By Joy Allmond and Y Bonesteele
How should the the church be postured for change during this season of ministry? What kind of pruning should congregations welcome amid the impact of the coronavirus?
Facts & Trends recently discussed these topics with Trevin Wax, vice president of communications and theology at Lifeway Christian Resources.
No one could have been ready for what the world is experiencing right now, and the way we do church is dramatically different from what we’re used to.
In light of that, what do you think are harmful habits you see churches possibly falling into during this time of isolation?
Wax: One of the habits I see pastors dealing with is assuming that as long as you get your content out, you’ve done your work.
Church is not just content delivery. If that were the case, we could just live stream for the rest of our lives.
But a lot of times, because that’s the focus of many church leaders—the songs we’re going to sing, the words we’re going to say from the platform, the passage we’re going to preach—because a lot of our work as church leaders is in communicating biblical truth, we tend to think continuing to communicate content is enough.
This bad habit existed before, but this crisis has the opportunity of either reinforcing that habit or of helping people rethink that habit.
What does re-thinking that habit look like?
Wax: I hope leaders and pastors remember church is not just about communication; it’s about connection as well.
At the end of the day, if church is simply about content and communication, then why not have everyone just listen to the 10 best preachers in America on podcast? Or the 10 best preachers from the last century, for that matter?
We need connection because connection fuels communication.
You preach differently when you know the people in your congregation well, when you know the struggles, when you know what different people are facing.
The way you interpret and expound Scripture is going to change in light of your knowledge of the people you’re called to serve.
Communication and connection go hand in hand. I hope this season is reinforcing the need for both of those things, and pastors aren’t missing out on connecting with their people.
In this season then, do you think pastors and church leaders feel they’re doing communication and connection well?
Wax: Pastors now are not only working on communication (getting sermons ready with technology, some learning new skills in the process), but are also working on connection that’s harder than ever with members scattered.
Pastors feel the need to weekly check in on members one on one, to see how they’re doing in isolation.
They’re realizing, however, that they can’t do it alone. It’s an overwhelming amount of work for some.
What are some ways church leaders were unprepared for ministry in this pandemic?
Wax: One thing we’re seeing right now is church leaders are having to rely on lay leaders in their churches more in order for ministry to function well, for communication and connection to be at its best.
Pastors have to rely on deacons or small group leaders or other people in the congregation; and for some, there’s not enough current lay leaders available or able to help with the ministry.
Why do you think that is?
Wax: In the United States, we have this notion that the church pays the staff to do the work of the ministry, rather than the pastors or the staff equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry.
What we need instead, however, is for everyone to see themselves as ministers during this time.
Too many have gotten used to just pastors and paid staff doing most of the ministry in the past. But that wasn’t sufficient then, and it won’t be sufficient now.
The need to train leaders has always been a part of ministry, perhaps theoretically, but as long as things were comfortable and we weren’t in a crisis, we could skate by without really giving much attention to it.
Many church leaders are realizing now, more than ever, this needs to change.
So how should church leaders assess their ministries now to determine what changes in vision or strategy they should make for post-coronavirus ministry?
Wax: Andy Crouch talks about how many church leaders see this crisis as a blizzard, something to hunker down and get through, when we ought to be seeing it as a mini ice age.
We’re going to be dealing with the economic effects of this for the next several years, not the next several weeks.
I think this is an opportunity, a painful opportunity (especially for churches who feel financially pinched), to really focus on the core of what our mission is and to figure out how we’re going to accomplish that mission in ways that are financially sustainable for the future.
That will mean leaning on a lot of lay leaders, on the church being the church, rather than simply assuming paid staff are the ones who are going to get all the work done.
It’s going to lead to a narrowing of focus, a pruning of activity, as we get back to the core of what makes the church the church.
Churches, programs, activities—these are things that make an impact in people’s lives and have so for a long time.
Having to prune things that have been seriously fruitful in the past, because they’re not right at the core of what the church is called to do, is going to be painful for a lot of people.
How do you see the church bettering itself through this crisis?
Wax: We have an opportunity to go back to what’s most basic. This is a moment moving forward where we truly can have something of a reset.
We can do this by focusing on what’s essential: Make changes and deploy resources and make investments in the future that will set up the church for greater success. That’s the painful opportunity.
But the blessing on the other side of this is a church that hopefully senses more our dependence on God, more devotion to prayer, more acknowledgment of our inadequacies, and more trust in God’s sovereignty.
I hope the narrowing of our focus will actually lead to an outsized effect in the next 10 years as we deploy resources to that which is most essential for the church’s health, life, and mission.
Joy is managing editor of LifewayResearch.com.
Y is an editorial coordinator at Lifeway and has her M.Div from Talbot School of Theology.