The cancellation of in-person worship is just the tip of the iceberg for American congregations groping their way through the COVID-19 era.
Two well-known congregational coaches say the disease and its attendant economic impact will accelerate the decline of churches already underway in an increasingly post-religious culture.
Yet, some also predict that social distancing will provide people of faith a rare opportunity to provide hope to an otherwise disconnected society.
“This is a hinge moment in the life of the American church,” said Bill Wilson, founder of the North Carolina-based Center for Healthy Churches. “This can be both a disastrous and a very hopeful moment.”
Signs of technological and pastoral creativity and resilience among congregations are already emerging. There is an openness to technology and to fiscal responsibility.
But a period of weeks or months of altered operations may push many churches over the edge.
“My fear is that while we’re worried about broadcasting services, the real issue is the number of churches who cannot survive an eight-week or three-month hiatus from gathering together,” Wilson said.
Even churches with established methods for online giving will experience declining receipts as members’ finances take a hit during the viral outbreak, he predicted.
The usual generosity of senior adults, historically the financial bedrock of most churches, may also decrease as the pandemic impacts their health and finances.
And moving to online gatherings poses the risk of members discovering the higher-quality virtual experiences of megachurches and other ministries, Wilson said: “Now they can church shop with the click of a button, and maybe they don’t come back.”
It’s going to require greater financial discipline across the board, he added.
“Every church has to think, how do we survive on two-thirds of our current budget? Maybe 50 percent?”
‘Not just hunkering down’
A lot of churches are actively working to answer those questions.
“There’s a good deal of conversation about controlling spending,” said Phill Martin, CEO of The Church Network, an interdenominational association focused on church administration.
Martin said he participated in a Zoom meeting earlier this week with leaders of several small-to-large churches. They focused largely on how to stretch budgets.
“I didn’t sense any fear on the call,” he said. “I mainly sensed trying to be proactive and to react in the best way possible.”
But these and other congregational leaders are facing a lot of difficult situations, including if and how to continue employing support staff and whether or not to continue hosting recovery group meetings and other ministries, Martin said.
“These are real emotional struggles for this group.”
Such decisions are more difficult without a foreseeable end to the coronavirus crisis, he said. “They are trying to rethink how they do things and how they are going to do church in a time of radical change.”
“Churches are seeing this as ministry opportunity and not just hunkering down,” he added.
‘A model for the world’
That’s the approach needed to positively transform the church, said Wilson, noting, “It could be that there will be a great renewal of the church on the other side of this.”
That can happen, he emphasized, if congregations shift their focus from small, internal disagreements to the grace, tolerance, hope and love the world needs. Those churches will be situated to embrace and help Americans whose bars, gyms, athletic events and other social outlets are closed.
“Think of millennials and Gen Z – we can offer them what they want, which is connection,” Wilson said. “This is a time when we can prove our value to people.”
The novel coronavirus presents a “best of times” and “worst of times” moment for the American church. Either way there is challenge.
“We’re going to adapt,” Wilson said. “It will be an adventure, and it will take a lot of faith, but we can be a model for the world.”