When Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee asked churches March 13 not to meet in person, leaders at First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, thought they would have to suspend normal worship services two or three weeks, until Easter at the latest. When those plans didn’t materialize, they figured everything would be back to normal by the start of school. That didn’t materialize either.
Today, the church is still more than 40 percent below its pre-pandemic worship attendance of 3,750 and doesn’t know when—if ever—things will get back to normal. Yet God is at work. The church baptized 51 people on a single Sunday in August.
Pastor Bruce Chesser is among church leaders learning to minister despite the constantly shifting new reality. He has concluded that churches probably will need to alter their ministry strategies for the next 12-18 months because of the pandemic.
“We’ve got to be in a period of reorganization,” Chesser said, “because the church that you and I were trained to minister in doesn’t exist anymore. I’m not saying it won’t ever exist,” but “it doesn’t exist at this moment.”
According to polling from Barna released September 23, Chesser is not alone in recognizing the need for long-term pandemic adjustments. Fifty-two percent of US Protestant pastors said their church’s attendance is lower than it was before the pandemic, and 51 percent expect attendance to decrease in the future. Thirteen percent say they don’t expect their churches to open for in-person worship until next year.
Barna President David Kinnaman said every church is limited by COVID-19, regardless of whether it is growing, declining, or plateaued. “Everyone is grappling with this new reality,” he said. “Even the growing churches are sort of struggling in ways they wouldn’t have anticipated.”
The struggles have translated into diverse long-term plans.
Community Christian Church in Chicago is among congregations that have yet to open for in-person worship. Pastor Dave Ferguson said the congregation is experiencing a “season where we’re really leaning into some innovation.” That includes establishing ongoing ministries for three types of people: those who feel at risk take maximum COVID-related precautions, those who are cautious and take some precautions, and those who are pressing forward with life. According to Ferguson, online worship can minister to highly cautious people, small groups can minister to the semi-cautious, and in-person worship with appropriate safeguards can minister to those pressing forward with normal life routines.
Citylight Church in Bennington, Nebraska, launched amid the pandemic, with its first in-person service held September 13 in a barn with 190 adults and 40 children. Because of the low coronavirus death toll in their community, Citylight leaders felt comfortable gathering outdoors with appropriate precautions. But they have altered many pre-pandemic plans, utilizing video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Facetime in place of in-person meetings. “The capacity we had to interact with a broader network of people was really increased” with ministry via online chat, lead pastor Glenn Lawson said.
In Tennessee, Chesser and First Baptist Hendersonville executive pastor Bruce Raley presented a seminar titled “Navigating the Next 12 to 18 Months.” It included suggestions for maintaining a church’s mission and purpose while adjusting the logistics of its evangelism, discipleship, worship and money management in the era of limited gatherings and social distancing.
Financial planning is of particular importance over the next year, Raley said. Church giving generally has remained strong to date, but giving trends tend to follow attendance trends, leaving him “not worried, but cautious.”
Chesser and Raley made dozens of suggestions for adjusting other key ministry areas, noting not all ideas will work for all churches. Among their suggestions:
— To emphasize evangelism, encourage church members to post their testimonies on social media; challenge church members to get to know their neighbors; conduct a new member orientation via Zoom; and offer people a way to respond to gospel invitations during worship services via text message.
— To emphasize discipleship, offer a variety of small group options, including online groups, hybrid in-person/online groups, weekday groups, weeknight groups and Sunday groups; start new groups with 5-7 people and aim to grow them to 10; and launch a coordinated Bible reading plan for the whole church.
— To emphasize worship, launch an online campus to supplement in-person worship; ask people to reserve specific seats online for Christmas and Easter services to avoid overcrowding; and use prepackaged Lord’s Supper elements that people pick up on their way into the service.
David Roach is editor of the BibleMesh blog. This post was adapted from an article that first appeared in the Baptist and Reflector.
 “FBC, Henderonsville, Baptizes 51 in Outdoor Service,” Baptist and Reflector, September 7, 2020, https://baptistandreflector.org/fbc-hendersonville-baptizes-51-in-outdoor-service/ (accessed September 25, 2020).
 “ChurchPulse Weekly Conversations: A Panel on Pandemic Church Planting,” Barna.com, September 23, 2020, https://www.barna.com/research/pandemic-church-planting/ (accessed September 25, 2020).