Five Likely Consequences of the Pandemic Most Church Leaders Do Not Expect

May 4, 2020

By Thom S. Rainer

There have been volumes written about the church world in a post-pandemic era. There have been webinars and blogs and podcasts and more. Indeed, I am one of those who has joined the chorus of voices sharing my perspectives with local congregations.

I have also been looking below the surface to see what might transpire that might not be readily obvious. These five likely consequences range from the trivial to the important.

  1. Many churches will always have one digital worship service available for emergencies. It is not unusual for a church to have one or more services a year that are canceled (or should be canceled) due to dangerous weather conditions. Since so many people have embraced streaming services, it will be easy to point them to a pre-recorded service if they can’t meet in person.
  1. Worship wars will decrease significantly. Church members have been exposed to a wide variety of worship styles during the pandemic. They now have the realization that the world does not come to an end when the style is not exactly their preference. There will be a greater openness to these worship styles in their own congregations.
  1. More churches will add automated door openers. Thanks to Tim Cool of Smart Church Solutions for making this observation in a podcast on Rainer on Leadership. People now prefer not to touch doors. These automatic openers are now affordable for most churches. 
  1. Fewer churches will have a person handing out bulletins/worship folders. That’s one more point of contact that can be avoided. Typically, there will be a sign that says something like, “Take One for the Worship Service.” Or there will be someone greeting people who points out the worship folders to those entering the worship center.
  1. The newest financial metric will be percentage of digital and scheduled giving to total giving. There will even be metrics that suggest what a healthy percentage will be. Even now, I am suggesting churches have no less than 60% for the ratio, with a guidance to try to get the digital and scheduled giving to at least 80%. I am aware of a larger established church that moved this ratio from 20% to 70% during the pandemic. I am also aware of a three-year old church with a ratio of 98%.

There will likely be many more consequences of the pandemic we did not expect in our churches. I would love to hear from you about the changes you think will take place.

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28 Comments

  • It seems to me that a lot of pastors would do well to educate their members on what it really means to be the church. This pandemic has revealed a lot of weak thinking in that area. If you think online worship is an acceptable long-term alternative to in-person worship, then you need to go back and read the New Testament again.

    • P.S. When I said “you”, that was intended as a generic “you”. I was not directing it at Dr. Rainer (on the contrary, I think he’d agree with me on this point).

  • 6. International Mission Trips…

  • Sure there have been some top notch folks available online for a long time. Not sure I would say folks haven’t been paying attention. I would say it has been seen less as an alternative to brick and mortar church and more as an add on. Now with forced isolating I think we may find quite a few liked being able to choose from a larger selection. Zoom, google meets, other platforms are also making distance fellowship possible. Very nice for those who live where there is not a church of their faith family close by.

    • Some people in churches Who were only brick-and-mortar and some church leaders did not realise it because they did not (have to) worry about it. That was what people did who were railed against in sermons, attended online and sought/found pastoral care and answers there too. The unwanted knew about it all along because that is where we found acceptance, places to discuss religion, and answers.

  • Lol re worship wars. We have a teenager in the family who detests praise and worship music but loves facebook worship. Just picks the music that suits, listens and sings along, then switches to the service in time for the sermon. The worship wars are over with digital church. People choose their own music, for that matter the preacher. Might only have two to choose from in their little village but can worship half a world away thanks to the digital age.

    We may have to get used to the idea of the local church being in a sense a thing of the past. We may have just globalized without intending to do so!

    • Religion has been global for a long time now. Some top-notch clergy have had world wide followings online and via blogs. A lot of people just did not realize this because they weren’t paying attention.

    • I’m in Maryland and love the podcast of Red Rocks Church in Littleton, Colorado. I’ve really loved getting to worship with them online during the pandemic. Their sermons have really spoken to me during this season.

      We have teens. Come-as-you-are family worship has been a big blessing to us. I regret some of the rushing around we did when our kids were younger. This season of online/family room worship has been a reset for us.

      I don’t like getting home from work and having to run out again to go to small group. I’d really like to do this online in the future. I live in an area where people commute distances for work. Why haven’t we had online options for small groups in the past?

