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When this is all done and people look back five years from now, from this season, they will not remember how well you framed a shot on Sunday morning. They will remember the call they received from their pastor who said, “how are you doing? And how can I help you?”
Hi, I’m Karl Vaters, and I'm a small church pastor. And welcome to another episode of Can This Work in a Small Church?
Today we're going to be talking about recovering and thriving in the post-pandemic church. Yes, I know, a lot of people have been talking about that and understandably so, because we've all gone through something in the last year and a half to two years that we've never experienced before, and hopefully we'll never have to experience again. And it has a big impact. It changes churches, it changes pastors. It changes the leaders of churches. It changes the way we do things and approach things and look at things. It changes just about everything in ways both subtle and big.
So, why am I weighing in on this subject when it seems like just about everybody else has— and in fact, I've written about it several times—so why am I adding it to a podcast? Here are a couple of reasons why, first of all, because this is a unique perspective that we offer in this podcast. We want to look at it from a small church perspective and not just from the perspective of the larger church world, which typically includes larger churches.
Secondly, I think I can offer a unique perspective here. Not because I'm so smart or anything like that, but because I spend a lot of my time talking with and traveling around to small churches and meeting with small church pastors and other leaders. During the pandemic, I talked to hundreds of small church leaders. I was online in webinars and Zoom chats with hundreds of them. I heard back from so many, I answered emails, responded to Twitter conversations. There was a constant conversation going on among small church pastors. And because of this ministry, I was able to hear from small church pastors in just about every aspect of the church that you could imagine, here in the United States for almost every state, from most denominations, from multiple places around the world, every continent but Antartica came in at some point or another into the conversation, and it was all from a small church standpoint.
So I want to be able to offer a reflection of what I heard from those different areas. I'm taking out some of the things that were more specific to particular zones. So, I heard from rural churches, so anything that only applies in a rural church, I won't mention. I heard from big city churches, so anything that applies only in big cities, but it doesn't apply rural, I'll leave that out. I heard from different countries, so certain things that work in one country, but not in another, we won't talk about that. But what I want to do is: I want to talk about a handful of principles that seem to be universal—that everybody I talked to, no matter what their background was, their denomination, their city size, the country they were in, the state they were in, the language they spoke, their theological tradition. All of these things seem to apply in one way or another to help them churches thrive during the pandemic and to now recover and thrive as we come into a post-pandemic world.
So let's launch right into it and take a look at some of these. What I believe are universal lessons that I've been able to pick up from you, my fellow small church leaders, and I want to pass along to others as well, so we can share them together.
So let's begin. Right now, people are spending most of their time in two extreme places. On the one side, they are isolated. On the other side, they're engaged in mass and social media. Now, this has been going on before the pandemic and it will continue, I believe, to an even more accelerated degree after the pandemic. The difference is this. Before the pandemic struck people who were isolated in their homes did so mostly voluntarily, unless, of course they were bedridden or they had a physical ailment that wouldn't allow them to travel. There were a lot of people who just simply chose when they got off of work for the day, or sometimes they were working out of the home during the day and they were isolated to a great degree at the time.
We can do that more now than we used to because the feeling of socialization that social media brings allows us to stay isolated. And by the feeling of socialization, I mean that intentionally. Social media helps us to feel like we are being social, but we in fact are not. It's in the term, but it's not actually in reality. We are actually isolating ourselves.
And so it's an interesting extreme, because on the one side you're sitting by yourself typing away at a screen. But on the other side, you feel like you're engaged because the message you're putting out can potentially be read by almost anybody on the face of the earth—literally by billions of people.
So it feels engaging. It feels social, even though it is extremely isolated. And then this fairly voluntary situation that we put ourselves in became involuntary during the pandemic. And so we became even more isolated, not by our own choices. And then in order to be able to reach out to somebody, we became even more engaged in mass and social media. And all of this is happening not just during a pandemic, but during all of the other things that happened during the pandemic season. We had all of the racial issues. We had this crazy political season that we went through. Here in California, where I live, we had fires one after another. I think there were two hurricanes in one day in the Midwest at some point. All kinds of big news stories that, in any year other than 2020, would have been the main news story of the year that we've really forgotten about because of everything else that happened.
