Pastoral Perspectives

Post-pandemic Church — From Gathering to Connecting

The pandemic has caused church leaders to think hard about this question: What is the future of the church? I serve a church that does not own a building as interim senior pastor. It does not feel the impact of the pandemic as most churches who own buildings do: members both hopped on the livestream and returned back onsite very much quicker than our leaders anticipated.

We kept asking ourselves: Why are we asking people to return onsite when watching the livestream at home is so much more attractive? I know of churches that have actually removed livestreamed services to “force” members to return to onsite services. Then we struggle with trying to give theological answers that include “let us not neglect meeting together” or “we have to gather in community”. What’s not biblical is that the gathering has to happen in a building owned by the church.

Generally speaking, if we trace church attendance trends, we can tell that most of the ones who do not return after the pandemic were “backbenchers”. In many ways, and for many reasons, many of these people had been disconnected from the church before the pandemic. These were the ones who slipped in and out of services BC (before Covid). When Covid hit, these “backbenchers” became “de-churched”. Missiologists call this “self-attrition”.

In the church I serve as interim senior pastor, we’ve had no issues with people returning onsite. Yet, our challenge to those still enjoying the livestream is for them to do so only if they are homebound for health reasons. If not, the only valid reason for them to use the livestream would be if they were being salt and light in their neighbourhood. Frankly, the pandemic has exposed the weakness in our discipleship. Believers are so used to outsourcing evangelism or parenting to the church that when the lockdown came, everything seemed to stand still. Authentic, loving, and genuine community is scarcer than it had ever been since the pandemic. Today, information is everywhere and transformation is scarce—and what is deeply scarce right now are community and connection.

Community means connecting people to one another in groups, friendship, relationships, and through service. Connection means that even for those on the livestream or attending in person for the first time, our primary job is connecting with them and then helping them connect with one another. Connecting people who engage from home both with the church and with one another will become an essential skill for all church leaders.

In this post-pandemic era, the good news about livestreaming is that the cost of entry is almost nothing for a first-time guest. Just one click and they’re with you. The hybrid church has become our front and side door: the greatest opportunity for us to reach new people (front door) and to keep people in church connected (side door). The livestream is also a side door for people who are away for the weekend (or overseas for some time). True Way’s livestream kept my wife and me connected when we were in Germany visiting Ben and his family, where most churches were German-speaking. My two granddaughters were also kept well connected whenever they saw their grandpa on the screen.

Church online will become a trend for the post-Christian culture. After the pandemic, gathering the family, dressing up (at least out of pajamas), showing up, and setting aside hours for a first-time experience is tough. Church leaders need to rethink church digitally as we are not competing with ourselves but expanding our mission. The post-pandemic situation shows that we do not have to be in a building to engage. Since the pandemic, so many things have shifted to the home: shopping, food, fitness, school, and even church. This trend is not about people dropping out, but about people who are tuning in.

If we embrace online viewers from home and focus on the micro-gatherings, as well as the distribution of members participating from home, we can mobilise these people the same way we would people who are onsite. Gathering people on Sunday morning will be as important as ever. It just won’t all happen in a building owned by the church. The post-pandemic reality is that most of the people we’re equipping won’t be in the room. We may be speaking to them from the room, but they’ll be in their homes, in their cars, at work, and in the community.

Currently, most pastors use church online to get people into the building. In the future, most pastors will use the building to reach people online. Members not being onsite doesn’t mean they aren’t engaged or in community. They can and will gather outside the church building. The challenge for the future church will not be to deliver great content, but to make connecting with people their goal. When we provide connection (knowing people, moving them into community, caring for them), it will provide a sense of commitment and belonging that people can’t get elsewhere. We must do this while being careful to make connection the content of our worship, not consumption. Unchurched people aren’t looking for what they can get from the world—they are seeking an alternative to the world. They’re looking for Christ. I pray that they find Christ here at True Way.

These new forms of expressions aren’t completely new. The way into the future is like those persecuted churches which were forced to remain small and scattered, yet engaged technology to be salt and light in a decaying world.

Rev Tan Cheng Huat (Non-resident missionary to SQ)

October 9, 2022