In March 2020, as the American public only began to grasp the growing scope of the global pandemic, we suddenly went into a shutdown. Churches could no longer meet in person; many scrambled to find ways to broadcast their Sunday services online instead. Initially, many of us thought (wishfully, as it turned out) that the shutdown would last a few weeks and we would return to normal. But the shutdown dragged out for months and months. Many churches were unable to meet in person for more than a year.
Pastors began wondering out loud to me if their churches would survive financially. They fretted about their buildings, sitting empty week after week. They were concerned about giving amid sudden job losses and economic downturn. They worried about a drop-off in online service attendance. There was much cause for deep anxiety, and the pandemic’s long-term impact on churches may be felt for years to come.
But I don’t believe that the pandemic is a crisis we simply need to recover from. Instead, the crisis of the pandemic and its aftereffects presents an opportunity to reshape the church in transformative ways. It offers us a moment of clarity to perceive our need for reinvention for the sake of our mission.
The Crisis that Revealed a Greater Crisis
The crisis faced by churches during the pandemic draws our attention to larger, already-existing crises we have ignored for too long.
We have become overly dependent on a mode of church that invests most of our time, efforts, and financial resources on large-gathering productions on Sundays. When church leaders switched over to online platforms, they faced the blank eye of the camera. There was no feedback, interaction, or engagement. But isn’t this the way things had been for a while? The goals of “doing church” had been polished worship experiences, marketing the church to visitors and members alike and featuring one-way monologues by preachers relying on their oratorical skills and personal charisma to get the gospel message across and build a ministry.
This attractional model of church had already been failing to connect with the younger generation of Christians, as well as with the “dones”—longtime Christians who had become disillusioned with prevailing models of church and dropped out. Why? One of the dones explained to sociologist and Church Refugees coauthor Josh Packard, “I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.” He or she is speaking to the problem of clericalism and the disengagement of the laity. The pandemic only accelerated the disengagement that was already underway.
We have become addicted to money and its representations, like buildings. Instead of financial resources being used for the common good and to meet the needs of the community’s most vulnerable, church resources had been mostly tied up paying for buildings, staff, and programs. When the pandemic hit, we found ourselves suddenly cash-strapped.
This financial challenge has been a growing one for the church, however. It is a common sight to see church buildings getting remade as condos. Many seminary graduates, finding traditional employment in the ministry drying up, have opted for the bivocational route or no ministry position at all. When churches could not use their own buildings due to the pandemic, they became portraits of a top-heavy church budget, spending more on themselves than they could afford.
Pastoral ministry has been in need of reform; the pandemic further exposed this. Pastors were expected to major in personal-celebrity appeal and dynamic leadership. A consolidation of power and, too often, its abuses have been the result, as was the growing disengagement of the laity.
With the arrival of the pandemic, pastors’ isolation from the rest of the faith community became palpable. The new center of spiritual life, worship, and discipleship became more clearly the home—but the spiritual leader could only speak into it, one way, through a screen. A discipleship that grows spiritual leaders in every household had been absent in too many churches.
Opportunity Arises from Crisis
In a crisis, it is necessary for us to prayerfully pause, redirect our focus to the basics of the church’s mission, deconstruct how the old normal hid the larger crises that the church ignored for too long, and reimagine a design by which we might build the church anew in the ruins. A crisis has the potential to open new possibilities; the hope of rebuilding the church more faithful to the mission of God may lie on the other side.
David J. Bosch wrote in Transforming Mission, “It is … normal for Christians to live in a situation of crisis. … Let us also know that to encounter crisis is to encounter the possibility of truly being the church.” Our journey through the crisis of the pandemic could be an opportunity for the church to reset, pivot from old patterns, look afresh at the future, and wholly embrace the journey of becoming its true self for such a time as this.
The church has been granted the theological imagination to reinvent and rebuild. For people of resurrection, death becomes a doorway out of which new life emerges. So we do not pine for a return to normal as our deliverance, but we long for a resurrection that overshadows the old life. A crisis might not be a grave but a womb. Our resilience comes from our theology of resurrection.
