While it feels much longer, we are fourteen months removed from my infamous Facebook live video from my basement where I sounded the alarm that the COVID-19 crisis wasn’t about moving your church online. After my 22-minute video exhorting the church to prepare for the coming crisis, my colleague Josh Laxton and I followed up with subsequent articles aiming to help churches and church leaders process and navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. (Article 1-March 23, 2020, Article 2- April 22, 2020, Article 3- January 7, 2021)
It is important to remember that in March 2020, people were discounting COVID-19, some calling it a hoax and others saying it would pass quickly. After I met with the Surgeon General, he urged me to help churches take this more seriously. And, Josh Laxton and I decided to sound the alarm. Watch the video here if you’d like.
As we have seemingly entered Phase 4 of our crisis leadership framework, Recover and Reemerge, we thought it would be an enlightening exercise to revisit the video and some of our articles to evaluate what we said in light of what transpired.
1. What we said about the real crisis
I emphatically stated, “Moving your church online isn’t the real crisis, the real crisis is weeks away.” The real crisis was the damaging effects of COVID-19. In fact, I went on to note that, if we did not flatten the curve, probably within a week, you’ll know someone who contracted COVID-19; and probably next month (which would have been April), you’ll know someone who died from COVID-19.
If you recall, I shared the following image.
At the time I shared this image, epidemiologists and other experts were saying was that unless we took drastic preventative measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, we were going to overload the hospitals with COVID cases and potentially see more deaths. And having just met with the Surgeon General, the church was going to play a huge role in helping to “flatten the curve.”
COVID-19 was (and is) the biggest disruption of our lifetime.
In fact, the UN Chief said that the COVID-19 crisis was the worst crisis since World War II. The crisis wasn’t moving church online. Sure, that was a methodological and strategical pivot that churches needed to make in order to engage their people during the eye of the pandemic. But the real crisis was the devastating effects of the pandemic.
With regards to the preventative measures (i.e., lockdowns), researchers at UC Berkeley calculated that the U.S. would have had nearly 14 times as many COVID-19 cases than they did by April 6 (that would have been 360,000 times 14). As a result, according to the NPR article, the pandemic lockdowns saved millions from dying of COVID-19.
We did flatten the curve (for a while) and, although it has been bad, it was not as bad as it could have been. About 60,000 Americans died by the end of April, and over a million were infected. The Surgeon General had warned me it might get really bad—and I am thankful we did not face the worst case.
However, the shutdown saved many lives (as all agree). You probably did not know someone who died by the end of April, because the two-week shut down was extended another month. Yet, still, by the end of 2020, most Americans knew someone who has died from the virus.
Even in light of the lockdowns and restrictions, the U.S. still experienced over 30 million COVID-19 cases, nearly 600K deaths, close to 200K businesses permanently closed, 4 in 10 adults reporting mental health symptoms, the suspensions of large indoor or outdoor gatherings, and a myriad of students (from elementary to graduate school) spending the 2020–2021 school year either learning virtually or through some hybrid form. Thus, the crisis was the physical, emotional, vocational, communal, and financial hurt, heartache, loss, and grief that the pandemic caused.
We received a lot of pushback for sounding the alarm, though that waned by the time the second wave came and people saw just how serious it way. At the end of the day, we helped thousands of churches to prepare. Given what we have faced as a globe and nation, we were right to sound the alarm.
2. What we said about the phases of the crisis
We outlined four phases to this crisis: Pause and Pivot, Prepare and Plan, Engage and Execute, and Recover and Reemerge.
Pause and Pivot should have happened somewhere around the middle of March 2020. But the Prepare and Plan should have happened somewhere between the middle of March and the beginning of April 2020. In Prepare and Plan, we suggested churches operate on a month-by-month basis given the various gating criteria published by both federal and state governments. In fact, we called it the “COVID-19 Dance.”
Once churches had a plan, we encouraged them to move to the third Phase, Engage and Execute. This phase would have taken place between May 2020 and the spring of 2021.
Based upon what some experts suggested, we noted the Recover and Reemerge Phase transpiring around May 2021. (Yes, that was surpirsingly prescient, but that was still based on a guess informed by some converstainos with the Surgeon General.)