      A group of church friends and I have been having sewing nights for mask making via Zoom. It’s been really meaningful to spend time with them this way.

      We’ve been finishing up the Awana year using Zoom. Could we better support some of our busy families this way going forward? Then a small group leader could reach out to their kids if they’re out and help them keep up.

      OTOH, I’m wondering what nursery will be like in my aging church going forward for awhile. Can we ask older volunteers to serve with kids who may be COVID positive but entirely asymptomatic?

  • R Johnson says on

    Thom Rainer mentioned a decrease in the “worship wars” because of seeing different styles…. I think you will also see, in some instances, increased dissatisfaction with one’s current church (worship and preaching) after having viewed others. Pastors and church leaders should be prepared for this. Some will be unwarranted and some should prompt us to look at what we’re doing and make some changes…

  • cotton mathis says on

    Finally.

    Because of the pandemic, the “church women huggers” are out of business.

    Women can soon (we pray) freely walk into church without having to worry about “the hugger” grabbing them.

    This should have never been.

  • Ralph Hough says on

    Immediately, we got our live stream up and running. Since the church did this previous my tenure (3 1/2 years) and having the equipment and technician to do it, it came off fairly easy. We continued to be ‘open’ for the 10 person limit. We kept worship format about the same but a little shorter. We considered the digital giving but found that since the general giving was above normal (e.i. people mailing and dropping off their contributions) we did not pursue it. My feeling is that we will get back to original normal. But having said that, and now equipped with camera in my office, too, how do we use these as teaching/devotional tools on a regular basis. I believe it will help me as pastor in few ways: clearer focus towards a directional purpose to which teaching and training will broaden our perspective and ministry/Gospel outreach and strengthen our minds, hearts and hands in the process. Blessings to all!

    • Robin G Jordan says on

      Ralph, I don’t think that we’ll ever go back to the “original normal.” The indications are that COVID-19 is going to be with us for the foreseeable future. Despite all the talk about fast-tracking the development of a vaccine, we face the bleak possibility that the scientists may not succeeded in developing an effective vaccine. They have not come up with an effective vaccine for HIV/AIDS. The only way we may be able to slow the spread of the virus and reduce the death toll is to employ public health measures like the ones that we are presently employing and which a number of people who resent such restrictions on their lives or do not see their usefulness are flouting to the detriment of others. Some churches may attempt to go back to the “original normal” only to discover that they are contributing to the spread of the virus in their community. The first documented case of the virus in my community was an out-of-towner visiting a relative in the community. This out-of-towner had been diagnosed as virus positive and was in the infectious stage of the disease. He did not feel sick so he decided to go ahead and visit the relative as planned. While he was visiting the relative, he attended the relative’s church, exposing its congregation to the virus. The second documented case of the virus in the community was the relative who also worked at the county hospital. The community is home to a state university. Before they went on spring break, the students were urged not to travel during the break but to stay at home and stay away from other people. Some did; others joined the students from other universities on spring break in Florida. Those who lived in the community may have brought the virus back to the community. The community is near an interstate highway that links Louisville, Kentucky with Nashville, Tennessee and residents of the community often travel to Nashville for various reasons. One or more residents may have brought the virus back with them. The community is also near the Kentucky-Tennessee border and a number of people who work in local businesses live in Tennessee. Tennessee implemented less stringent public health measures to slow the spread of the virus than did Kentucky. One or more of these people may have also brought the virus with them. Two days ago the county health department announced its 33rd documented case of the virus. Does not sound like a lot of cases does it? These cases are confirmed cases which means that there is in all likelihood far more unconfirmed cases in the community–people who have the virus, are experiencing mild or no symptoms, and are infectious. The infection rate for COVID-19 is two but may be higher, depending upon a particular locality. In other words, one person will infect at least two more people who in turn will each infect two or more people and so on. The CDC is projecting that 3000 people will die daily from the virus in June. We are not at the back end of the pandemic by a long shot. Rather than acting on hunches, we needed to be making decisions based upon the best available scientific evidence. I was involved in child welfare work for more than 25 years and based upon that experience, which included working with mothers and children infected with HIV/AIDS, mothers ill-informed about the seriousness of preventable childhood diseases and the need for vaccination of their children, and children with health, developmental, and learning problems resulting from such diseases, I believe that we should not take this pandemic too lightly. I do not see any returning to the “original normal” at any time in the future. If we take a hard look at the old “normal,” it really was not that great anyway. One thing that you learn in crisis intervention which was also a part of my work is that things never go back to the way that they exactly were in the past. The client may achieve a new homostasis in their life but it will not be the old one. Rather than trying to achieve homostasis , churches should take advantage of this crisis and use it to make necessary changes that will make them more nimble in their response to future crises which, whether we like it, will be a part of the “new normal.”