So not only are we isolated in our homes and then engaged in massive social media, which deceives us into thinking we're socializing, but it's happening during some of the most heightened, emotional trauma that we've ever experienced: losing a loved ones or the threat of losing loved ones, losing jobs or the threat of losing jobs, right? Trying to figure out how to conduct church when nobody can meet physically in the building. All of these were hugely difficult things to do. And we could not lean on the usual places that we went to figure out how to do that, or to get some relief from doing it. Namely, we couldn't go to church and worship with other people and spend time with friends and grab a cup of coffee together.
All of those normalizing things were taken away from us. So, the isolation became more extreme. The engagement in mass and social media became more extreme. And if you're looking at a pendulum, those are two opposite ends of a pendulum with virtually nothing in the middle. And this is really, really unhealthy.
So, pastors have been doing this. Our church members have been doing this. People in our neighborhoods who don't go to any church have been doing this. And this is incredibly unhealthy. So, for the past year and a half or so, we have really seen an amplification and an acceleration of these two unhealthy extremes in people's lives.
What we need to counterbalance that is the middle ground of community. And this is the one thing we were not able to do during pandemic, but that everybody is really, really hungry for as we come out of pandemic, I'm convinced that in the next few years, people are going to be so hungry for the actual human interaction and contact that I think, you know, obviously, obviously places like cafes and bars, I think are going to be really filled because that's where a lot of people go to socialize anyway.
I wouldn't be surprised if things like bowling clubs made a comeback. You may live in an area that has bowling clubs, but in general, like back in the fifties and sixties, there were thousands and thousands of bowling clubs all over the place and they pretty much stopped happening. But things like that, that people used to do for socialization that they replaced with television and computers, I think we're going to come back to that.
And one of the big things that people are going to want to come back to is the fellowship of a local congregation. So, we've got these two pieces of extreme unhealthiness, the isolation on one side, the mass and social media on the other side, and in the middle of that, we have people longing to actually have socialization again: being together with people that they can fellowship with, that they can have common ground with, that they can learn from, that they can sympathize with who will hear their sorrows and their joys and offer a safe place to land.
And I do not know of a better place to do that well than in a healthy, small, local congregation. We may be heading right now into a small church moment like we've never seen in our lifetimes, or at least an opportunity for a small church moment like we've never seen in our lifetimes before. And I hope we take advantage of that opportunity.
People are looking for ways to connect and we have, I think if you are a part of a healthy, smaller congregation, you have probably the simple, single best tool in the world to help resolve those issues. In addition, of course, to being able to introduce them into relationship with Christ, which far exceeds all of these other issues, but right now, even if not, they're not feeling the need for Jesus, they're feeling the need for other people. And if we can bring people into their lives who also know and love Jesus in a healthy church environment, what a wonderful way to be able to reach people.
We can really bring health back into their lives again, and a kind of health that they're actually longing for right now that they may not have been as consciously aware of at any other time in their lives and in greater numbers than we've ever seen in any other time in our lives.
So, small churches, it's our moment to step up. But if we're going to do that, there are a couple of things that we need to be aware of so that we take advantage of this opportunity and not waste it. So let's walk through a couple of those things.
First thing I want to look at is: I believe there are two keys to recovery, especially for smaller churches, after the pandemic. Two keys to recovery. Key to recovery number one is this: Don't go back to what was. In fact, don't even try to go back to what was.
There's a lot of longing, especially as I talk to my fellow small church pastors in small congregations and the more rural the place is, the more obvious this is stated, but even small churches in large cities, I think maybe even have a greater desire for this. People often will go to a small congregation because they got a picture in their head that by doing so they can step back in time and they can go back to this idealistic time that we've got painted in our heads. And if you've pastored in a small congregation for any length of time whatsoever, you know that that ideal is simply that. It's an ideal and it is not reality.
Yes, there are wonderful things about small churches and there are wonderful things about small towns. I celebrate all of it and I work with small churches in small towns constantly, but I work there enough to recognize the reality: this ideal of the little white chapel on a hill where everything is perfect and all is right with the world, if it ever did exist, it certainly doesn't exist anymore.
So the idea that somehow we can go back to some ideal time, like, I don't know, 2019 [laughter]—let that go. There's no time travel backwards. We all travel through time. It's just forward and in the same direction. So there's no going back. So don't even try to go back. It's wasted energy. And sometimes even when we talk that way, we set up people with false hopes. When we start talking nostalgically about the good old days as if we can somehow recover them, because we're put in positions of authority we might actually give people the idea that somehow we can go back to that.
