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Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of COVID-19 on the Church in America

As we slowly emerge out from sheltering in place to a “new” normal, what will the new normal look like for churches in America?
Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of COVID-19 on the Church in America
Image: Photo by Nagesh Badu on Unsplash

As I write, there are states, regions, cities, and towns either “reopening” or gearing up to reopen. This means the reemergence of life from the grasps of “shelter in place.”

Thus, people are going back to work, dining in at a restaurant, working out at a gym, receiving a haircut, and even gathering together with the church—but they are doing so with new policies and procedures that seek to protect each other from contracting the virus.

So as we slowly emerge out from sheltering in place to a “new” normal—which is the term people use—what will the new normal look like for churches in America?

Before I discuss both short-term and long-term effects that COVID-19 will have on the church, I want to address some of my counter-thoughts to what I (as well as many) have heard throughout the crisis the “new” normal will be.

First, there are those who think this will change church as we know it. Honestly, I don’t buy what they are selling. At some point—sooner for some than others—our Sunday morning routines will be back to normal.

Second, there are those that believe this crisis has ended the “consumer” model of church. I don’t buy that either. Truthfully, people have been “consuming” more and more content. What I have personally witnessed over the course of this lock-down is churches constantly feeding their people via a digital platform.

Early on in this crisis many were expressing how “shallow” the church was on discipleship, so much so they worried how the people would be fed because many families weren’t prepared to engage in family worship.

Third, there are those who believe this crisis will put an end to the megachurch. Once again, I don’t believe it. Even the Spanish Flu—one of the most, if not the most, devasting pandemics in history—didn’t drive believers into smaller groups or house gatherings.

So, if this crisis won’t seemingly change the church as we know it, or put an end to the consumer church, or destroy the megachurch, how will it potentially change or effect the church?

Short-term effects

When I think of short-term effects, I am thinking in terms of the next 2–15 months (give or take). When I look at the history of the Spanish Flu, there were three waves of the flu. This is why we hear expects talk about a fall wave of COVID-19. So, how will COVID-19 change the church in the short-term?

Interruption to our normal way of doing things. I was listening to a Christian leader who recently talked about how this crisis has disrupted—rather than interrupted—our lives and our churches. That is true. Over the last two months our globe, nation, economy, cities, communities, churches, and our lives have been completely disrupted. How we were living prior to mid-March came to a complete halt.

Now that the curve is flattening in many parts of the country, and things are slowly reopening, we will move from disruption and enter into a short-term interruption in both our day-to-day life and how we conduct ministry and even mission.

Over the last week I have read many church leaders and denominational entities put out their checklists for the reopening of the church. While some of these procedures and policies may be adopted long term, I do believe there will be a time where all heightened safety measures will no longer be needed, and churches can return to their normal ministry and mission activities.

Caring for seniors and the vulnerable. As we ride out the wave(s) of the virus, and dance the COVID-19 dance, ministry and mission to the more vulnerable population to this virus will definitely be different.

As churches make decisions about reemergence, it is important that those decisions also include the bests ways to minister and reach out to their vulnerable population as well as those living in senior communities, senior assisted living, and nursing homes.

Church attendance will fluctuate. Many churches will probably have to adopt some kind of staggered approach to their large gatherings for the short-term. While this would be considered an interruption to their normal way of doing things, what I foresee might happen is that many parishioners will choose to stay home until there is an all clear.

Sure, there will be some people (like my family) who will be ready to return to in-person gatherings while practicing physical distancing and other safety precautions such as wearing masks. However, there may be those—possibly those will small children and those who would be more vulnerable—who wait until more dust settles around this virus. As a result, online services will continue to be offered from many churches.

People will be “shell shocked” and tired. This crisis has created great fear among Americans. It will be forever engrained in my memory of pulling up to a Sam’s Club and seeing a line outside of people waiting to enter into the building, most of which were wearing masks. My wife recently asked a question, “When will it be ok for me to hug my friends?” This form of PTSD—caused by the strict measures put in place to flatten the curve—will take some time to overcome.