      • Craig Giddens says on

        “What is raising a storm is that the 65,735 COVID-19 deaths listed by the CDC on its DAILY count does not match up with more accurate WEEKLY COVID-19 death estimate of 37,308 as of the week ending April 25.”

        https://www.lewrockwell.com/2020/05/no_author/cdc-keeps-nation-in-lockdown-using-incomplete-probable-death-numbers/

      • Charley Bazzell says on

        Robin, It sounds like you are describing (incorrectly, I might add) what happened at the church where I serve, unless you are talking about another very similar situation. I live in Murray, Ky and serve at the University Church of Christ. Murray is home to a state university and we are a border town with Tn. Don’t mean to discredit any of the points you make in your post, other than to point out that the details of what happened are incorrect. The story was we had an out of town guest with us on the last Sunday we met before suspending all our assemblies. That would have been March 15. We were told later that week, by the local health department, that a visitor in our service on the 15, who was from out of town, had since tested positive for the virus and all of us who were in attendance that Sunday needed to go into quarantine for 14 days (this was on Thursday, March 19th), which we did. About 150 of us, which is about half our number, the rest were urged to stay home that day. Turns out, that information was completely false. We did not have a guest with us that morning who later tested positive for the virus, rather, it was one of our members, a young man who also worked at the local hospital. He had visited some friends in Nashville the week before. One of them contacted him on Monday the 16th and informed him that he had tested positive for the virus. Our member was tested on the 17th and confirmed positive on the 18th. We then got the incorrect call from the health department on the 19th. We are still mystified at the misinformation we were given. As you might expect, I/we were attacked on social media for meeting in the first place. However, because of the precautions we took that morning, social distancing, etc., even though we had someone in our midst who later tested positive for the virus, no one else in attendance that morning came down with the virus, which is a testimony to social distancing, done well. I wish that had been the story that was circulated, instead, we are now “that” church, the one that met when it shouldn’t have met and infected and killed people. At least that is what some accused us of in social media.

  • Todd Hurley says on

    Curious to know more about automatic door openers. Where is the best place to purchase? How much does one cost?

  • Andrew says on

    An addition consequence (in my opinion): Churches that have built their congregations around worship services will be hit the hardest due to a lack of accountability that comes with discipleship and small group involvement. There will also be a distinct divide between committed attendees as compared to convenience oriented attendees.
    With this I believe there will be an increased recognition for a need for discipleship, as opposed to many pastor friends who are preparing sermon series on giving followed the pandemic.

  • There will be attention paid to the sermon/homily put online and how well it corresponds to the text/Gospel which hopefully was on screen either scrolling or a solid screen (check copyright first) read prior to the sermon. This is a great way to teach the Gospel to people, which is what you should have been doing anyway. Sure, the comments will be analysed and ridiculous ones (outliers) removed. However, the wise leaders will attempt to gauge/monitor the reactions from those metrics of time spent listening. If people stop viewing 3 minutes into the sermon, there needs to be an analysis of the what happened and why but will have to be done a few days to a week after the sermon to get enough comments for statistical significance, not first thing Monday morning. I am not totally out to analyse the sermon secular fashion, but you will need a way to monitor reaction. You cannot take your audience for granted like you used to.

