Here are four realities for almost every church:
1. During COVID, you lost some families.
2. During COVID, some families drifted away in terms of commitment and involvement.
3. During COVID, you gained many new families, but they remain largely online.
4. After COVID, your current in-person attendance is running at about half or less than it was pre-COVID.
All of which means there is a fifth reality for almost every church:
5. Here, at the end of COVID and the reopening of the world, you need to reboot your church.
I chose the term “reboot” purposefully as I believe it really is the most appropriate word. A reboot is different than just returning to in-person events. That’s just turning on the lights and opening the doors as if nothing happened. But during the last 15 months, some things did happen. No church just reopened their doors and went right back to the way things were before. Why? Because we need a lot more than a reopening.
We need a reboot.
A reboot is more purposeful, more intentional, more systemic than a reopening. In computing terms, rebooting is:
“The process by which a running computer system is restarted, either intentionally or unintentionally. Reboots can be either cold (alternatively known as hard), in which the power to the system is physically turned off and back on again causing an initial boot of the machine, or warm (or soft) in which the system restarts without the need to interrupt the power. The term restart is used to refer to a reboot when the operating system closes all programs and finalizes all pending input and output operating before initiating a soft reboot.”
Or think of it this way: A hard reboot “means that the system is not shut down in an orderly manner, skipping file system synchronization and other activities that would occur on an orderly shutdown.” A soft reboot, or restart, is when “the operating system ensures that all pending I/O operations are gracefully ended before commencing a reboot.”
There was nothing graceful about the onset of COVID, just as there is nothing as simple or easy as a soft restart at its end. It was a hard, cold shutdown, and we now face a hard, cold reboot.
Churches need to realize that just like experiencing an unplanned power outage can cause the loss of any and all unsaved data and work, the loss of power to the computer itself, the need to get all systems back online and the need to retrieve as much lost information as possible, we face equally clear action steps. In light of the realities mentioned at the beginning of this blog, here are five action steps:
First, actively assimilate all new growth, particularly growth gained online. Our mission is to evangelize the lost, assimilate the evangelized, disciple the assimilated and then unleash the discipled. Right now, our forced reboot demands an unprecedented focus on the assimilation component.
Second, cast vision for the mission of the church. Vision is not something that you cast once, people “get it,” and then your church is envisioned forever. No—vision leaks. Fifteen months ago your church may have “gotten it”; 15 months later, chances are they have “forgotten it.”
Third, start over with your volunteer base. Own the fact that you will need to envision people with the beauty and reward of servanthood. You will need to reach out to previous volunteers and work hard to enlist new ones. If you want a sports analogy, consider this a rebuilding year.
Fourth, continue any and all “engagement” events that pull in people who are online. During COVID, few things were emphasized more by our church than keeping people engaged. We were all online; we couldn’t meet in person (or at least like we had). We needed to be intentional about keeping people engaged, so we were. It was the right emphasis. The mistake would be to feel that now that most churches have returned to in-person services, actively seeking to keep people engaged is no longer important—as if the in-person services are doing that for us. They’re not. As already cited, for most churches, in-person service numbers are dreadfully low compared to pre-COVID numbers. Which means that most are still online and in need of active engagement.
Finally, this also means you must continue to prioritize your online campus and all other online resources—and view your online attenders as your largest gathering. Because it is. I have been on a mission to drive this home to our staff, reminding them over and over of the vast difference between the numbers coming to our in-person services, and the numbers participating through our online campus. It would be so, so tempting to have the “event” of in-person services seduce us to seeing it as the event. So, I constantly remind staff of how many people we had attending in person versus how many we had online as a stark reminder to not diminish our efforts there. If anything, we must keep the online efforts a priority.
Of course, there is more at hand with the ending of COVID than what a reboot entails. There is what COVID changed about our world, and our churches, that must be understood and engaged. And much has changed, and not all for the good.
But that will have to wait until my next blog.
James Emery White
“Reeboot,” Wikipedia, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.