Josh Laxton on Short-term and Long-term Effects of Coronavirus on the Church in America

Image: Photo by Nagesh Badu on Unsplash

Josh Laxton currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College, and a co-host of the podcast Living in the Land of Oz. He has a Ph.D. in North American Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

As I write, there are states, regions, cities, and towns either “reopening” or gearing up to reopen. This means the reemergence of life from the grasps of “shelter in place.”

Thus, people are going back to work, dining in at a restaurant, working out at a gym, receiving a haircut, and even gathering together with the church—but they are doing so with new policies and procedures that seek to protect each other from contracting the virus.

So as we slowly emerge out from sheltering in place to a “new” normal—which is the term people use—what will the new normal look like for churches in America?

Before I discuss both short-term and long-term effects that COVID-19 will have on the church, I want to address some of my counter-thoughts to what I (as well as many) have heard throughout the crisis the “new” normal will be.

First, there are those who think this will change church as we know it. Honestly, I don’t buy what they are selling. At some point—sooner for some than others—our Sunday morning routines will be back to normal.

Second, there are those that believe this crisis has ended the “consumer” model of church. I don’t buy that either. Truthfully, people have been “consuming” more and more content. What I have personally witnessed over the course of this lock-down is churches constantly feeding their people via a digital platform.

Early on in this crisis many were expressing how “shallow” the church was on discipleship, so much so they worried how the people would be fed because many families weren’t prepared to engage in family worship.

Third, there are those who believe this crisis will put an end to the megachurch. Once again, I don’t believe it. Even the Spanish Flu—one of the most, if not the most, devasting pandemics in history—didn’t drive believers into smaller groups or house gatherings.

So, if this crisis won’t seemingly change the church as we know it, or put an end to the consumer church, or destroy the megachurch, how will it potentially change or effect the church?

Short-term effects

When I think of short-term effects, I am thinking in terms of the next 2–15 months (give or take). When I look at the history of the Spanish Flu, there were three waves of the flu. This is why we hear expects talk about a fall wave of COVID-19. So, how will COVID-19 change the church in the short-term?

Interruption to our normal way of doing things. I was listening to a Christian leader who recently talked about how this crisis has disrupted—rather than interrupted—our lives and our churches. That is true. Over the last two months our globe, nation, economy, cities, communities, churches, and our lives have been completely disrupted. How we were living prior to mid-March came to a complete halt.

Now that the curve is flattening in many parts of the country, and things are slowly reopening, we will move from disruption and enter into a short-term interruption in both our day-to-day life and how we conduct ministry and even mission.

Over the last week I have read many church leaders and denominational entities put out their checklists for the reopening of the church. While some of these procedures and policies may be adopted long term, I do believe there will be a time where all heightened safety measures will no longer be needed, and churches can return to their normal ministry and mission activities.

Caring for seniors and the vulnerable. As we ride out the wave(s) of the virus, and dance the COVID-19 dance, ministry and mission to the more vulnerable population to this virus will definitely be different.

As churches make decisions about reemergence, it is important that those decisions also include the bests ways to minister and reach out to their vulnerable population as well as those living in senior communities, senior assisted living, and nursing homes.

Church attendance will fluctuate. Many churches will probably have to adopt some kind of staggered approach to their large gatherings for the short-term. While this would be considered an interruption to their normal way of doing things, what I foresee might happen is that many parishioners will choose to stay home until there is an all clear.

Sure, there will be some people (like my family) who will be ready to return to in-person gatherings while practicing physical distancing and other safety precautions such as wearing masks. However, there may be those—possibly those will small children and those who would be more vulnerable—who wait until more dust settles around this virus. As a result, online services will continue to be offered from many churches.

People will be “shell shocked” and tired. This crisis has created great fear among Americans. It will be forever engrained in my memory of pulling up to a Sam’s Club and seeing a line outside of people waiting to enter into the building, most of which were wearing masks. My wife recently asked a question, “When will it be ok for me to hug my friends?” This form of PTSD—caused by the strict measures put in place to flatten the curve—will take some time to overcome.

In addition, there is a lot of adrenaline keeping people going right now. They are trying to ride out the wave… the storm. But, after it passes, they will be wiped—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Finances will be tight. COVID-19 will affect finances both for the short-term and the long-term. In the short-term, I’ve been surprised that a couple of pastor friends have seen their church’s giving rise significantly. But the reality is not every church is that fortunate. Churches are having to restructure their budgets to operate somewhere between a 50–75 percent capacity to their original operating budget. This means tough decisions will need to be made to ride out the budget year (2020) or to prepare for the upcoming budget year (2020–21).

If finances are tight for churches, that means finances are tight for many of their parishioners. Therefore, given this reality, churches will need to be sensitive as they navigate their giving and generosity pushes. In thinking about the restructuring of the budget, it will be wise to have a good benevolent and generosity pipeline to help people in need.

I do believe people who have the means and the ability will want to be generous in giving to needs—not wants. This is why it will be important to restructure a leaner budget in the short-term so that generous giving can include stewardship to the needs inside and outside the church rather than the wants.

Staffing hires and staffing work patterns. Given the financial strain many churches will experience, they will move towards a leaner staff. Thus, many churches will forgo the support staff they were thinking of hiring. In addition, many churches might see the need to move towards some form of bi-vocational (or co-vocational) model.

With regards to staffing work patterns, churches may allow their staff to keep flexible work hours along with offering them the opportunity to work from home.

Short-term mission trips. Summer is approaching and that typically means short-term mission trips—both domestically and internationally. I would also lump summer camps, like VBS and student camps, here as well. These will either be cancelled or modified in some manner. I don’t necessarily see people traveling internationally unless it is essential.

I can see modified camps along with Vacation Bible Schools. In other words, rather than operating as they would have in the past, they will modify their schedules and environments to accommodate the fears and hesitancies people have in reemerging into public.

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Source: Christianity Today