top of page

The Church has Left the Building — 5 Leadership Responses

I remember a profound moment with my daughter ten or fifteen years ago. We were engaged in one of our “deep thought hour” conversations when she asked a question I will never forget. “What if no one had ever thought of the idea that a church should meet every week for the big event that we can’t seem to live without now?” It’s hard to imagine something so familiar having never been started, but until six months ago that idea was intellectual curiosity. Today, that curiosity is a non-negotiable necessity.

In my last couple posts, I wrote about internal dynamics facing leaders during this time of crisis. Today I want to speak into the strategic side of Church leadership.

Thanks to this global pandemic, we are now in our second wave of large group shut down. Our deep dependence on—and even our identity anchored in—the weekly worship-preaching event has left churches, leaders, and congregational members destabilized. What does it mean to do life as a local church and fulfill our mission without the weekend gathering?

3, 6, or 9 months from now we will know so much more, but right now, I believe five strategies and one attitude adjustment are absolutely essential.

1. Put Our Mission at the Center—NOT Our Methods.

Every business, every endeavor, develops core methodologies. That’s a good thing. But, then those responsive methods become sacred and prevent us from seeing other options. They captivate our attentions and soon feel inseparable from our mission, even our identity. When that happens, any threat to that methodology feels like a threat to our very essence. In the church, the shut-down of the weekly worship service feels like a threat to our existence.

One of the greatest gifts any leader can give to their organization is to help clear the table of methodological clutter and get everyone to look with fresh eyes at the compelling essence of their mission.

Maybe we can’t hold large worship gatherings for a few months, or a year, or ever. But that shift doesn’t tarnish our mission. What if we got outside of our familiar box and just started to dream all over again? What if we just accepted the fact that we now live in a new world that will require new strategies? What if we experimented with new ways to help people discover and follow Jesus? What if we shifted emphasis from the big gathering event to engaging our immediate context of relationships with the active presence of Jesus? What if we focused our collective energy on mobilizing, empowering, and supporting our people to live on mission in a radically dispersed way and in so doing greatly enlarged the impact of our footprint?

What if we have been given a gift rather than a critical injury? What if our circumstances have cleared the slate and opened the door for a season of discovery, adventure, and unencumbered experimentation? To take advantage of the pregnant potential in this season, we must put our mission in the center rather than our traditions. Only then can we see what is possible.

2. Explore Digital Delivery Systems to Serve Three Different Audiences.

This moment calls for much more than simply grabbing onto social media or youTube live. There is an explosion of digital options for connecting and communicating via technology. Don’t limit your creativity to one platform or another, think of technology as a rapidly expanding bag of tools. Different tools meet different needs, lift you eyes up from your tools and focus on your audiences. Then consider the right tools.

You have three types of audiences and for each of them you need to find digital systems that enable you to meet the challenges of communication, support, training, and relational connectivity. In the same way that you put mission rather than methods at the center your creative grid, don’t start by reaching for technology but start with studying your different audiences and what they need. Then research, experiment, and fine tune digital systems that meet those needs. Your three audiences:

(1.) The large group. (Your entire constituency as a large group.)

(2.) Small groups. (Staff. Leadership. Teams. Life groups. etc.)

(3.) Individuals. (Direct two-way connection with individuals.)

3. Invest in Video and Technology Production and Personnel.

I think we’ve all discovered that in a visually sophisticated world, you can’t just point a camera at the platform and conduct a worship service exactly like you did for a room full of people.

Once we move our worship services to the screen, we enter a world where people are accustomed to multiple camera angles, shorter segments, visual variety, and a production quality of a whole new level.

We need new kinds of thinking and new levels of production design, technology, and skilled personnel. We also need to invite creative thought about crafting the broadcast experience. Just to jumpstart your imagination: What if instead of a 60-80 minute continual feed, you broke the worship service experience into segments where people paused and interacted at home? What if you gave people access to a chat feed where they engaged with the speaker? What if you mixed multiple platforms so that while people watched a presentation on one platform they were also interacting with each other on another platform?

This dive into new technology is requiring most churches to find new levels of expertise. to shape it. We’ve said farewell to the era where a static website and a facebook feed will get the job done. Going forward, we must take seriously the need to invest in and staff for our digital delivery strategies. (That staff could be whole new teams of volunteers.)

4. Prepare for Permanent Fears Around Virus Vulnerability.

When the talk of being sequestered at home first started, everyone wondered how long it would last and how soon we could go back to normal. I now wonder if we will ever fully return to the way things used to be. The more we discover about how truly vulnerable we are to the spread of new and deadly viruses, the more this season leaves a permanent imprint on the way we engage socially.

Just as the Great Depression of the 20’s-30’s permanently shaped the values of an entire generation, this viral pandemic will likely make a permanent shift in the behavior patterns—and comfort zones—of those living through it.

In the church this means some people may never feel completely safe returning to large group gatherings. We might never return to side-by-side seating. The notion of maintaining a safe “personal bubble” could mean deeper reliance on small groups of ten or less people who maintain careful contact disciplines.

Since leaders embrace and respond to reality, it is time to start thinking about new and long lasting shifts in the way we do programs, events, retreats, etc. It is time to start thinking creatively about how we do training, discipleship, community engagement, even pastoral care.

5. Experiment with New Ways to Build Community.

Building community in new ways is clearly connected to the vulnerable feelings of #4 above, but there is more. When people are unable to participate in the larger gatherings where established leaders shape the practices of the group, they are going to need training and resources to help them become skilled at forming community in a decentralized reality.

Most small groups, life groups, missional communities, or whatever they are called, have done well at some degree of relational connection. However, their effectiveness at transformational practices is less than stellar. In an era when you can only meet together in small highly trusted groups, it becomes essential for those groups to become highly effective at engaging consistent life-changing practices.

And, the attitude shift:Get Over It!

A pastoral friend of mine used this phrase about himself a couple months back. He had always been against the live-stream worship service trend. Covid-19 required adjustment. His self-proclaimed diagnosis, “I just had to get over it. As a matter of fact, even after this season ends, we will continue to broadcast live stream. It’s one key way people engage.”

I had my own personal “get over it” moment just this week. For well over a year, I have been working behind the scenes on the design for a two-year leadership formation cohort that will help next generation leaders shape the life-long trajectory of their development and impact. Covid-19 felt like a door slammed shut on that plan because it stripped our ability to carry out the face-to-face intensive retreats at the core of the plan. Then this week I had a little heart to heart with myself. If I could just “get over it,” I saw a dynamic way to build creative and powerful intensive cohort gatherings online. Boom. Creativity reborn. New insights and ideas released. Back to the drawing board. My original vision for the delivery method had become too sacred and kept me from seeing creative alternatives that actually expanded the possibilities.

Now it’s your turn.

What are you resistant to? What do you need to “Get over?” Start working your way through the five critical strategies and carve a new way forward.

When you discover more steps we all need to take, send me a note or add your comment.

Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


bottom of page