In addition, there is a lot of adrenaline keeping people going right now. They are trying to ride out the wave… the storm. But, after it passes, they will be wiped—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Finances will be tight. COVID-19 will affect finances both for the short-term and the long-term. In the short-term, I’ve been surprised that a couple of pastor friends have seen their church’s giving rise significantly. But the reality is not every church is that fortunate. Churches are having to restructure their budgets to operate somewhere between a 50–75 percent capacity to their original operating budget. This means tough decisions will need to be made to ride out the budget year (2020) or to prepare for the upcoming budget year (2020–21).

If finances are tight for churches, that means finances are tight for many of their parishioners. Therefore, given this reality, churches will need to be sensitive as they navigate their giving and generosity pushes. In thinking about the restructuring of the budget, it will be wise to have a good benevolent and generosity pipeline to help people in need.

I do believe people who have the means and the ability will want to be generous in giving to needs—not wants. This is why it will be important to restructure a leaner budget in the short-term so that generous giving can include stewardship to the needs inside and outside the church rather than the wants.

Staffing hires and staffing work patterns. Given the financial strain many churches will experience, they will move towards a leaner staff. Thus, many churches will forgo the support staff they were thinking of hiring. In addition, many churches might see the need to move towards some form of bi-vocational (or co-vocational) model.

With regards to staffing work patterns, churches may allow their staff to keep flexible work hours along with offering them the opportunity to work from home.

Short-term mission trips. Summer is approaching and that typically means short-term mission trips—both domestically and internationally. I would also lump summer camps, like VBS and student camps, here as well. These will either be cancelled or modified in some manner. I don’t necessarily see people traveling internationally unless it is essential.

I can see modified camps along with Vacation Bible Schools. In other words, rather than operating as they would have in the past, they will modify their schedules and environments to accommodate the fears and hesitancies people have in reemerging into public.

Long-Term Effects

Recently, I read The Spanish Flu Epidemic and its Influence on History by Jaime Breitnauer. Towards the end of the book, Breitnauer writes, “Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Spanish flu is that it barely left a legacy at all. While it has continued to be studied and analysed in niche virology circles, the collective memory seemed to stub it out and hurry to move on.”[1]

Barely left a legacy? I found that extremely interesting as the Spanish Flu has been labeled the deadliest pandemic in modern history as it claimed the lives of at least 50 million people across the globe and 700,000 Americans. But the reality is, it did have long-term effects.

What might be the possible long-term effects of COVID–19?

Churches will shift the way they handle finances. The world after the Spanish Flu experienced a global recession. In addition, not more than a decade later America would enter and go through the Great Depression. Those like my late grandad who lived during the Great Depression became very frugal with their money. The financial frugality of individuals influenced the financial frugality of churches.

If you think about the last 20 years, particularly in America, we have experienced 9/11, the Great Recession (2008–09), and now COVID-19. In this period, the economy and financial markets have experienced a roller-coaster of a ride, which has negatively affected the financial vitality of individuals, corporations, and churches.

As a result, I believe a long-term effect may be in how churches steward their finances. I believe you will see leaner staffs, a continued rise in bi-vocational or co-vocational staff members, churches diversifying the way their fund themselves (think Mark DeYmaz and church economics), and more intentionality around creating rainy day funds.

Churches will adapt hybrid ministry models. Full disclosure, I love the term hybrid. With the hard pivot to online church services and small groups, churches have now overcome the hurdle of learning how to conduct ministry on a digital platform. To be clear, I’m not an advocate for replacing in-person gatherings with online church, nor am I an advocate for “online satellite” campuses. However, I am a huge proponent of leveraging tools for the sake of ministry and mission.

Moving forward, I do believe churches will (and should) continue to utilize the digital platform. And I’m talking more than just live-streaming their services or making it available on-demand. I believe churches should use a live digital platform as the New Mars Hill venue. In other words, churches should utilize the online platform to engage people far from God—those who may never darken the doors of a church building (especially in the aftermath of COVID-19).

