By Scott McConnell
With sparks and loud pops, our oven breathed its last. We had come to expect adversity like this. After all it was 2020. Our living room TV and dishwasher had also failed earlier in the year. The pandemic had created plenty of chaos, and the failure of these appliances just added to the disruption and financial tension.
You’re probably not surprised a string of unfortunate things occurred in our home in 2020. But honestly, it would be irrational for either of us to believe a calendar change could actually cause three appliances to fail at three different times.
Yes, there is a pattern of disappointments in the same year (Did I mention the new oven was delivered with a hole in the oven door?). But to suggest a single cause—especially a date—would be beyond reasonable.
Yet many of us have made similar unreasonable suggestions about the cause of difficulties in our churches. We didn’t just have one difficult thing happen in our churches this past year, most of us have seen several. Throughout 2020, we kept finding things that were dysfunctional, broken, or on their last leg—not to mention those ministries that were forced to pause.
Here are several realities exposed in 2020 that were not simply a function of the year and will need our attention going forward.
Our relationships are missing.
As believers, we need each other. Christ asked us to turn to Him individually, but to follow Him together. As the nation closed in March of 2020, the top concern of pastors was connecting with their people.
This reflected a natural reaction in the midst of any disaster to run toward loved ones. It also reflected pastors’ own loneliness and isolation. But it also reflected the biblical instinct that the church was not created to function as separate individuals who remotely auto-schedule their support and login to watch.
Our presence matters to other believers, because it encourages them, absorbs some of their burden, and affirms truth.
Our relationships matter to the mission of the church. Jesus said they will know we are Christians by our love shown toward each other.
While churches quickly worked to stay connected with Zoom meetings and phone calls, many felt how much these fall short of in-person fellowship and hands-on ministry. Many also realized how little members were in the habit of connecting with each other outside of times at church.
Our Discipleship Pathway Assessment has revealed that building relationships is the second weakest signpost in American churches. In the typical church a third of attendees were not even participating in a smaller group before COVID-19.
While safety still calls for less-connected ministry in some places, the wise leader has led their people to better understand the value of the fellowship they are missing during this time. As one such pastor said, “It’s remarkable how this situation is renewing a sense of koinonia in our congregation.”There’s likely no greater priority for churches than to foster relationships within their fellowship and to focus these relationships on the truth of God’s Word. This need is too big to wait until everyone can return. Click To Tweet
There’s likely no greater priority for churches than to foster relationships within their fellowship and to focus these relationships on the truth of God’s Word. This need is too big to wait until everyone can return.
Group participation has been one of the best predictors of future worship attendance. Start now in helping group leaders meet in safe ways and repeatedly remind your congregation the importance of these connections.
Our spiritual gifts were neglected.
Similar to the fellowship that’s missing, many spiritual gifts could not be fully used for long stretches during the year.
Pastors and group leaders who are gifted in teaching were frustrated without having live learners in their presence as they taught. Pastors and members with gifts of mercy and caring were heartbroken when restrictions kept them from visiting inside nursing homes and hospitals.
Those gifted in leadership didn’t know if anyone was really following them from such a distance. Many did use their gift of giving during the year, but often with less than perfect information about what was actually needed.
In 2020 we experienced the temporary pain of missing opportunities to use our gifts. Hopefully every believer will be more appreciative of these opportunities and will value the joy that comes from building up others in the fellowship.
However, some churches realized how limited a role gifts had played in their church. One pastor described the void, “We are seeing very little effort among many leaders other than staff.”Churches who expected their pastor to do everything when COVID-19 hit saw things grind to a halt. Click To Tweet
God created the body of Christ to be made up of different members who possess different gifts from the Holy Spirit. Churches who expected their pastor to do everything when COVID-19 hit saw things grind to a halt. That was never meant to be the model, yet many members had eased into letting ministers do all the ministry.
Sharing the load, knowing our gifts, and allowing the Holy Spirit to work through us are not options for believers. These are part of God’s beautiful design for His church.
Pastors and other church leaders need partnership in ministry from their congregations. Equipping the saints for works of ministry and helping them see how the Holy Spirit has gifted them are additional areas of ministry that need our attention today.
Racial reconciliation still needs effort.
The video of the death of George Floyd shocked our nation in much the same way the images of Emmett Till’s body published in Jet magazine did after his 1955 murder. We like to think of ourselves as a good people. We’re slow to admit our unrighteousness, especially that we have sinful habits.
The stress of the pandemic likely raised our national anger even higher, but it is something that continues to smolder when there’s no natural disaster. We were reminded again that there’s still work to be done in our hearts, in our society, and in our churches for people of all ethnicities to be treated equally.