A Fresh Future, Forged by Crisis
What are the new possibilities opened for the church, now that we have been afforded a crisis? How might lessons learned from our journey through the crisis of the pandemic enable us to envision the future of ministry in fresh ways? I offer a few strokes of a sketch.
Pastors will reframe their roles in the church. Instead of focusing on Sunday preaching as their major work, or on visionary, charismatic leadership as a CEO as their chief metaphor, pastors will shift their focus to discipling, developing, and deploying other leaders, cultivating the gifts of the whole congregation, and convening the community to seek the leading of the Spirit for the body. There will be a pivot from consolidating power to decentralizing it.
The recent rise of the bivocational pastorate makes this pivot almost necessary. In this framework, the ministry is not the pastor’s alone; the ideal is the priesthood of all believers. The missiologist Roland Allen had this in mind when he spoke of “the spontaneous expansion of the church”— what happens when the church is freed from clericalism and the laity becomes essential actors (not spectators) in the common missional life of the Spirit.
Our theology of church will shift. We are in the habit of thinking of churches as institutions housed in buildings with a class of professionals running them. But the pandemic has shown just how frail the linkage between the church as an institution and the Christian household isolated during a pandemic can be. Moving forward, the apostolic DNA latent in each household needs to be activated. This is a possibility when every believer in the church is already on the discipleship path of cultivating and exercising their leadership gifts in community. Spiritual leadership in households becomes a natural outflow.
This theology of church has been dubbed “movement ecclesiology” because church is conceived as a movement growing from the grassroots, not an institution that operates from the top down. As Alan Hirsch notes in The Forgotten Ways, the leadership potential already resides within each gathering of disciples, no matter how small (even individual households), and when these groups are activated, multiplied, and networked, we have an organic movement that has the capacity to work and grow spontaneously, led by the Spirit. Movement ecclesiology is well suited for life in the post-pandemic ruins. When institutional superstructures become obsolete or buildings become less central to the way we envision ministry, church communities don’t get hung up on maintaining the old status quo but rather reimagine and reforge a new way forward because we always had what we needed all along.
Missional opportunities will be revealed. In the past, when challenged to care for the hurting in their own communities, many Christians have responded, “There aren’t any poor in my neighborhood” and resorted to a tourist model of missions. This perception of needs being absent in their own backyards often stems from a lack of knowledge of their own neighborhoods. Along with many in our society, Christians have often neglected to take seriously their place and situatedness. We were not taught to be good students of our communities; instead, we were taught to be committed to the church as an institution—an institution with ever-increasing demand to be taken care of. Much energy and time is required to run the programs, fund the ministry, and build the building. So many Christians become absent from their own blocks.
We now have the opportunity to look around our neighborhood and reset. The long-term economic impact of the pandemic on individuals and families is painfully obvious. Those who are struggling with financial hardship are now readily apparent, as food-bank lines stretch down our communities’ thoroughfares and tent cities expand in our downtown districts.
As our world shrank during the shutdown, many of us became engaged with our immediate neighbors and their needs. We went on grocery-shopping runs for them; we displayed signs of encouragement on our windows. Church buildings that were sitting empty got turned into community centers to mobilize neighbors to distribute food to the hungry and fearful, to get organized for community interests, and to simply support each other in times of need, as neighbors should. How can this same vision for ministry in neighborhoods and communities continue? In the future, the church must rediscover its incarnational mission and its calling to solidarity with the hurts and the joys of its parish.
These are but a few sketches of how churches could rebuild in the ruins if we are able to reset and emerge from the long-term effects of the pandemic as incarnational communities. Of course the details and specifics will vary greatly from one congregation to another: There will be many unexpected surprises, some pleasant, others not as much; there will be delightful creativities and breakthroughs; there will be hardships that will require the perseverance of the saints. We will need to learn to wait and listen to the leading of the Spirit as God leads, step by step. May the Lord lead us into the new, uncharted land with faith and expectancy. He can make everything new, including us, his church.
Kyuboem Lee is a church planter and professor of missiology at Missio Seminary, where he also directs the DMin program. This article is adapted from “Growing a Church in the Ruins” by Kyuboem Lee, chapter 8 of When the Universe Cracks: Living as God’s People in Times of Crisis, edited by Angie Ward. Copyright ©2021. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.