In addition, I believe another hybrid model coming out of COVID-19 will be online small groups. Once again, I’m not advocating for replacing in-person small groups. However, now that people have overcome the zoom/skype/googlehangout learning curve there will be less obstacles that would hinder people from participating in a small group. [And on a side note, I believe churches should position themselves to be a church of small groups rather than churches with small groups.]

Churches will have to navigate a deeply divided culture with deep trust issues. There’s no denying that America was a deeply divided country prior to this crisis. It would seem that a crisis would unite a country, but in this “war” against the virus, it has revealed how fractured we really are—a fracture that at the root is over a particular vision for America, and thus power to execute that vision.

In addition, there’s no denying that America is full of opinionated people, who many times distort their opinions believing them to be truth—and whacking people over the head who disagree. Therefore, there’s this relativistic spirit where one size doesn’t fit all.

But what do you do when the “experts” have differing opinions in an already skeptical world? This politician says one thing, yet this other politician says another; this news station reports on a story this way, whereas another news station offers a different report on the same story; this doctor says this about the virus, but this doctor doesn’t agree and says this; or this is considered an “essential business” but these businesses aren’t.

In short, we are a ping-ponged culture confused as heck as to who we can really trust. As a result, we are left to rely on our personal thoughts (which we aren’t fully sure of) and of those whom we personally see as an authority we can trust (a parent, teacher, pastor, or leader).

These are elements of our culture, which the current crisis has magnified. In the long-term, the church will have to sensitively, winsomely, and discernibly navigate a politically toxic, highly divisive, vociferously opinionated, and deeply distrusting culture.

My advice would be winsomely learn the ways of Jesus who said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.” In other words, don’t fall into the trap of getting entangled on sides that will isolate you from the opposing side; but learn to engage the culture in a manner that points them to another kingdom, a new way of living, and a new way of looking at the world.

The kind of staff churches hire will change. This massive shift to leveraging digital technology—streaming live, online forums, video conferencing, and online content—has opened up the possibilities to many who were hesitant to lead their churches into this new terrain. And while I understand there is this thing called “Zoom Fatigue” and that many are tired of watching and consuming online content—at least for the short-term—I believe churches will start to change (maybe ever so slightly) the kind of staff they hire.

More and more churches—aside from the bigger churches who have already went there—will begin to bring professionals on staff who have the knowledge and/or training to help churches maximize their digital and online presence. Such a shift will ultimately lead churches to develop a full online ministry and mission strategy to engage their people and reach the world.

People will still need Jesus more than ever. With all the talk about how the virus will change life as we know it, one thing it will not change is the fact people will still need Jesus more than ever. However, this reality doesn’t mean we resort to evangelistic tactics used in 1984. Our culture is still a post-Christian one, which means that even during this ripe time of harvest, we must seek to engage people in contextualized ways.

In the days, months, and years after COVID-19, when America (and much of the world) will be rebuilding, the church has an opportunity to give a glimpse of the kingdom of God that was inaugurated at Jesus’ first coming and will be consummated at his return. The glimpse of the King and his kingdom is more than just spiritual reconciliation with God.

Obviously, that is of ultimate concern—as we want people to be reconciled to God. However, it also includes both social and cultural dimensions. If the fall of humanity affected every sphere of life, then the redemption that Jesus offers should also affect every sphere of life.

The church must be part of the rebuilding of our communities and cities. We should continue our engagement, participation, [even our] development of mercy ministries that seek to help the hurting and broken, the vulnerable and marginalized.

We should be part of the rebuilding of the economy as we train believers to use their vocation to glorify God for the good of others, support local businesses, offer business incubation programs (where young businesses can use church facilities to launch their business), and even launch small business enterprises that seek to offer services to (and jobs for) the community.

As we engage in the holistic mission whereby Jesus is in the process of making all things new—through his death and resurrection—we give the hungry, thirsty, and dark world a holistic vision of a God who cares about their soul, their personhood, and their vocation. People still need Jesus more than ever, but they need a complete Jesus, not an incomplete one.

Josh Laxton currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College, and a co-host of the podcast Living in the Land of Oz. He has a Ph.D. in North American Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

[1] Jaime Breitnauer, The Spanish Flu Epidemic and its Influence on History, loc 2272.

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