In this article, taken from the EFAC/Peter Corney Training Centre online conference, Dominic Steele explains why Australian pastors need to make a strategic shift in their thinking. Dominic is the Lead Pastor of Village Church, Sydney.
Australian church leaders need to make a philosophical shift across the board, away from leading for recovery and towards planning to lead for endurance.
We need to start using the catch-cry, “Not recovery, but endurance”, in order to set our people’s expectations right.
Back in May, the Australian Prime Minister announced that he expected we would be at meetings of up to 100 by the end of July. Across the board, the reaction of church leaders was pretty much, “Wow, that’s faster than we thought.” And then various state governments fell over themselves to announce the easing of restrictions in late June as quickly as they could. And we started to plan for recovery. But since then, so much has changed. Among pastors, there are now two different mindsets. Some pastors still have in their heads a plan of a trajectory towards recovery. They are thinking, “How can we get back to what we were?” But the other, wiser position is to plan for endurance. The big virus outbreak in Victoria has caused a rethink. Government rhetoric has changed. The language coming out of the National Cabinet is explicitly promoting the strategy of suppression rather than elimination. That means recovery is not in sight. Back to normal is not going to happen anytime soon. We, as church leaders, should be planning for a continuation of the virus in the community—and for an ongoing level of anxiety in both our church members and the wider community.
In my own situation, we expect this will work out as some people wanting to meet physically in the church building, some being unwilling to meet in anything larger than home group sizes, and some wanting to remain at home. Some of that caution is going to be very reasonable. People in high-risk groups, or those exhibiting symptoms, or those with sick kids will rightly choose to stick with the online option. And we should expect the percentage of our membership which will choose to go either way will vary depending on the prevalence of the virus, their own risk status, or the risk status of someone close to them, and just general anxiety levels. But that’s the reality of ministry for the next 18+ months. And we need to make strategic and budget decisions in line with at.
There’s not going to be a single moment soon when we go back to live church and the streaming nightmare is over.
In light of this, a wise strategy will be to create smaller public meetings and parallel live streaming ministries. This will require us to invest in technology and develop new gifts. For example, teachers will need to work out how to simultaneously relate to those in the room and to the broadcast audience. (Incidentally, I recommend doing the broadcast of the live service, rather than pre-record on the one hand because of cost. Pre-recorded work takes so much longer, and live programming makes viewers feel so much more part of it.) The choices I think are easier in the kids’ ministry, because the schools set the lead. If the schools are on physically then it makes sense for the kids’ ministries to be physical. If schools are online, then the kids’ ministries should be online. If a parent doesn’t want to come to church, but schools are operating, we can suggest that parents use a school-style drop-off and pick-up after the service. Unfortunately, we don’t have that choice in the adult ministry.
DEALING WITH REALITY
Now, having said all that, I don’t like it. Theologically, any time a Christian can’t gather with their brothers or sisters is a spiritual tragedy. We are the body of Christ together. It’s not good to be alone. We are connected to each other and to our head, Christ. And we can’t be the church if we aren’t connected. And we can’t truly be connected if we don’t gather. Nor do I like it pragmatically. We have a world going to hell and its only hope is the clear proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The best online ministry it is not as effective as an in person ministry. Nevertheless this is the reality we live in. Here are some recommendations to help us respond to it.
1. Restart Sunday physical meetings as soon as you are able to, within the Health Department guidelines. Don’t wait for a better day. Note that not everyone will come on the first day. The physical restart will be raggedy. Don’t worry about overcrowding. Don’t be disappointed when it isn’t as good as you hoped. And don’t look at photos from last year of everyone gathered happily together. Don’t wait for the perfect day. It’s either never going to come or it’s a long long way down the track. So as soon as the health department guidelines allow, just start.
The physical restart will be raggedy. Don’t be disappointed when it isn’t as good as you hoped.
