Admittedly, it’s a tricky thing to find a precise beginning and ending point to a pandemic. We could accept the declaration from the World Health Organization that COVID-19 began on March 11, 2020. But the virus was rapidly spreading around the world prior to that date. The ending date is even more of a challenge to discern.
For our purposes, we look at post-pandemic as that time when churches started regathering in person. Some churches started a lot sooner than other churches, but most churches are back to in-person services today.
As we look back over this regathering phase, we admit that several developments caught us by surprise. Some are good. Some are not.
1. Digital attendance fell rapidly. We continue to be amazed at the dramatic decline in digital attendance in the churches reporting their data to us. We knew it would not be sustained at the same levels as during the quarantine, but we have certainly been surprised that the drop has been so dramatic.
2. Interest in evangelism is increasing. There are two ways to look at this surprise. First, we give thanks to God because more and more churches are responding in obedience to the Great Commission. But we are also aware that the interest is a bit pragmatic as well. Cultural Christians (an oxymoron, for sure) are not returning to church. If a church wants to reach people, evangelism is a necessity.
3. Church finances held well longer than expected. Billions of dollars of liquidity were injected into the market, which helped individuals and organizations, including churches, for a season. But we are surprised that giving has not declined rapidly with the cessation of government support and the onset of higher inflation.
4. The number of full-time church staff has declined more rapidly than expected. Our information is anecdotal at this point, but we believe that the majority of churches have by both necessity and by design reduced full-time personnel. The pace seems to be increasing.
5. Church revitalization has become an accepted discipline and practice much faster than expected. The discipline was growing both before and after the pandemic. But the rate of acceptance and growth of the discipline is nothing short of amazing.
6. Deferred maintenance crises in churches are hindering church adoption. Simply stated, many potential church adoptions have been delayed or dropped because the adopting church cannot afford to upgrade the facilities of the declining church seeking adoption.
7. Most church search committees still search for pastors like it was 2010. We thought we would see pastor search committees (or similar bodies) more willing to change their processes in light of all of the changes affecting American churches. This intransigent behavior portends poorly for a growing pastor shortage in America.
Of all these surprises, my prayer is that the increased interest in evangelism will grow and become an enduring part of our churches. If that obedience indeed takes place, many of the other challenges will be handled well.
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