    • Robin G Jordan says on

      That’s true. In physical gatherings preachers have a captive audience. Few people are going to get up and walk out during the sermon. They may tune out the preacher and not return the next Sunday. Online if a preacher does not engage his listeners from the outset, one click and they are gone. They won’t hang around to hear the end of the sermon. The long-winded preacher who pads his sermons with superfluous filler and chases rabbits will not do well online. I think that we will be hearing shorter, more concise, and easier to understand sermons that focus on a single point.

    • Our church’s online worship includes a chat feature. The pastor has made himself available for 15-20 minutes after the service is over (it’s recorded during the week and then played on our website) for any questions about the sermon. Based on the numbers I’ve been seeing, about half will stick around after the service for the chat and about half that group will participate.

      • That is good. Too many years of sermons being one way just like university lectures. I have read that back 100 years ago rabbis took questions on Saturday mornings in the service right before the Torah reading. This made sense, and I am glad it is returning.

      • One of the better Sundays we had in recent months was when someone asked a question about the opening Scripture reading just after it was read and we spent the next 40 minutes talking about it and sharing insights with one another. We all laughed when we realized that he hadn’t even sung the opening hymn yet. In that church situation, they had had 40 years of evangelists but they had never been taught anything beyond the basic concepts. Sharing as part of the service has become a part of what we do.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    The changes that churches have made in their services to tailor them to those attending them online will be carried over to the church’s in-person services. They will have discovered that lengthy traditional services do not transfer well to online. Churches are already concluding that counting views is not an effective way of measuring online attendance. They will develop methods for measuring how long people attend their online services and will use the resulting statistics in determining how effective these services are in reaching their ministry target group. There will be a rethinking of the theology of the gathered and scattered church, which, while not downplaying the importance of physical gatherings as a tangible expression of the Body of Christ, will recognize that digital gatherings are also an expression of the Body of Christ when they are comprised of believers who are united to Christ and to each other by the Holy Spirit. Social distancing and other public health measures like wearing a face mask are likely to affect choral, congregational, and ensemble singing for the foreseeable future. Congregants widely scattered around a partially filled sanctuary, their mouths muffled by a face mask, are not going to sound like congregants standing close to each other in a near full sanctuary with nothing covering their mouths. Churches will conclude that online services, whether livestreamed or pre-recorded, are better done from a studio than from an empty sanctuary. More churches will explore online communion and we may witness a change in attitude toward lay communion in denominations that require a priest or pastor to pray over the communion elements before they are consumed. Churches that have frequent observances of the Lord’s Supper will be rethinking how they distribute the communion elements. We can also expect a number of churches to react to all the changes by doggedly clinging to the past. These churches are likely to continue their present decline.

  • Da v id T ro ubl ef ie ld, PhD, DMin says on

    It has been said—and correctly so—that necessity is the mother of invention. If a thing does not yet exist, the necessity for it has not been encountered enough times (the alternative: a solution looking for a problem, instead of a problem looking for a solution).

    But invention is not adoption; to sustain actual adoption, personal and group resistance (i.e., “I don’t want to—and you can’t make us”) of the usual sort must be overcome to stay. The current pandemic certainly is a major and tragic event in world history; the use of technologies by more local churches definitely is something that is being learned in this time, but I don’t see much else changing about how the average congregation “does church” after the need for social distancing and etc. have passed and members return. Probably, “the new normal” otherwise will last only weeks to months; true change will not have happened. Culture indeed eats strategy for breakfast—but personal and group latency/status quo snack on culture all day long (i.e., change is most important if it’s needed, but resistance to change always is present no matter what).

    If change (“a self-sustaining new condition”) really is needed by local churches and denominations, it’s better if they choose it intentionally, strategically, and relationally.

    (Dissatisfaction x Vision of preferred future x Knowledge of first steps) > Resistance = Change

    If dissatisfaction, vision of a preferred future, and/or knowledge of first steps is/are absent, then change can’t happen because resistance won’t be overcome. These are functions of management, leadership, and administration; one or more people in a group must function in those ways for self-sustaining new conditions to occur. (With apologies to John Maxwell, everything does not rise or fall on leadership alone because it can’t.)

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