By David Means
Suppose you were the owner and operator of the only grocery store in a town. You were vaguely aware that Uncle Harry’s Bar and Grill sold candy, chips, and soda pop, but Uncle Harry’s did not really compete for your business. For many years your store was the only food outlet in town. Things sharply changed in 2020—townspeople could buy food from Amazon and Walmart, and they marketed your customers aggressively.
Our local churches are like this grocery store. We were aware of Uncle Harry’s but we sold wholesome, nutritious foods as well as candy, chips, and soda pop. We were aware of the one room church down the road, but we rarely saw any cars parked in front. Like the grocer, we were not too concerned about this other outlet. We held a balanced Sunday worship service with a thoughtful message and enthusiastic music. Afterwards our members fellowshipped around the coffee urn and tray of baked goods. We provided mission services to our community. Things sharply changed in 2020. No longer were we holding worship services in our buildings, we were worshipping online. No longer were we gathering together after worship to ask about our children and grandchildren. Our congregants now worship online, and not just our services, but services from other far away churches with dramatic lighting effects, professional choirs, and well-trained preachers delivering the message.
We all have dreams that we can return to our former ways of being the only church in town. Just as Walmart and Amazon will continue to deliver groceries, online churches will continue. Even our local church must continue to provide an online service for our members who live or travel out of town. We cannot return to 2019!
This pandemic forces every local church to reshape its ministry. What was only a vague threat from churches broadcasting their worship services on television is now a challenge from thousands of churches transmitting their services through the Internet. When I was a child my family could choose ABC or NBC to watch television, and today I can watch hundreds of channels on cable TV (most of which are not worth the money). Last year I could watch a few broadcast worship services on cable television, if I chose. Now I can worship with a variety of churches, if I choose.
My concern is that when society reaches a low Covid-19 infection rate, we church leaders will all want to go back to our former way of Sunday worship, Sunday fellowship, and mission outreach. But, will our fellow congregants want the same? They may have become accustomed to online worship with a different church.
We wrote a re-imaging life together plan for our church. We focused mostly on phase 2 and 3. This was a transitory plan because we figured we would be in phase 4 in a few months and a return to the way that we were before the pandemic began. Now it appears we will need a vaccine to overcome the Covid-19 virus. And this is still many months away. We did not consider (and could not foresee) how the pandemic would force technological changes on ourselves that would forever change us.
Now is the time to focus on post-pandemic life. We need to strategize those things we believe will sustain our local church. While every church is different, it will be some combination of high quality worship, fellowship opportunities, growth and fellowship opportunities for our children, and mission and service outreach into our communities. Each church will have to strive for something it is well known for in its community—this church operates the homeless shelter, for example.
Let me repeat, now is the time to focus on post-pandemic life. Our previous strategic plans are obsolete because we have new threats, but we also have new opportunities.
David Means is a lifelong Methodist. He is a certified lay servant. He is currently the lay leader of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Juneau, Alaska and serves on the Alaska Conference’s leadership team.