(image taken from our April 22, 2020 post)
Around April and May of 2020, not only did President Trump and his team release their “Gating Criteria” but States released their own COVID re-opening plans. For instance, Illinois (where we live) had a five-level process that went from Tier 3 to Phase 5.
True to what we projected, depending on the COVID-19 numbers, there was a rhythmic dance to the US’s gating criteria or the states’ various tiers. We experienced the ups and downs of COVID-19 cases throughout 2020, all the way until early spring of 2021 when COVID-19 vaccination became widely available. [Remember when some States were telling their citizens to Zoom for Thanksgiving and Christmas to help stop the spread of COVID-19?]
Not that COVID-19 has disappeared, but given the number of people who have had the virus and who have been vaccinated, the US is moving towards being a fully opened nation—meaning no restrictions on businesses, no mask mandates, large gatherings being permitted, etc. For instance, in the state of Illinois (where we both live), Wrigley Field (the home of the Chicago Cubs) is increasing its seating capacity to 60% on May 28th. In addition, sometime in September Broadway is set to resume their shows.
While we still have further to go, it does seem we are slowly emerging into a post-COVID-19 era in the United States.
3. What we said churches need to focus on during the crisis
The pivot churches were supposed to make wasn’t ministerial but missional. Again, we don’t want to diminish the efforts churches made to take their corporate gatherings and small group environments online. We know that was a big deal for many churches! However, what we wanted churches to concentrate on from the onset of the crisis was that this was our missional moment to share and show the love of Jesus literally to a hurting and dying world.
To help church leaders prepare for what was coming down the crisis pipeline, here’s the list contained in the initial article Josh and I published on March 23, 2020:
· Maximize communication to staff, leadership bodies, and congregants
· Pivot staff roles and responsibilities
· Plan for generosity (and giving)
· Follow up with online visitors and new believers
· Weather a financial crunch
· Care for their neighbors
· Serve the sick, hurting, and shut-ins
· Conduct counseling to those with mental illness, addictions, etc.
· Launch virtual small groups
· Minister to families (including children and students)
· Love their community and city well
· Seek the peace and prosperity of their community and city
While ministry items are on the list, you’ll also see that we encouraged churches to think about how they would share and show the love of Jesus—how they would be salt and light—to their community.
Also, during the early part of the pandemic (April 2020), Josh wrote an article for Outreachmagazine.com entitled, “Don’t Miss the Church’s Missional Moment During the COVID-19 Crisis.” Josh concluded that article by writing, “Church, this is our moment to be mobilized for such as time as this. If we aren’t careful and if we aren’t intentional, we will squander the opportunity to show ourselves as the church for the world.”
We believed then (and still do now) what churches did in and through the crisis would determine how well they would emerge from the crisis.
While so much transpired over the last fourteen months, I would like to note two particular things in relation to the missional exhortation we gave churches.
First, it seems that many churches fell victim to the political chaos of COVID-19 restrictions. Based upon our COVID-19 One Year Report, many churches experienced relational and organizational tension around mask mandates, social distancing, and reopening policies. In fact, there seems to have been some reshuffling of church attendance/membership from church to church based upon how churches responded to the crisis.
Second, according to our COVID-19 One Year Report, nearly half (42%) of responding pastors identified evangelism and outreach initiatives as their top priority. This percentage saw a slight uptick from what pastors said their top priority was earlier in the pandemic. While that is certainly something to celebrate, it still means that over half of pastors and churches admitted that evangelism and outreach were not a top-tier priority. This is something we should lament.
While there’s still at least a year before the dust final settles around the effects of COVID-19 on the church, it does seem from some of the data collected, the church (in general) has suffered numerically and missionally. And if a church went into COVID-19 struggling with no momentum, they are more than likely exiting COVID-19 struggling with no momentum.
Where Do We Go from Here?
In looking back on the last fourteen months, we are pleased with how we engaged and processed the information coming out about COVID-19.
The two things that we didn’t foresee—to the extent they transpired—were, first, just how political and divisive COVID-19 would become in the church. We never would have imagined that instead of solely fighting the disease, many Christians and church leaders would turn and fight one another. And second, even after hundreds of thousands died from COVID-19, we wouldn’t have imagined a fringe group of believers still denying the validity and severity of the pandemic.
In closing, as we move closer to a post-COVID-19 church, one of the questions that we think churches and church leaders should wrestle with is, “Where do we go from here?” And it is that question we will take up in our next post.