Some churches who had addressed the topic in the past seemed to have checked the box and moved on. According to a recent Lifeway Research survey, 16% of Protestant pastors haven’t addressed racial reconciliation from the pulpit in the last two years (up from 10% in 2016).According to a recent Lifeway Research survey, 16% of Protestant pastors haven’t addressed racial reconciliation from the pulpit in the last two years (up from 10% in 2016). Click To Tweet
Twelve percent of pastors received negative feedback when they addressed racial reconciliation in their church. That can be discouraging, but it means the majority of churches have dealt with racial reconciliation and done so in ways that their congregation received well.
However, situations where lives aren’t valued because of race or socio-economic level persist. Social habits and laws still include examples of preference rather than equality. While these remain, the church’s work is not done.
Our technology was outdated.
At some point in 2020, most of us had to admit we were behind on technology. There were new tools we hadn’t adopted nor even investigated. For every church that livestreamed services before COVID-19, two other churches started within two months of the onset of the pandemic. Among churches that didn’t offer an online giving option, 1 in 3 had added it by April 2020.
Churches began communicating electronically with greater frequency and with additional methods. They also began to use Zoom and other meeting software to try to maintain some connections and keep work moving ahead. One in five churches offered drive-in services at least once when they couldn’t meet in person.
The wise churches made these moves while also thinking of the strategic and theological implications. One pastor said, “We have purposely been a low-tech congregation and were unprepared for the demands of teaching and preaching in this kind of situation. We plan to upgrade our capabilities, but without compromising our strong focus on community and physical presence.”Wise churches have made technological moves while also thinking of the strategic and theological implications. Click To Tweet
Technology may seem like a low priority compared to other problems we discovered in 2020. But technology also enabled ministry during some moments when it literally would have been paused.
Let it be means to more important ends such as making connections and moving ministry work forward. As technology continues to evolve, it is worthwhile evaluating new options to see where ministry can be improved.
Our preferences were a higher priority than unity.
There was no mistaking that the coronavirus pandemic brought numerous changes to almost every church. Change produces an abundance of opinions. The volume of changes created an avalanche of diverse perspectives within churches of what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.
Some opinions were offered in good faith, but many others in the form of harsh criticism and personal attacks.
Personal opinions were strongly influenced by political influence from both sides of the aisle. A believer should apply their faith to their political views and involvement, but that involvement shouldn’t replace God’s Word as their compass. Our theology, not our politics, should be the tuning fork for every area of our lives.Considering the priority Jesus gave to the unity of His followers, it deserves our attention. Click To Tweet
These harsh reactions revealed a habit of our hearts: The feeling as church members that we’re entitled to our way. The “golden rule” Jesus gave us encourages us to constantly think about what is best for others. Even in this we can become rigid in our own opinion of what is best. A biblical perspective goes a step further to be both others-focused and to pursue Christ-focused unity.
The themes in Scripture of believers living as one and being characterized by unity are only possible when we acknowledge the truth of Scripture, surrender our own rights, and support our church’s pastor as they follow Christ. Considering the priority Jesus gave to this unity, it deserves our attention.
We expected non-believers to come to us.
As leaders look back on 2020, most see that their church had fewer baptisms or new professions of faith than a typical year. As believers had fewer connections with live human beings, that often meant fewer opportunities to share the good news with others.
We rejoice with the 13% of pastors who reported that an attendee in their church saw someone make a commitment to Christ after sharing the gospel with them during COVID-19.
Many churches also realized that in a typical year most of the new people who come to Christ come from within. When they canceled camps for their youth and VBS for their children, fewer young people in their own families made commitments to Christ. As they can safely resume these opportunities, they will likely see new professions of faith.
However, these next generation salvations have masked the lack of converts to Christ from non-Christian families in our communities. Lower numbers of commitments to Christ not only revealed what was paused, but also what may not have been taking place.Jesus is the hope of the nations and our task is to share it with them, not to only share it with ourselves. Click To Tweet
Churches need to encourage believers in their fellowship to connect with non-believers in their neighborhood, workplace, and where they shop and play. Jesus is the hope of the nations and our task is to share it with them, not to only share it with ourselves.
We can try to blame these problems on the year 2020, but deep down we know the year didn’t cause them. In many cases the pandemic didn’t cause the problem either. It only revealed them.
As I write this, 2021 hasn’t started out much better. My phone died this morning, but I’m not going to blame it on the year. I’m going to admit it was a really old phone and I should’ve been preparing for this day.
It is a new year for your church, but that doesn’t mean you won’t discover more broken things. Consider these revelations your ministry to-do list. Use biblical priorities to help you sort your list.
Scott is the executive director of Lifeway Research.