After COVID-19 #StayHome:
What Comes Next for Church Ministry?
Michael Scott Johnson
Like many of you, I lived through 9/11 (2001) and the dramatic changes that brought. My family and I also lived through tropical storms and Hurricanes like Allison, Rita, Ike, and Harvey. The first few times, some things changed, but when Harvey hit, every single person in our community was affected. Our daughter and her husband were flooded. The streets in our neighborhood were flooded, blocking us in our house for 7 days. The helicopters flying over to pull people from their homes did not make us feel more secure. There was no church worship services for one Sunday, and then we could worship together again. On that Sunday you could feel the deep sense of energy– people needed to be together and support each other. It took our family six months to help our daughter and her husband finish the rehab of their home. For a few years, every time it rained hard, some felt a bit panicky (a mild case of PTSD?).
During the current COVID-19 calamity the lapse of time we have not worshiped together in person is for a much longer period than any before. Churches have adapted for online ministry and worship. We are past Easter and ready to hug each other’s necks. But coming out of this Covid-19 is most likely going to be much different than anything any of us have experienced before. Church leaders need to be preparing now for what it might be like to come back together. On Saturday, April 18, Ken Brady shared some thoughts that church leaders should pay attention to in preparation for May-June and even possibly into July and August of 2020.
What if the initial green light in your state is not for groups of 100, but rather of 10 or 20 or 50? Will we be prepared then to have worship in small groups. One church I know of has already structured their worship using a Powerpoint (using Google’s Share Point) with embedded videos for announcements and the sermon and Youtube links for worship songs that groups can play together, then pray together and read Scripture together, following a liturgy that is in the Powerpoint. They have been using this already with shelter-at-home with small groups meeting together using the virtual meeting platform of their choice (Zoom, Google Chat, Skype, Go to Meeting, etc.)
But then we will get back to normal again in the fall, correct? A friend and Discipleship Coach of Ascending Leaders, Bob Johnson, not only has decades of experience as a pastor, but before that, training and experience as an engineer. He loves research and has been comparing this virus crisis to the one of 100 years ago—the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Bob pointed out to me that the Mayor of Denver decided to lift restrictions on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. About two weeks later, new cases of the flu and deaths skyrocketed and Denver’s leaders were forced to enact social distancing a second time. Bob calls this “the 2-humped camel” from the shape of their “cases over time” graph. Many say that we will experience something similar this year as we begin to reopen public life. And no one knows what the fall flu season will bring in terms of COVID-19. Churches may experience unexpected rolling stay-at-home orders as hot spots pop up.
On March 20 Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and Dave Blanchard wrote an insightful piece that may point to what the fall and 2021 may look like. They call it a “Little Ice Age” of 18 months or more–Brrrr.
This is all just talking about the virus and its effects on our movements and ability to congregate. What about jobs and human economic flourishing? The economy has taken a hard hit. Jobs have been lost. Wages have been lost. Some businesses that cannot effectively move online are in jeopardy of closing or needing months and even years to recover. The almost three months of loans that the CARES Act is providing will not be long enough for many small businesses, if we do have an economic “little ice age.” What will this do to the economics of the ministry of churches?
So it may be as much as 12-18 months and then we can go back to normal for ministry? Not so fast. How will people’s experiences in this large crisis affect their future behavior? Might pandemics every few years of a new virus with different frustrating qualities be our new normal? How will life be different in new era of life?
Several years ago my doctor recommended in order to get sick less often after I return from travel, I begin always wiping the armrest, seatbelts, light button, tray and anything else I may touch on every flight. That doctor was right, it made a huge difference. I have on occasion received odd looks or been mocked by fellow passengers for that behavior. My wife has always pushed elevator buttons with her elbows (if you pick up a germ you cannot touch your face with your elbow). She has gotten some pretty weird looks. Over the New Year’s weekend 2020, I picked up a bad flu while at a wedding near Seattle. Through a teledoc, I was able to get a script for Tamiflu. I told the pharmacist I was scheduled to fly the next day and asked what I could do to try to keep the rest of my family and others from getting sick. He suggested I wear a medical mask (BTW that is a routine practice in Asian countries when people feel ill). I did through the airport and on the flight. I got some pretty strange looks and early experiences of social distancing. Now, the kind of actions the public once viewed as weird are as appropriate for public health. I’m sure airplane travel will not be the only change we see in public health.
Just as greeting traveling loved ones at the gate after their flight landed is a distant memory from before 9/11/2001, the pressing of hands in a handshake may be a distant memory. Some type of air hand greeting may be the way to greet another.
We have explored here the effect this war against COVID-19 may have for:
- Church ministry this summer (May-July/August, 2020)
- Church ministry this fall and well into 2021.
- Public health and social interaction past 2021 for years.
There will also be ministry changes. Read part B where I address some of the potential ministry changes. How will your church adapt to the new reality, a new reality, the contours of which are a guess to us all?