There’s No Going Back

Church Shift #1: Why the church should avoid returning to pre-COVID-19 normalcy

by Kevin Freeman

I remember brainstorming back in early May with my youth ministry team about what to do for our high school graduates. How could we best approximate what we normally did for our grads? Could we do an outdoor picnic in place of the usual banquet? Should we wait until services reopened to recognize them in front of the church? Was there a way to still distribute the keepsake booklets of each graduate or do our special slideshow? Finally, someone suggested we stop trying to do what we used to do. This was a time to discover unique opportunities staring us in the face. The result was a parking lot celebration of our graduates (our first church activity back on campus), personal interview videos with each graduate, and a special Zoom event with a Christian Hall of Fame NBA star. Different was better.

Since then, I have been struck with a sense that God might be doing more than nudging youth ministries to recognize graduates differently. Perhaps the God who expertly works through the most trying of circumstances to bring about his perfect will is currently leading His church to reevaluate former ministry practices and make necessary changes. “By what standard would churches do the reevaluating?” you may wonder. You can find it at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. God calls the church to advance His kingdom by making disciples. All her efforts should funnel into this singular purpose. COVID-19 has brought ministries to a screeching halt and presented churches the world over with a big, fat reset button. Should we press it?

Perhaps many churches have already begun this process whether they were aware of it or not. While talking with one of LifeWay’s discipleship experts, I proudly shared how our small group ministry had actually grown during the pandemic, even allowing us to add two new groups. This expert informed me that this is the norm. Most SBC churches are experiencing a concerted growth in discipleship ministries. In fact, the top two programs that began meeting again during the pandemic – whether in-person or online – have been Sunday worship and Sunday School or small groups. Churches are evaluating their ministries and determining which ones they must bring back now. With limited opportunities to meet, we have been dealt a forced ranking of ministry priorities.

It is time for the church to consider less how to resume prior programming and more how to move forward and effectively carry out God’s Kingdom-building plan. In a world where we now talk about essential personnel, the church can consider its essential ministries. As those become defined, other programs should exist not as their own ministries but as feeders toward those essential ministries. Just as tree roots all draw water and nutrients toward the trunk in the center, so the church should align its ministries to do the same. We must admit that ministries tend to take on lives of their own over time. It takes careful, regular pruning to keep them aligned toward their purpose.

People are not looking for the church to go back to normal. We will not reach more people by simply returning to business as usual. If we are honest, most churches had already been struggling to reach the lost through their existing ministries. Simply going back without any reevaluation is not a recipe for success. Your local businesses have likely already realized some of their pandemic practices are here to stay for a long time. Curbside pickup for groceries or hardware or craft supplies or electronics will stick around. Sporting events will look much different for quite some time. Even when all governmental restrictions are lifted, people will not simply return to normal. Things have changed.

If businesses are asking how to keep to their mission and serve their customers amid the change, churches can ask how to keep to their co-mission with God and serve their people, too. 2020 is a chance to remove the blinders, let go of business as usual, and become more effective kingdom builders. We need people like those “from the Issacharites, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). The church cannot go back, but she can go way back to better reflect her original call and more effectively fulfill the Great Commission.

Kevin Freeman is an associate pastor of Redland Baptist Church in Rockville, Maryland.

This is the first in a six-part series exploring how God may be calling the church to shift her practices and focus as a result of the pandemic. What feels like a shift may be more of a realignment toward her calling.