When we look back five years from now, what decisions made by church leaders will we recognize, in hindsight, pushed some institutions into freefall? Leaders are making decisions today that shape the future they and their congregants will live in tomorrow. How can they know they’re making the right ones?
The following missteps can set churches on a path that will lead to their decline.
1. Don’t bet everything on a physical return to church.
Is physical church coming back? You bet it is. People are social creatures, and they will always cherish a chance to connect in person.
But a growing number of church leaders are seeing a mere 20-40 percent of their congregations coming back to the pews after the COVID-19 lockdown, and while that might improve in the future, few believe their numbers will bounce back to pre-lockdown levels. According to the Barna Group, 49 percent of pastors believe physical attendance will remain lower post-COVID-19 restrictions.
If that’s the case, churches that invest all of their time and energy on in-person gathering may not see the impact and reach they’re hoping for. Churches that not only recognize but embrace the reality that everyone they want to reach is online, on the other hand, and who invest in their online presence heavily, stand a better chance of seeing future growth.
This crisis has revealed how facility-centric the dominant model of ministry has been in the Western church. A trend developing before our very eyes, though, is the rise of the home as the new center of life. In the last six months, work, food, entertainment, education, shopping, and, yes, worship are now more home-based than ever, thanks to the internet.
In the future, dying churches will see their building—not the home and community—as the primary locus of ministry. Growing churches won’t.
2. Don’t measure success by the number of people who physically attend services.
For years, pastors have measured success by the number of people who attend weekend worship. But if people today are engaging with church differently via digital, home-based, or community-based gatherings, the leader who defines success solely by in-person worship attendance will grow frustrated.
Pick some new metrics. Measure what’s really happening online. Track engagement. Look beyond attendance numbers to concentrate on your church’s actual impact on congregants.
3. Don’t treat online ministry as an afterthought.
Almost every church developed some form of online ministry recently thanks to COVID-19. Churches that see online ministry as an afterthought, however, will fade.
People are living more digitally than ever, and businesses are completely rethinking their strategy in light of this, reducing reliance on brick-and-mortar locations and pivoting to online. Churches would do well to learn from their successes.
Online ministry need not be seen as merely a temporary stopgap—it can, and should, be seen as an opportunity. Since your target demographic is online, it’s a pretty big opportunity.
4. Don’t rely on an echo chamber for feedback.
Many pastors feel pressure from their members to reopen—and reopen fully. And that’s predictable. People always crave what they’ve known. You can’t crave anything you haven’t tried.
Church people are going to love in-person worship because that’s all they’ve known. Leaders are going to love it because that’s what they’ve known. All their skills, training, and experience call them back to it. And pastors who had great success in the past will be all the more motivated to preserve that past or to recreate it.
The echo chamber of social media amplifies the longing leaders already have, in much the same way that holding a seashell up to your ear echoes back to you your own heartbeat, subtly changed and amplified to sound like the whole wild sea.
Wise leaders know they have to move beyond the comfortable and familiar. They have to be open to hearing varying opinions, for example, people in the broader local community, young people, blue-collar workers, and people of color. Considering different opinions leads to better decisions.
Leaders of declining churches comfortably, even unwittingly, surround themselves with like-minded voices and influences. Don’t fall into this trap. Take away the shell and truly listen.
5. Don’t rely on what you think of as tried-and-true service formats.
In the disruption brought on by the pandemic, and the subsequent mass move online, many churches discovered that what had worked for in-person weekend services didn’t translate to the internet, and they responded by pivoting to shorter services with less music and more engaging, interactive content. Some pastors even hired YouTubers to help with message creation and delivery.
Others tried to force the traditional three-songs-and-a-message format they were familiar with—a format that younger churchgoers already found less engaging than more charismatic services—to the online world. But COVID-19 and the nation’s response to the pandemic have disrupted daily life, and Barna data shows that churchgoers across the country have been rethinking their once-routine Sunday morning experience: a return to a format that had already stopped resonating before the crisis is likely not the best move.
The key to having new services that fit this new world is to keep faithfully experimenting and exploring what helps people best connect with God.
6. Don’t exclude Gen Z from leadership.
Generation Z is the first truly digital native generation. The oldest members of Gen Z were only 10 years old when YouTube was born, and just 12 when the iPhone was launched. They have always consumed and created content differently than any other generation. They essentially speak a different language.
The average senior pastor is 57 and does not speak this language. There is great benefit in having church leaders two or three generations younger and in giving them actual influence, authority, and responsibility, especially as more church functions are moved into the digital world Gen Z already inhabits. It’s one of the best ways to keep your message current and your church young.
Mentoring can happen in any relationship, not just an older person teaching a younger person. And it’s important to recognize all that Gen Z has to offer.
Churches that survive and thrive post-pandemic understand that the online world is not a temporary pit stop where they wait and regroup before returning to the analog, in-person world they knew. In order for our impact and relationships to continue to grow, online ministry must become a natural extension of the church.
This article is adapted from “The New Characteristics of Churches that Will Be in Decline Five Years from Now.”