Last month, we cautiously celebrated the general re-opening of society in the United States and the general re-opening of Regional Conferences churches and offices. Our celebration was cautious-and, as it turned out-with good reason.
To some degree, the pandemic-which never fully went away-returned with a vengeance-particularly among those who have steadfastly declined to be vaccinated. Covid-generated hospitalizations-again, overwhelmingly, of unvaccinated persons-have gone back to levels they were this past winter-a particularly disconcerting thought, as one would expect Covid infections to trend downward as people and their activities move outdoors.
I have learned not to try to predict anything with this virus but a return to the lockdowns of 2020 would not appear to be likely-but who can really predict how things will be 4-6 months from now?
So-all we can say is that for now, the majority of our denominational entities have re-opened and are attempting to resume some sort of normal operations (though as we said last month, it seems unlikely that things will ever be the way they were prior to mid-February, 2020 again).
We began talking last month, therefore, about what did we learn as a church these past 15-18 months about how we do ministry? We began with 2 things:
1. We learned that God will take care of His church. I do not think that anyone would have thought that we could close most of our churches for anywhere from 12-15 months without having to face severe financial repercussions.
That did not happen. God came through-because He is God.
In July, 2021, of the 58 conferences in the North American Division, every conference reported a tithe gain for the year. Every. Single. Conference.
To put that in perspective, in 2019-the last full non-pandemic year-approximately 33 conferences-roughly 56% or so-reported tithe losses. The tithe loss for the last “normal year”-2019-was over 2 million dollars.
The tithe gain for North America in pandemic-riddled 2020 was nearly 18 and one half million dollars.
But that is nothing compared to the blessings of the Lord so far in 2021. The tithe gain in North America through July, 2021 is nearly 90 million dollars.
I literally had to look at that several times to make sure I was reading those figures correctly. What we were not doing in a good economy, God blessed us to do during a pandemic.
Now-a little of that comes from there being one more Sabbath during the first 7 months of 2021 than there was in 2020. But even if you go back one month and compare June of 2021 with June of 2020-when the number of Sabbaths were exactly the same-the tithe gain for the year is nearly 80 million dollars. God’s people have been faithful and He has taken care of His church.
2. We learned a great deal about how to use technology to do ministry. Necessity became the mother of innovation, as all kind of new ways to do ministry were discovered. The things that the pandemic prevented us from doing forced us to use technology to do all kinds of new things-from how we do meetings, to how we do music, to how smaller churches can collaborate-and the list goes on.
But the journey is not over yet. Here are some things I don’t think we have quite figured out as yet:
A. How to be a “digital disciple”- in other words, how can individual members use technology to share the gospel to the people around them?
The truth of the matter is that so far in Covid 19, our money is way up-our baptisms are way down. That is not to beat up on anyone-especially not our Pastors. Pastoring has never been easy.
I had the unique experience of being in a conference office for nearly 30 years before going back to the pastorate for a brief time prior to accepting the call to the Office for Regional Conference Ministries (ORCM). I discovered that things in the local church were much different than when I first went to the conference office in 1990.
Then-the pandemic hit. We have the best educated clergy we have ever had-far better educated than back in 1978 when I began as a young Pastor. But no one ever, anywhere, ever took a class called “Pandemic 101-What to Do When the Whole World Goes Crazy-All At Once”. Everyone on every level of the church is trying to figure out everything on the fly.
But our rate of growth-which had already slowed significantly before the pandemic-is less than half of even that. There are a number of things that we shall have to learn to accept as the “new normal”. Not growing the church cannot be one of them.
B. What to do about the significant number of members who “dropped out” during the pandemic. In my travels and in talking to Pastors and to church members, I am seeing and hearing anecdotally that the churches that have reopened are seeing 20%-50% of their pre-pandemic attendance ( I heard of one church that had 10% of it’s pre-pandemic attendance).
Now I have heard all kinds of philosophical explanations, e.g., “People have come back, they just haven’t come back to the building”. I am not going to argue that. For one thing-it wouldn’t do any good.
For another, there are undoubtedly people who have legitimate health concerns. Just as no one went to school and took “Pandemic 101”, I do not believe there are many churches that were built with the idea that they could easily accommodate the safety needs of a bunch of people worshipping at the same time in a pandemic.
There are people with pre-existing conditions that make them vulnerable to a disease that has killed well over 600,000 people. If I were them, I would think long and hard about the advisability of returning to church. Moreover, there is no vaccine yet for children under 12. And even being vaccinated is not a guarantee against contracting Covid-though it gives you a far better chance against “contracting” death. So, there are good reasons for some of those 50-75% of pre-Covid attending church members who are still at home.
But there are not good reasons for everyone. There are those that have become disengaged and disconnected from the household of faith. There are those who have simply checked out. They just have.
And something must be done about that. We cannot simply allow our brothers and sisters to simply disappear without trying to win them back. Someone in the church-and it cannot just be the Pastor-needs to know where everyone who has not yet returned to church is and why they haven’t returned.
C. I am not sure that we have figured out how to do online ministry for children and young people. I remember sitting in the old Glenville Church in Cleveland, Ohio as a little boy and listening to my Pastor-the late Elder C.D. Brooks-and saying, “When I grow up, I want to be a Pastor and preach like Elder Brooks.”
Well-I did become a Pastor-I just did not ever learn how to preach like Elder Brooks. The point is that I do not think that Elder Brooks would have had the impact that he had on me as a little boy if all I could do back then was listen online.
My grandson is 6 years old. I don’t know how much of the sermons he was listening to pre-Covid; probably not much. But I suspect he isn’t hearing much at all online. I don’t think online church works very well for young children.
I’m also not sure it works for teenagers, either. Somewhere there is someone who has done some kind of research on how engaged teenagers are in online Divine Worship service. If I had to guess-and it would be just a guess-I suspect it may well not be very much.
Long ago-back in my Youth Director days, one of the attractions of church for young people was when churches had activities that allowed them to do things with their friends. My experience with young people is that they are very relational; I am still in touch with young people from my days as a young Pastor and as a Youth Director-even though a lot of those young people are not exactly young people any more.
I am not sure that online church can replicate those relationships. I am not sure in this pandemic we have quite figured out how to connect children and young people to their peers and to other caring adults-such as Youth Directors and Youth Ministries leaders and Sabbath School teachers and through those connections, help connect them to God.
I hope that I am wrong about that. I hope that there are a bunch of churches out there who are doing great things with young people even through this pandemic and the same kind of innovation that we have seen relative to worship services is being seen in Children and Youth Ministries.
But if we are not doing that, we need to start doing that pretty quickly.
The Lord has sustained His church through what has been the worst medical and financial crisis of our lifetime. That crisis is not over yet. We do not yet know how the story of Covid 19 will end.
What we do know is God is going to see His church through. This church will survive.
Whether it thrives-and not just survives in the future-is being decided by what we do-and don’t do-right now.