And folks, there is no going back. So if you want to recover after the pandemic, do not look around and go, how do we get back to 2019 again? or back to whatever era you've got in your head. That is not healthy. That is not going to happen. It isn't possible. We can't ever go back, but we can go ahead to something even better and we can build on where we've been.
So, first key to recovery after the pandemic, don't try to go back to what was.
Second key to the recovery after the pandemic: build on what you're learning. Build on what you're learning. I've got a friend, Dave Jacobs, who says, and I'm probably going to butcher it by paraphrasing his statement but Dave, if you're listening to this, you can call and correct me on it, but I think I'm going to get the essence of it anyway.
He says, if you go through pain and you don't learn anything from it, then all you've got is pain. I think that's a really profound statement, especially for this season. We've gone through seasons of difficult pain together and we've got seasons of difficult pain coming up. That's just simply life.
Before Dave put it so succinctly I've always had it as a philosophy of my own life. I'm always going to get something out of every experience. If I go through a difficult season, if I've got a difficult job that I have to do, if there's a difficult relationship situation, if there's an extreme loss, I'm not going to come through that and only experience the loss.
I am determined that I'm going to squeeze something out of it. And the one thing I'm going to make sure I squeeze out of it is: I'm going to learn whatever there is to learn from this situation. And then I'm going to build on what I'm learning.
So, pastors, church leaders, small church members, church members of churches of all sizes, whoever's listening right now: I want you to take a look back at the season you've just been through, as challenging as it is. Some of you lost loved ones. Some of you lost jobs. Some of you left a congregation and aren't sure if you're ever going to go back. Some of you have been disconnected from friends and family members because of political and partisan arguments or disagreements over vaccines or masks or arguments you never thought you'd ever have with people you love in your life. And you're wondering where did all these things come from?
And you can look back and you can mourn it, and we should mourn it. But if all you do is mourn it and all you do is feel the loss, then you're missing out on the second half, which is: now, what can we learn from that loss? What can we learn in the middle of that mourning so that we can take with us into the future? How can we build on what we've learned? Even the times of sadness and even the times are different.
As an example, if you're a pastor of a church, take a look at this past season. See the way people maybe came apart in your congregation or stepped up and really helped each other during this situation. Take a look at how they responded to loss. Take a look at how they responded to the fear of potential loss that may not have even taken place. Take a look at what you went through and how you managed either well or badly, how you managed your own emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical health during the season. And ask yourself, what can I learn from my mistakes? What can we learn from our successes? What can I learn from what I've seen others go through? What can I learn from how we did things badly? What can I learn from how we did things well?
I'm actually saying like, literally sit down as soon as you have an opportunity after listening to this podcast and get out a notepad or get out your note taking app on your computer and start writing down: what can I learn from each of these categories? And then how can I build on that for them?
There is always something to learn and there's always a way to build on what we learned, but here's the thing we can't learn from it if we don't pause and take conscious note of it, especially times of pain and difficulty, because our brains and our emotions just say, I just want this difficult time to be over. And I don't ever want to think about it again.
It's kind of like whenever two couples, when, whenever a couple argues, right? This is one of the things that I do in marriage counseling all the time. If people are coming to me, a husband and wife couple, are coming to me and they've got a regular army argument that they constantly come back to. We're always arguing over such and such. It's usually sex or money or in-laws. Those are the big three, right?
We're constantly arguing over this and we want to get past it. One of the questions I'll ask them, is this: do you ever talk about that subject when you're not mad about it? And usually when I ask the question they don't even know what I'm asking. You can see the startled look on their face and then usually the response is something like Why would we do that? I mean, it's bad enough talking about it when we have to, why would we purposely revisit this issue when we don't have to, when we're not mad about it?
And what I tell them is this: if the only time you talk about a difficult subject is when you are in a heightened, emotional state about that subject, you will never be able to think rationally about it. And so you'll never come to a solution.
So, what do you do if you're constantly arguing about finances. Then when you're not during that season where you're trying to figure out how to pay the bills, or you're not noticing the new credit card that came in, and one of you overspent on something that you shouldn't have, right? At some point you just simply schedule a time: this Thursday evening after we get home from work and after dinner, we're going to sit down for an hour and we're going to talk about how do you really feel about our finances?
But it's going to be in the cold, hard light of day when neither one of us is mad about it. That's the only way you'll have a chance to break through the log jam when you're talking about the difficult circumstance when you're not emotionally invested in it, or at least not in a heightened, emotional state about it.
