Leadership in our post-pandemic world demands more from us than ever before. We need massive emotional intelligence to manage our stress and remain healthy, Spirit-led wisdom to navigate complexity, and resilience to stay the course. The pandemic has upended routines and fundamentally shifted how people live, work and engage with the church.
We have made progress in managing the virus, true, but we are still fumbling in the dark to lead our churches forward in our new reality. To gain momentum, we must cling to our mission while radically innovating our methods.
Here are three essential tips that I believe can help churches think differently, fuel positive energy and pave the way for ministry innovation.
1. Stop worrying about Sunday attendance and embrace that the church is taking on a new expression.
Many voices are sounding the alarm that the church in America is dying. I understand the statistics and why they believe this, but I think the idea is misguided and unhelpful. It is rooted in a scarcity mindset that triggers fear, which then blocks creativity and innovation.
In-person Sunday attendance has sharply declined in the wake of the pandemic, but this trend has been escalating for years. This is partly because people are attending less frequently, and many are now choosing to participate online. In March 2022, 30% of all U.S. adults watched a religious service online. Among Christians who attend services at least once monthly, 57% reported watching online.
Just as God used persecution in Jerusalem to scatter the early church and spread the gospel (Acts 8:1), perhaps God is using the pandemic to move churches to increase our digital presence. To force us to go where people are the other six days of the week: on the internet. Perhaps God is moving His church to a hybrid, digital, decentralized future beyond our buildings. I’m not suggesting that we completely abandon in-person gatherings, but we need to reimagine how they might look different.
For us at Seneca Creek Community Church, this has included live streamed worship services, online chat rooms (opened immediately following the live stream), virtual Bible studies, daily devotionals on social media, sermon series discussion groups in restaurants, and family meet-ups at playgrounds.
We have also discovered new ways to use our building to serve our community beyond Sunday. We launched a pantry and diaper program to help our vulnerable neighbors and those struggling beneath the weight of inflation. These ministries draw people from our church and community who come to volunteer. Today, twice as many people come through our doors Monday through Friday than on Sunday mornings pre-COVID.
Perhaps the pandemic is not an end for the church but merely a rebirth — an end to things that no longer work so that a new, radiant church may be resurrected.
2. Stop complaining about culture and start listening and learning from it.
We need to become students of today’s spiritual-but-not-religious culture. That’s our best hope for understanding their view of reality and the words they use to talk about the Divine. I’m increasingly meeting people who do not attend church but believe in God; they voice openness to spirituality yet speak about it in a dialect foreign to my Christian vocabulary. Paul faced similar challenges in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) and thus became a student of that culture, walking around their city, observing their idols and reading their poets.
Words like kingdom, salvation, sin and sanctification are significant to us, and the doctrines still matter. But the words themselves don’t translate well in today’s culture. We must find new ways to discuss these truths that will connect with those we are trying to reach.
This may sound like outdated advice; many pastors believe they have been relevant to the unchurched for years. Maybe or maybe not. Do we as pastors have relationships with those far from God and the church? Do we work to engage with and understand them? That often means we need to do so outside our Sunday service. I say that because, according to pastor and futurist Cary Nieuwhof, even large, growing churches are not attracting many unchurched people. It is still just transfer growth.
Martin Luther faced similar challenges in translating the Bible into the everyday language of his German culture. In his Open Letter on Translation, he wrote, “You don’t ask Latin literature how to speak German; you ask the mother at home, the children in the street, the common man in the market.” He believed it was essential to employ popular phrases and sayings to appeal to the people of his era. We must keep striving to do the same.
3. Stop waiting for answers and start experimenting.
Many of us have more questions than answers these days. I know I do. Some of them include:
How do we create community when people are not showing up?
What does effective discipleship look like in this new reality?
How do we recruit and build healthy volunteer teams when people resist long-term commitments?
I have yet to talk to a church leader who has uncovered solutions to these challenging realities. We can try to make predictions, but we won’t find answers in the past because we have not been here before. Instead, we have to try new things.
My motto with my staff these days has been, “Everything is an experiment.” The idea of experimentation removes some of the pressure to succeed and opens space to try new things without fear of failure. We will not know in advance if our new ideas will succeed, so we should not spend too much time perfecting them. It’s best to get moving with simple experiments.
Some things we have piloted to increase engagement at Seneca Creek include virtual newcomer classes, at-home ministry boxes for kids and adults, a student leadership cohort, and one-minute parenting tips on social media. Each one has been an experiment. As leaders, we observe, ask questions, collect data, evaluate and adjust as we go.
To foster this kind of innovation, we must create safe-to-fail cultures and even celebrate failure, which means we tried something and learned from it. Knowing what does not work moves us closer to discovering what does.
The pace of change in the last two years has been disorienting, but we must lead through this next season as change agents — remaining tight-fisted with our mission but open-handed with our methods as we:
- Trust that God is reshaping and reorienting His church to be the radiant embodiment of Christ, every day and everywhere.
- Proclaim the gospel in the language of our culture to help today’s generation find and follow Christ.
- Experiment with new ideas for outreach, discipleship, and community to find what works for our church.
Leading a church today is more complicated than ever, but these three tips can fuel positive energy and strengthen our teams to keep moving.