At a recent Middle Baptist Association pastor peer learning event the discussion centered on Thom Rainer’s new book, “The Post Quarantine Church.” The book hit the shelves on Sept. 8, 2020. Of course, we aren’t really living in a post-COVID world yet, but Rainer has written a very timely and helpful volume about lessons learned now that we are about six months into the disruption of COVID-19 and now that most churches have returned to in-person services.
With the permission of the participants in our group, I have written a summary of our discussion. These pastors serve in approximately five counties in Coastal Georgia. These were some of the questions that shaped our discussion:
What has been the biggest personal or organizational challenge during Covid-19?
Everyone agreed that introducing new technology has been challenging. There was a learning curve to livestreaming services. Additionally, everyone felt that it took some time to adjust to the calendar becoming irrelevant. Others saw the different way that decision-making occurred as a mixed blessing. While there was mostly more permission to make crisis decisions, navigating this with difficult people was also seen as a challenging factor. Some saw the need to innovate as a difficulty because they weren’t pioneers by nature.
Developing a new set of routines was hard for most. Weight gain and a sense of disorientation weren’t uncommon. Planning events and knowing what to cancel or commit to was not easy. It was difficult to manage expectations (both personal and congregational). Some churches experienced “fits and starts” due to outbreaks of the virus. Re-opening had to be reset.
It was hard to know what to do because everyone’s context had different variables. It felt unfair to compare what was happening in one place to what was being done elsewhere.
What have been some changes that have been “not all bad”?
Most participants felt that having a larger footprint due to technology was an unexpected blessing. One pastor – Bobby Burgess at West Chatham Baptist – has seen a big uptick in his online presence due to their livestreamed signing ministry to the deaf community. It was a welcome and unexpected outcome. Pastors were grateful that their congregations were perceiving adaptive change more positively. Matt Hines of Baptist Church at Ebenezer witnessed the spontaneous birth of a home discipleship group, out of which five baptisms had recently occurred.
Some of the pastors were glad that this season has made it easier to adjust meeting schedules in ways that might have been more difficult post-COVID. It was agreed that increased family time was an unintended blessing of this disruptive season. Some were glad to jettison some less important busy activities.
What issues complicated the question of how to re-open?
These were fairly predictable: Most felt that it was often difficult to find trustworthy information due to polarized media. Most felt that Governor Brian Kemp had communicated helpful data to assist them in making good decisions.
Pastors expressed it was hard to determine which health practices in gathering were permissible and helpful. Some have found the masks-or-no-masks furor a little draining. At least one pastor felt that financial concerns put pressure on him to return to in-person worship. Everyone wrestled with timing issues while trying to understand the bigger cultural context. Some churches still have volunteers who are unavailable due to personal health vulnerability.
What are some pre-Covid activities you really don’t want to return to?
I am hearing from a lot of pastors that no one is making a fuss to return to the old format for Sunday evening church. They hope that if Sunday PM church returns, it will look completely different than before. Someone felt the same about their midweek service.
The meet and greet was an obvious answer for a few folks. Clearly not something you want to be doing now, and for some not in the future, either. Some pastors did not want to see the passing of the offering plate return, although this was not universally felt.
What are some barriers that keep churches from seeing the facility as a ministry tool?
“They’ll mess it up.” This was an interesting response. We all agreed that this represents an unbiblical way of viewing the community. Instead of seeing those in our community as people who need to be connected to God through the gospel, we can see them as outsiders who might wreck our building and ruin our carpet. This represented a clear example of unhealthy ownership in the church.
It was acknowledged that sometimes it is necessary to clarify valid issues regarding liability. But instead of creating policies and barriers that keep the community out of church facilities, it is more healthy to try to understand how to view buildings as tools to serve the community and connect to them by meeting needs. We admitted that aversion to innovation made creative thinking about facility use difficult.
Now that you have had time to evaluate online church, how do you see its value?
Everybody agreed that having an online presence during COVID-19 was indispensable. But everyone also felt concerned that, long-term, a precedent was created for some people of online church replacing in-person church.
Unless there are clear limiting factors (health or distance), this should be discouraged as a general practice. It undermines the essence of what a church is, because a church by definition gathers personally. A second group felt that COVID-19 was creating a more committed membership because the demise of nominal church participation was fast-forwarded.
Pastor Peer Learning groups have been a part of the MBA for over 15 years. I often hear from pastors that this setting is one of their favorite things we do. These groups create specific affinity alignment in communities so that pastors can connect and learn and pray for each other as they deepen their friendship around their common call to serve Christ and His church.
This post originally appeared at Braswell’s blog.