So to church leadership, what do we do about that? Well, we need to do the same thing there. What we need to do with church leadership is this: we need to take a look at what we've been through. The season we've been through: the gains and the losses, the triumphs and the joys, as well as the lows and the sorrows. Take a look at the mistakes you made and the successes that you had and list them down now that you’re past it.
Because when you were under the gun, when you were trying to figure out the tech and trying to make sure that that camera worked, when you were trying to make sure you followed up on everybody who was sick, when you were maybe sick yourself or just depressed and couldn't get out of bed—that's not the time for you for you to think rationally about what happened to us then? What can we learn from it and how can we build on it?
But now once you're past it, look back, bring those memories back up again, but write it down. Write it down so that you can continue to build a database of memories and therefore have understanding of those memories. And out of the understanding of those memories, you can build some possibility of a solution to those memories.
So those are the two keys to recovery. After the pandemic, don't try to go back to what was and build on what you're learning.
So after those two keys to recovery after the pandemic, once again, don't try to go back to what was and build on what you're learning. What do we do then as we go forward? How do we continue to build on what we're learning? And let me walk you through a few things here. Smaller churches, as we move forward and as we rebuild and recover and thrive after the pandemic that we've been through, you need to do three things in very particular order, I believe. And again, I've seen this happen universally across churches of all kinds of denominations and sizes and places in the world and population centers. You name it. I've seen this happen there.
Let me give you the three things in a row, and then I'll walk you through each of them. Small churches, especially, need to, first of all, respond contextually, secondly, minister personally, and thirdly, prepare continually.
So let me walk you through the three of those. First of all, smaller churches need to respond contextually. For years, I used to say that churches need to be more relevant. And that was the term that was used. And I still think it is a good word, but I don't use the word anymore simply because it has baggage now. When it first started coming up, it simply meant making sure that you're, you know, ministering in the situation that you find yourself, that you're relevant to your surroundings and you're relevant to your congregation's needs.
But really, since then, it has taken on baggage. And now as I talk to other pastors, especially as I talk to small church pastors, and even more extremely, as I talk to small town and rural small church pastors, here's what they feel when they hear the word relevant: what we hear beneath the word relevant is “cool.” So, when somebody says your church needs to be more relevant, what we hear them saying is your church needs to be cool, like the cool church that just came in in the next town over or down the street. And there's a pushback against, this idea that our church needs to be cool.
And understandably so, right? If you live in a town where people have ripped jeans and it's not as a fashion statement, it's because it got caught in the hay baler yesterday, you're not in a cool town, you're in a hard working town. And that's a very different context than a place where they have ripped jeans ironically. It's a different situation, right?
Where you are is salt of the earth people who work really hard, who care very little about fashion, they are anything but cool. They are strong. They are vibrant. They are important. They are loved by God. They are some of the most generous, kind, decent, giving, hard working people on the face of the earth, but they ain't cool
So to hear your church needs to be more relevant. And what we actually hear is your church needs to be more cool, it just doesn't work. So you know, back to the title of our podcast: Can This Work in a Small Church? Can “relevant” work in a small church? Yes. If we're using the word “relevant” in its dictionary context. But if we're using the word “relevant” in the way we typically hear it today, which is, can your church be cool? Then, no. Cool doesn't work in most small towns. It just doesn't. But context always works. So back again, here's the first point, all of this is surrounding this point: We need to respond contextually. That is: take a look around and what is your context? Small town different than big city. White collar different from blue collar.
Ethnic mix is very different from an ethnically homogenous church. These are very different contexts. So we need to look around, we need to understand the context. One, we need to understand the context of a congregation we're pastoring. And then two, we need to look around at the community and understand how the context of our community may be and usually is very, very different from the context of the church we’re pastoring. The church you're pastoring probably used to look like the community around you and it probably doesn't anymore. So those are two contexts that we need to understand. And then we need to respond within the context. This is what missionaries do. They don't take their language and their customs and their building styles to another place. We used to do that, and we had really bad results of that. But today's missionary understands that the gospel of Jesus fits in any context, it works in any language. It goes anywhere to any ethnicity and to any type of background. So we simply need to understand where are these people coming from? How are they going to hear the gospel best? In what language and through what customs and in what format? How do they tell stories? How do they hear information? How do they take it in? Is it gonna be more through books or more through relationships? Is it going to be more through a tie to history or looking into the future?
Every single context has all of these different things. And we as ministers of the gospel and as leaders of churches need to understand the context and respond contextually. So first of all, smaller churches need to respond contextually.
