In my previous article, I talked about some ways the newly distanced church can think about worship, discipleship, and outreach in the still-developing COVID-19 crisis. Here, I offer some practical steps to consider for discipleship and outreach as churches reopen and move into a new way of doing church.
Don’t let the numbers intoxicate you. Pastors can often be tempted to measure their impact by the sheer numbers of attendees in a church service, Bible study, or ministry program.
The move to an online environment has meant strong growth for some; do not let it lead you into temptation. It has also meant sharp declines for others; do not let that discourage you.
Online resources provide new tools to measure views, hits, likes, retweets, etc. Preachers who only reached a few dozen people during in-person worship services may now seem to be reaching thousands. However, these can be deceptive. Use reliable tools to help interpret what exactly those numbers mean. Most importantly, resist the temptation to chase numbers for numbers’ sake. Rather, provide solid biblical teaching and let the Lord bring the increase. Each one of those numbers represents real people whom leaders are commanded to teach to abide in Christ.
As people join, so they will become. The old adage holds a great deal of truth about sociology. The way people join a group are the type of members they will become. When new members are expected to make a meaningful commitment to join a church, they are more likely to live out that commitment as disciples in that church. While churches have gotten creative in providing worship opportunities in the COVID era, challenges remain for making newcomers a part of the church community. While it is wonderful that people can watch church services from the comfort of their favorite chair at home during lockdown, this type of engagement requires little commitment or connection to the worshipping community. Church leaders should carefully consider how they will ask people to demonstrate both a personal and social holiness that includes building one another up through mutual learning, service, and encouragement.
New spaces for new people. One way to ask people to remain in those worshipping communities is by creating new spaces for new people. Simply trying to revitalize the same old way of doing things will not work anymore. (Have we seen the end of the church potluck as we knew it?) We have all been forced to do new things in new ways. Is your church seeing strong growth in online small group ministries? How can this be an intentional part of your new ministry reality? Has your community found a way to care for people despite social distancing? How will you create new places to continue to disciple those people? Look carefully at how people are engaging in these new spaces and seek to show and share the love of Jesus in those spaces.
Celebrate the connection. I know this may sound crazy at first, but perhaps the best thing you can do for someone is to ask them not to join your church. If someone found your church online but does not live in your community—and therefore cannot attend services and discipleship opportunities—consider asking them to find a church home in their own town. This is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the connectionalism we cherish in Methodism. Contact your colleague in that person’s town and tell them of the situation and ask them to reach out. There is a richness to having a pastoral connection close to home that cannot be replicated in the online environment. People will need the real presence of a Christian community when a future difficulty arises and to celebrate life’s milestones. One way you might disciple people who have found your ministry online is by not discipling them at all, but by asking another pastor to do it.
Think long-term. While the initial shockwave of the global pandemic and subsequent shutdown is gone, the effects of the various aspects of the virus and its fallout are going to be felt for years. Many churches moved to online worship in a matter of days or weeks and the energy and efforts to do so are to be applauded. Now, however, it is time to give careful consideration to how churches can disciple their congregations and reach out to new people for years to come.