What Declining Churches Are Learning About Doing Virtual
By Tom Cheyney
Remember: A stingy planter gets a stingy crop; a lavish planter gets a lavish crop. I want each of you to take plenty of time to think it over, and make up your own mind what you will give. That will protect you against sob stories and arm-twisting. God loves it when the giver delights in the giving.
If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything during these last 6 weeks it is innovation is welcomed where it might have previously been scorned in some churches. That is certainly true in declining churches in need of revitalization. There is a new normal out on the horizon and just like any church a church in decline has a great opportunity to redesign itself and begin to reengage their community. Will the declining church falter at the moment this new opportunity is offered? I hope not. What we are already seeing for these churches is that those who are embracing virtual and capitalizing on the newly offered connection point, they are being given an entirely new following of watches. It is a new group which in reality was the group that the Lord desired for them to reach in the first place. The question arises what will they do? Will they become the church of Acts 8:1 or the church of Acts 1:8? Will they go back to the comfortable ways of being a church gathered in Jerusalem of Acts 1:8? Or is there an opportunity to become the church scattered of Acts 8:1? Just like the Book of Acts, the persecution used in the Bible to get the people going could be the same thing which gets the declining church moving once more. Understand this for the declining church as they come out of this pandemic of isolated seclusion. There will be some churches that will not be left behind they will be left out. Their former members will eventually find a new home if the declining church does not get amped up and ready for perhaps a long time to reach out into their communities and reach people for Jesus’ sake. The new normal is one that is no longer comfortable but vulnerable and authentic.
The world is changing rapidly as the result of this pandemic. For the church in need of revitalization realize that if the members are the same and the church is the same as they were before this crisis, then both have missed God in all of this as well as wasted the time given us to address the new realities of change. Simply, if we don’t change it is on all of us. Every church across this land makes the choice as to what it sows. As the verse above reminds all of us: A stingy planter gets a stingy crop; a lavish planter gets a lavish crop. Sowing with the focus on one’s self or one’s church will only lead to isolation. Sowing discord by members or slandering others will only recreate the existing dysfunctionalism of former and new relationships. Sowing fear from the crisis will fill a church with so much anxiety that new participants will not want to go there and present members will look for ways to slide right out. Yet, if the declining church will embrace the lessons learned from all of this they will continue to sow generously and be givers of joy and blessings. If they will continue to sow the sacrifices they were making during the lockdown, there is a new level of influence their church will have and can begin building upon this new inspiration. They will have a new heart of authenticity and vulnerability that will be a fresh wave flowing all over their fellowship. Speak words of continual hope. Declining churches can choose what they sow.
Here are some things declining churches are learning about doing virtual and adding virtual to the new mix:
Innovation which was once fought against in declining churches will be embraced if they are to survive.
Far too many churches in decline have argued about everything except staying the same. Here is the truth in its simplest form, unless you desire to close your doors in the next six months innovation must be embraced while the declining church still has a chance.
Stay with what you are doing as a new portion of one’s ministry.
Do not go around bragging about your online numbers unless you plan on staying with the very things that drew them to you in the first place. If you only want to go back to the old ways only your members will go back with you and only about 80% of those will choose to do so. I was talking to a pastor today of a great church of two hundred Sunday worshippers. During this lockdown his numbers have inflated two thirds more. I asked him how he planned on keeping them and then offered him suggestions about keeping his online virtual presence as an add on. In reality he surmised that it would not take any more work so why not.
Stop herding the ninety-nine.
These last six weeks have taught all of us and especially the declining church the importance of going after the one who is lost. The opportunities the Lord has given to all of us displays the desire of our communities for assembly and connection. Go after those who have opted out, drifted out, and stumbled out.
Do not forfeit your newly acquired online identity.
These six weeks and the ones that remain for us in lockdown are allowing us to focus on a newly acquired identity and opportunity. Walking away from it would be unwise and traitorous for the church leader.
Preaching virtually is an eye opener to lazy preachers.
Many preachers who prepare in the dawning hours of the Lords day have come to discover that it is easier to wing it in a public setting than it is in an online virtually streaming situation. Everyone has learned if they were not accustomed to cameras or ipads that your preaching matters so do it well. Your music matters so stop gathering around the piano a few minutes before worship to decide what you will be doing a few minutes later.
Look for new ways to reach the elderly.
Do you have a tablet or a Chromebook? One pastor friend told me what his church did as a result of the pandemic and that was to purchase as many tables as he could and upload ten weeks of sermons, Bible Study and music on them and give them to their elderly members. Out of that forward-thinking minister an entirely new ministry was birthed. Another got a great deal on refurbished Chromebooks and bought about two dozen. His staff then made shortcut links to the church’s website so the only thing an elderly person had to do was turn it on and allow it to find the churches web link through the shortcut.
Consider continuing your midweek time to those who can’t get to the church and those who can.
There has been such success with mid-week bible studies and youth events online that many churches are going to keep the midweek stuff online while they do in house meetings. Also don’t forget that those online Sunday morning Bible classes could also be live and on zoom at the same time. One pastor friend of mine does a Pastor's Back Porch Prayer Meeting every Wednesday night. He has grown the midweek from thirty or so to over fourteen hundred. Now is not that something worth continuing? It is brief and encouraging lead by a great preacher with a heart for his people.
The decision to add a new service will be easier due to the number restrictions so get on it and get with it as an experiment so it can take root.
Because all of us will have to deal with the ten and fifty attendance rule for a time, this is a great time for the declining church to add a new online service and then when we get back keeping it by adding the physical meeting time to the Sunday mix.
Leaving a legacy to the local mission’s organization might be your only hope if you wait to long to embrace the new normal.
Some churches will wait too long before they will consider working in the area of church renewal. Once critical mass has been lost and has dwindled to below fifty active adult members it is very difficult to develop the necessary momentum needed to begin the process of revitalization. When this happens usually one of two things happen. The first is that the church gets mad and looks for someone to blame while wanting to hang on a little longer in hope of a miracle. Those stiff backs stand up and defy someone to help them unless they do it their way which currently is not working. The second and the best way is to deed over the church and its facilities to a mission association which can put either church planters in place or a Church Revitalizer. This is in most cases a last-ditch effort to allow the church an opportunity to seek renewal before it collapses and loses its ability to maintain critical mass. Many a church simply waits until it is too late and can only use this model for an effort of revitalization.
Adaption is the new item for the pastor leader. Scaling ministries to fit the new realities is hard and yet for the sake of the institution it must be done. We must continue to look for new and innovative ways to do ministry in light of the pandemic as we move into a post pandemic world. Practice real gratitude, joy, peace, treasure, strength, faithfulness, and home. Before the Covid-19 hit, I could have given you a long list of things I thought I needed. But when it looked perilous, none of that mattered. In the dark storms that shatter life as you know it, what’s really valuable becomes crystal clear. From prison, Paul affirmed this: “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” Philippians 3:8. We need the Lord to give us wisdom, to replace our fear with faith and to give us strength to battle the storm. But that’s a good place to be. God designed us to be utterly dependent on him. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” 2 Corinthians 12:9a. I am thankful for the lessons learned during these days of only virtual ministry.
Tom Cheyney, Founder & Directional Leader
Renovate National Church Revitalization Conferences
Author of 15 books on Revitalization & Renewal
 Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005), 2 Co 9:6–7.