Secondly, we need to minister personally. This is especially true in the smaller congregation and very, very true right now, as we're coming out of this season of worldwide pandemic. When people go through difficult seasons together, like we have—and by together, I mean, we were all experiencing it, even though we weren't actually experiencing it in the “together” way that we usually do—when people go through those kinds of traumatic experiences, they're not looking for more technological answers. They're looking for personal touch.
So, yeah, during the season of pandemic, most of our churches had to figure out how to go online when we'd never gone online before. Our church had to do the same thing. But as we come out of pandemic and we are beginning to have actual face-to-face conversations again, you know what I'm hearing from our congregation? Well, I'll tell you, first of all, what, I'm not. What I'm not hearing is, “wasn't it wonderful how well, how well they framed that shot?”
Nobody's commenting on the technology. And we worked really hard on that tech. Nobody's talking about it. You know what they're talking about? Those phone calls they receive from the pastor or from a church leader, or just from a friend. How people reached out and kept in contact with them and they didn't feel isolated and alone because people reached out. They ministered personally.
When this is all done and people look back five years from now, from this season, they will not remember how well you framed a shot on Sunday morning. They will remember the call they received from their pastor who said, “how are you doing? And how can I help? Can I pray for you? What can I pray for?”
They'll remember the time when the pastor noticed even over the phone, when they said, “oh, I'm doing fine,” but the pastor paused because you're in a small congregation and your pastor actually knows you and the pastor paused and said, “okay, you say you're fine, but you don't sound like you're fine. Be honest with me. Talk to me.”
And they were able to unload some of their grief and some of their fear on someone they trust. That personal ministry is really going to matter more as we go forward, because I think we're going to have some emotional fallout that's going to hit people at times they don't expect it over the next few years, including, pastor, you. You need to have someone who can minister personally to you as well.
So we need to respond contextually. We need to minister personally, and thirdly, we need to prepare continually. We need to prepare continually. This will happen again. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. But it's going to happen again. Now, by “this,” what do I mean? A worldwide pandemic? Hopefully not. But we live in a broken world where bad things happen.
And so the bad season that we've been through, well, it's unique. It's not isolated. It's not the only bad experience like this that we've all gone through together, but it's not the only bad experience you or your congregation have ever experienced or will ever experience. There's something bad coming up. Right? There's going to be a fire. There's going to be a flood. There's going to be a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, right? Something. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but we live in a broken world where bad things happen. So the question isn't whether or not it's going to happen, but whether or not you're prepared when it does come.
And what I noticed during this season of pandemic was that the churches that prepared well, that in advance of this pandemic built a healthy foundation where they were ready for difficulties if they came, they did well. Churches that had not prepared for it, that were just simply living hand to mouth week to week. And not simply because they didn't have the resources, but some of them, because they just weren't paying attention and they weren't being good stewards of their resources. There are a lot of churches out there that are working very hard and being good stewards, but they live in an impoverished area and there's not a whole lot of money in the bank. And the idea of somehow putting a whole chunk away seems completely impossible to them.
I'm actually going to talk about that, but I'm going to do this in two parts. Because as I'm going through it, I'm realizing there's an awful lot to cover in this. And I don't want to overwhelm you. So we're going to call this part one. So, podcast number one in a two-part series of recovering and thriving in the post pandemic church. And we're going to come back next week with the second part. And we're going to talk about four ways that churches who prepared continually did well through the pandemic. There were four key preparations, four key foundation building processes, that healthy churches did before they even knew the pandemic was coming, that served them well during the pandemic. And that will help them to rebuild and thrive after the pandemic.
The churches that had these in place did well and survived and thrived. To the degree that a church did not have these four things in place, they were in trouble and some of them have collapsed and disappeared. So what are those four things?
That'll be the next time when we come back for the next one, but for now as we head out for the day, thanks for listening. If you'd like to become a Patreon partner for as little as $3 a month and help to put these resources into the hands of ministries that need it the most, check out our Patreon link in the show notes.
If you want a transcript of this episode, it will be available within a few days of the podcast air date at christianitytoday.com./Karl-Vaters. You can find the link in the show notes. This episode was produced by Veronica Beaver. Edited by Jack Wilkins. Original theme music written and performed by Jack Wilkins of JackWilkinsMusic.com. Podcast logo by Solomon Joy of Joyetic.com. And me? I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor.
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