2. Plan for a parallel physical and online structure with ebbs and flows in between. We’ve been going for 5-6 weeks now in Sydney. I am praising God, actually, that our evening church physical attendance is back to pre-COVID levels. And, surprisingly, as we have gone back physically our evening online audience has only dropped by a third. Sunday morning physical attendance is 50-60 percent of what it was. We started higher, with around 66 percent. But, as the anxiety levels have gone up in NSW the last five weeks, attendance has slipped back. My hunch is that there are 20 percent of our people whom we won’t see in the building for 18 months—perhaps longer. And there’s another 20-30 percent who are going to ebb and flow between the online and the physical. Potentially, physically, those staying home are safer. But spiritually they are worse off. And they will be spiritually worse off the longer they stay online. We know it’s true. We need to warn our members of the spiritual risks (the Health Dept is doing a great job of warning of the physical risks).
3. Plan for parallel Bible study/pastoral care groups with some groups meeting physically, some online. The churches with the most highly developed pastoral care structures with the highest percentages of members in Bible study/community groups before COVID, who are able to continue to roll out pastoral care along the pre-existing lines, seem to be weathering this best. In our area, the sense I am getting is that for many churches evening church and Bible study/community groups have restarted meeting physically, whereas the groups linked to morning congregations, are perhaps meeting 50% online and 50% physically. And we went through the morning church community group roll and realised that there are some members in each group that meets physically who would prefer to be online and some members who are in online groups who would prefer to be physically present. And if this isn’t going to go for three months and we are not planning for recovery, but are planning for 18 months, for endurance, we need to talk to those members who would rather a physical group, but who belong to groups where the others want to meet online, about changing groups (and vice versa).
4. Work out strategies for continuing to connect online with new people while you are restarting your physical connection ministries. If your goal was recovery and you were reopening physically then you would wind back a few of the support structures for the online ministries. But if your goal is endurance you want to continue to work on strategies for connecting online with new people. I checked with our membership connection pastor and she said that 194 new people have given us their contact details since March 18 through our online ministry. And we have, since the start of July, seen eight of those people make it along to physical church and into our weekday community groups. And for the face-toface Introducing God course that starts next week for us most of the 15 people expected are people have started watching during COVID-19 and we have connected with them, and they have come to physical church at least once since the start of July and are now going to do that course.
5. Develop a culture after church where it’s not widespread mingling, but rather going deeper with a few. It seems like the advice of the health department for pubs, clubs and cafes is for a maximum group size of ten. This has implications for churches. After morning church we want to ask people to grab a coffee from the coffee person and then go and sit and talk with a group rather than standing around flitting between large numbers of people. Or, on Sunday nights after church, we are serving takeaway and then, rather than sitting in big groups of 20, we are setting up tables and putting six chairs per table. So the ethos is to go deep with a small group. I have been surprised at how quickly we have been able to change our post-church community culture. And it has meant people are staying around for the 60 minutes after evening church, and 45 mins after morning church, that we want them to. Remember, as you restart physical after-church community, that you will need a new parallel team to take a lead in the Online Community structures, whether that is a post-church zoom group or something else. We made a mistake here. As our leadership’s attention was on restarting physical church, we at first neglected the online community that we had spent all those months creating. This was to our detriment.
SPIRITUAL HEALTH RISKS
Finally, there are lots of people warning of the physical health risks. But the spiritual health risks are even more significant. There are some who are in high-risk groups and others for whom anxiety levels are sky-high. But for some, there is a spiritual war going on which is undiagnosed and it’s presenting as physical. The devil has sold the lie to some of our people, ‘Don’t go to the place where the word of God is—that will kill you!’ We need to pray for our people that they resist the devil and where necessary we need to pastor them. To call that lie what it is, and to warn them that “If you go on for 18 months on the trajectory you are following then, humanly speaking, there’s every chance you won’t be standing at the end.”
The content of this article has also been published at www.thepastorsheart.net and at au.thegospelcoalition.org. Republished here with the author’s permission.