The Post-Pandemic Church
In a world rocked by COVID-19, Churches of Christ face…
This pandemic will end.
Ben Pickett is sure of it.
“It’s going to take longer than we thought,” said the executive minister for the West Houston Church of Christ in Texas, a year after the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in the U.S.
But “we will come out of this,” Pickett said, “and we’ll have stories of how God sustained us and maintained us, and how God provided resources just when they were needed. We’re going to have all kinds of stories.”
Until then, the West Houston church, which brought in about 700 worshipers on an average, pre-pandemic Sunday, is “kind of in a hybrid season,” Pickett said. Worship is socially distanced. A few classes meet in person. There are online options for both.
Churches around the world are in the same situation, often making quick adjustments as virus case numbers rise and fall.
The Christian Chronicle asked ministers and members of Churches of Christ across the U.S. to share thoughts and plans for the post-pandemic future. Some said it’s simply too soon for specifics. Others said that, regardless of what’s to come, the “hybrid season” is here to stay.
“It is essential that our strategies for engagement move toward a ‘both/and’ model,” said Nic Dunbar, worship minister for the West Houston church.
Churches that focus solely on in-person services may be “missing out on engaging community members that are actually looking for them online,” he said. But online-only churches may be “missing out on being salt and light in their current context.”
Even before the pandemic, Churches of Christ in the United States were declining numerically. In the past decade, the number of adherents — baptized believers and their children — in the pews of Churches of Christ dropped nearly 10 percent to 1,425,836 nationwide, according to data released by Carl Royster of 21st Century Christian in June 2020.
A month later, the Barna Group, an evangelical research firm, released the results of a survey conducted in first two months of the pandemic. One-third of respondents who identified as practicing Christians said they had neither livestreamed their home church nor another church during that time.
A few of those respondents may have attended the minority of churches still meeting in person at the time, the researchers wrote, but “we can, for the most part, confidently interpret this group as those who have dropped out of church for the time being.”
The uncertainty of those church members returning, combined with the preexisting decline in adherents, has some ministers expressing sentiments like those of Randy Roper, preaching minister for the Edmond Church of Christ in Oklahoma.
“I don’t want things to go back like they were,” Roper told the Chronicle. “I want things to be better.”
Perhaps one benefit of the pandemic is that it’s forced Christians to rethink what the word “church” means, said Jessica Knapp.
“I don’t think we will ‘go back’ to church the way it was any time soon — and I think that is potentially a good thing,” said Knapp, associate campus minister for Ambassadors 4 Christ, a campus ministry of Churches of Christ in Tucson, Ariz.
Students who took part in church “out of habit” may not return, she said, but those “who need Jesus and know it will be in the group, stronger and more connected than before.”
Knapp added, “I see the need to redefine what it means to be a church. Are we a family who see each other for a quick bite on Sundays, or are we a community that shares life together, sees one another and communicates in multiple modalities across platforms, regularly and often?”
Even as increasing numbers of Christians return for in-person worship and Bible classes, leaders of the Clear Creek Church of Christ in Hixson, Tenn., want to “invest more in getting people out of the building” and mobilized for ministry, said teaching minister Joshua Diggs.
“We want to avoid the mindset that church is a destination,” Diggs said, “and that church happens only on certain days of the week.”
Back in Houston, Pickett remembers the days when churches measured the success of a ministry event primarily by the number of people who showed up. Now, “if the event happens, it’s a win,” he said.
“We don’t know where this thing is going to end, but we know that God is leading us.”
“In many ways, we’re like Israel in the wilderness,” he said. Questions about the long-term effects of vaccines on church life and the emerging new normal are hard to fathom.
“We don’t know where this thing is going to end,” he said, “but we know that God is leading us.”
The celebration of COVID-19’s defeat “will come with mourning; it will come with sadness,” Pickett said. “And yet, God is the God of new beginnings. There’s reason to believe that God will lead us right where we need to go.”
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