After 28 years of ministry (including 20 in my current context), I asked for and received permission from the session to take sabbatical during the summer of 2020. My wife and I planned a trip to Scotland that included a retreat to Iona, playing a round of golf at St. Andrews and visiting my ancestral homeland. But COVID-19 changed all of that. Instead, I spent my two months at home in South Carolina.
Taking sabbatical during the first summer of this pandemic allowed me to do a lot of research and listening. I listened to podcasts, watched webinars, read books and talked to colleagues about next steps in ministry. I attended worship outside at several churches and watched others online.
I discovered that my colleagues are, for the most part, tired and frustrated due to the challenges from the pandemic and the desire to confront racial injustice. One pastor said he has “decision overload,” while all pastors I talked to shared their stress of listening to the opposing opinions about reopening church buildings for worship and activities.
In Genesis 18:1-15, the Lord appears to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre in the form of three people. God then informs Abraham that, even though he and his wife Sarah are old, they will have a son. God is in the business of making old things new. But new does not look like the old. Jesus is recorded in three of the Gospels as saying that you cannot put “new wine into old wineskins because the wineskins will break and spill the new wine.”
The pandemic is speeding up a process of institutional church decline that was already happening. I found church consultant Carey Nieuwhof to be spot on in many ways. According to Nieuwhof, we will see:
- Less of the days of engaging the vast majority of parishioners in Sunday worship only;
- Fewer non-churched people will feel safe in large worship events;
- Facility-focused ministry models will be inadequate;
- Exclusively in-person educational models are in trouble; and
- Churches that ignore cultural context and movements like Black Lives Matter will fade and wither as people seek a way to engage their Sunday life with their Monday-through-Saturday life.
Nieuwhof says that what we will see more of is:
- Part-time employees;
- Thriving churches will have 7-days-a-week engagement;
- Online engagement will be central;
- Facilities will become less and less relevant to a church’s survival;
- Faith formation will be a hybrid of in-person and virtual; and
- Vital churches will speak to the cultural issues of the day.
According to several webinars I watched, we are in a time of digital acceleration. In the midst of these changes, people are looking for authenticity and passion. This digital acceleration means that churches must be a hybrid that is both online and in person, that church programming must be on demand like Netflix or Disney+, that the church must staff for online presence and the biggest outreach will be from people inviting others to join them online or to view what they are watching online. This is already happening in the culture, so the church needs to either catch up or be left behind.
One webinar I watched from Barna said that church as we have known it is based on a sermon-centric, in-person model. We organize our worship, children’s church and nursery – and much of our staffing and church life – around a sermon. But the speaker challenged this method of witness as an ineffective model. He noted that church attendance is declining, that a large group lecture is the worst learning environment, that the sermon-centric model is expensive and younger generations are skeptical of the “sage on the stage.” According to Barna research, the typical 15-33-year-old spends 2,800 hours on screen media per year. The webinar leader challenged churches to spend fewer resources of time and staff on a sermon and more on other methods of sharing the gospel. This means less focus on staff members supporting, preparing and delivering an in-person sermon and more time by staff on engagement throughout the week with congregants and the community.
Making significant changes is really, really hard. One webinar leader said that “irrelevance is the gap between how quickly things change and how quickly you change.” Another said, “If you don’t change your methods then eventually no one will hear your message.” One said, “Churches that adapt well will survive while those that don’t, won’t.” Another commented that the “people who benefited most from the old ways are the ones most eager to return, but that many people are not coming back.”
Churches that have recently returned to in-person worship have been surprised and saddened by the low worship attendance figures. Research from Barna shows that church attendance across the country is at 35% of what it was before the coronavirus pandemic. I saw this trend in the churches that I attended for outside worship during sabbatical. The ones least likely to attend worship are older folks as well as families with children.
So what is our future as the institutional church? In my opinion (which is supported by my sabbatical research), if we rush back into trying to do ministry the way we have done it in the past, we will fail. The pandemic is simply making something that was already happening move quicker than anticipated. But as I learned, “a problem is simply an opportunity in disguise” and “never let a good crisis go to waste.”
As author and Presbyterian pastor Joan Gray invites us to do, we must be a sailboat rather than a rowboat church. That means encouraging curiosity over a sense of control. We venture out not knowing what lies ahead. We must be present with people rather than make false and uninformed promises. People want honesty and transparency as we move ahead.
We must be focused in service rather than being served. In other words, we ask, “Where does the community need us to be with the love of Christ?” rather than asking, “What does the church need to survive?” This is not a time to turn inward and adopt a mindset of scarcity rather than abundance. This means that we don’t say, “We can’t do this because…” but rather we ask, “Where can we show up and what can we do?”
Churches must improve and expand our digital presence. That means that staff time needs to be adjusted and resources committed so that we are delivering higher quality online content. Like public schools who are offering hybrid instruction, we need to be fully committed to a hybrid model of ministry that is both online and present. As we increase our online presence, how do we build stronger community and connections in person and online?
My sabbatical did not go as initially planned. However, I am thankful for this time of study, rest and reflection as we journey together through this marathon (it’s not a sprint!).
SAM McGREGOR JR. is pastor of Allison Creek Presbyterian Church in York, South Carolina.