As the pandemic hit, the chaos of the spring and summer gave way to an intolerable uncertainty in the fall and winter. Church leaders had to shift from a short-term crisis mindset to a long-term recovery mindset. Now is a good time to recalibrate your expectations. The opportunity in 2021 is greater than the crisis in 2020, but you will have to work for it.
How 2021 Will Be Harder
Momentum is gone. Almost every church is smaller than before the pandemic, and there is a steep uphill climb back to pre-COVID levels. Some will never return. In 2020, churches made quick reactive decisions out of necessity. Now you must make intentional proactive decisions from a place of strategy. There was an initial rush of an all-in effort as the pandemic hit. Now it’s harder than ever to find volunteers.
Bad habits are entrenched. Estimates vary, but it takes between two and six months for a person to form a new habit. At this point, new routines have been entrenched for almost a year. For many, this new pattern excludes church attendance.
Uncertainty remains. Which way will the economy turn? Will the vaccine work and will the rollout go smoothly? How will a new president lead? Will I be able to watch Rays games in person at Tropicana Field? Get ready for more uncertainty. The ability to pivot will be more important than a good plan.
Church leaders are exhausted. And so is everyone else. The slog of 2020 will grind into 2021. More pastors will exit the ministry. The need for church revitalization will deepen. Churches will have fewer full-time staff. More pastors will become co-vocational.
The numbers are off. Even after the pandemic stabilizes, the average worship attendance at churches will be down twenty percent. Giving in churches will also decline by about twenty percent from pre-pandemic levels.
How 2021 Will Be Better
Crisis brings focus. Some church leaders will embrace the challenge. The pandemic helped members realize what’s most important. Use this year to discard unprofitable programs and ancillary events. If ever there was a year to kill sacred cows, this year is it! Focus on the right changes—ones that shift the culture of your church in positive way. This new year is the grand opportunity for a new culture. The people in your church are likely as flexible and willing to change as they have ever been. This flexibility will not last forever, and it could be the Spirit-led opportunity to change the direction of your church.
Change is accelerated. Whatever trends were in place before the pandemic are now moving faster. Don’t fight this accelerated pace; move with it. Churches are declining and dying more quickly, but church adoption is on the rise. The megachurch movement is waning, but smaller churches are becoming more popular. Denominations are experiencing their steepest declines ever, but new, more nimble networks are emerging. The traditional models of resourcing the church are fading, but exciting new methods are out there. Don’t fight the swift current of change. Find ways to catch the wave. A decline in one area means upward momentum in another area.
Tension produces creativity. The best art is born in a place of tension. People get more creative in harder times. If you can create something that endures through a crisis, it will likely thrive in the future. Be wise with your time and use the current feelings of uncertainty to create something new in your church. Stop waiting and start creating!
Exhaustion means less self-reliance. The coronavirus is not the church’s biggest problem. Perhaps one of the worst diseases is self-reliance. What if God is exhausting you to make you rely more on the Holy Spirit? Healthier churches in 2021 will use less pragmatism and more spiritual disciplines.
Mission replaces preferences. Since most every church is smaller, you probably now have a better idea who represents the core. Likely, the core is stronger than you realize! Those who stick with you are bent towards the mission, not their preferences. Make 2021 the year you invest in key leaders who have proven their endurance to God’s mission and commitment to your church.
Some church leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach to ministry. It’s a mistake. February 2020 is not coming back. God is calling you to rise up in a harder environment—but one with better opportunities. History teaches us the church makes more progress in more challenging times.
I believe 2021 will be harder, but better.
This article was written by Sam Rainer and originally published at churchanswers.com on December 30. Thom S. Rainer serves as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and seven grandchildren. Dr. Rainer can be found on Twitter @ThomRainer and at facebook.com/Thom.S.Rainer.