As of Sunday, 22nd March this year, churches in Australia could no longer meet in physical buildings due to the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. The majority of churches had to immediately move to some kind of online platform – ready or not. For some, this was a relatively easy step, especially for churches who had already been engaged in the digital space through live-streaming, Facebook, You Tube, or video podcasting. For others, this has been a huge and somewhat stressful learning curve.
I was speaking at a church in Perth in mid-March this year. I spoke at 3 church services on the Sunday, each with a smaller congregation of people in the auditorium than usual, but live-streamed to the rest of the congregation. Late Sunday evening, I recorded part 2 of my series of messages to be aired the following Sunday as all church services moved online (and I was unable to fly back to Perth due to interstate travel restrictions). Since that time, due to being unable to travel or speak at public church services, seminars or training events, I have been preparing ‘video sermons’ for a variety of churches, participating in a number of webinars, and doing a lot of video coaching. This truly is an unprecedented time for all of us, including for churches and church leaders.
Here are some of the current realities 3 months on (sources listed below):
- There was an initial upsurge in online engagement for many churches, even higher than their previous regular weekend attendance numbers. People from other states and even overseas were able to engage over the internet. Many churches have had dozens or even 100s of more people joining their online services. At the upper end, I have been told that Gateway Church in Dallas had 250,000 people watch its Easter church services online, while Christ Fellowship in Florida had 1 million viewers.
- Since Easter, there seems to have been a drop off of the numbers of people engaging with online church services. This is especially true of young people and young adults who find greater value in relational connection than in merely streaming more ‘content’.
- Personal connection and engagement are very different matters than people merely watching a church service online (which can tend towards consumerism). Digital connect cards have been helpful for some churches while ‘Facebook LIVE’ after church services or ‘ZOOM morning teas’ are working well for others.
- A lot of churches are engaged in practical local mission such as delivering meals and shopping for shut ins. There has also been a large uptake in ALPHA online, as well as Christianity Explained courses.
- Communication from church leaders seems to have been good, especially from pastors to staff and congregations. However, connection with volunteer leaders, especially small group leaders, could be improved in some situations.
- There are concerns about the financial impact of COVID-19 on churches, because of the inability to meet together (where many churches still receive physical offerings) and the loss of jobs by congregation members. According to one survey of Australian churches, 75% have experienced an income drop by at least 10%, 18% have decreased by more than 50%, while 8% of churches had an increase in income. Income reduction affects not only the church budget but also morale of the pastor. Interestingly, it appears that not much about the financial impact of COVID-19 on churches is being communicated with church members.
- A lot of church leaders are exhausted, especially with all of the changes to the move online. Others are tired but excited about the new opportunities. Church leadership is becoming more and more difficult in our time. There is a lot of pressure. Emotional depletion and burnout is common. Many pastors are scrambling … while some are in despair.
- Pastors and church leaders are benefiting from coaching with someone outside their context, for encouragement, support and mentoring. If you are a church leader, see what your denomination may provide in terms of coaching or contact an inter-denominational coach. For instance, Partners in Ministry here in Australia has a growing team of experienced coaches. The team, including myself, is currently offering 2-3 free coaching sessions (‘no need for you to pay’). Use the contact emails to make an enquiry if you are interested.
Here are some of the key questions currently being grappled with:
- When will churches be able to meet again and what will this be like? How will churches re-open?
- Could there be a second wave of the virus and what will the impact be?
- What programs or ministries of the church would benefit by staying online?
- Will churches go back to physical only gatherings or continue to engage in the digital space? Some are speaking about the future being more of a ‘hybrid’ model of church – both physical and digital. American church consultant Carey Nieuwhof recently noted that in many ways the church is currently a “physical organisation with an online presence” while the church of the future will be more of an “online organisation with a physical presence.” What do you think about this?
- What is an appropriate ‘ecclesiology’, or theology of church, for this time? Is church online an appropriate regular expression of the church Jesus had in mind?
- What needs to be different for churches as life gets back to ‘normal’? What do you think needs to be stopped? Started? Less of? More of? The same? Different?
No doubt COVID-19 is a time of disorientation for everyone, filling our lives with all kinds of uncertainty. We need to acknowledge and feel this fully. Fear, anxiety and grief are normal. Thankfully, we can draw courage, faith and wisdom from God. There is life on the other side of this and hope for the future.
Finally, here are some helpful resources:
- Video: Peter Mayrick from Partners in Ministry shares the results of the affect of self-isolation on 182 Australian churches recently surveyed.
- Article: How Australian Churches are Adapting to Changing COVID-19 Realities.
- Webinar with Australian Psychologist Kirsty Bucknell: Planning Wisely to ‘Come Out’ of COVID-19 (29th May 2020)
- Coronavirus and the Church – an American web site with a host of excellent resources.
- God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath – a new book release from N.T. Wright.
- An informative article from the innovative Heart of God Church in Singapore, led by Pastor Seow Tan and Cecilia Chan.
- NEW: Barna Research State of the Church Report: “One in Three Practicing Christians Has Stopped Attending Church During COVID-19.”
- NEW: “8 Ideas for Battling Screen Fatigue and Declining Online Attendance Attendance” from Church Marketing University (USA).
- NEW: Two-thirds of UK churches identify loneliness as top issue to tackle post-lockdown.