virtual church.
–There were 279 million hits for Online Church when I looked today, and 275 million for Virtual Church. The churches that figure out how to get “found” are the ones that will set the pace for the rest of us.
- Excellence in Using a Variety of Virtual Tools
–There’s more to the virtual world than Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and your website. Today, more people access church via their mobile phones than their desktop computers. Churches that stay up with the latest tools, such as mobile phone apps, are the ones with the best chance of rising to and staying on top.
–This isn’t last because it’s least, but because it’s important to remember (and we remember what we read first and last). Online evangelism is going to be a key to changing the world … because evangelism and its twin discipleship have always been the key to discipleship.
Of course, there will be all sorts of “problems” to be solved in this “new world order” of virtual church:
- How to do communion
–Confessional churches are going to have to rethink their theology here.
- What about baptism?
–We’re all going to have to figure this one out.
–Online giving is still in its infancy.
- Local missions
–What’s “local” when you’re a global church?
And there are problems we don’t even know are problems yet! But the churches that figure them out will be the ones that do more than survive this cultural shift. They’ll thrive.
I’d love to hear your predictions and thoughts. Share with us below in the Comments Section.