You can still be the church when an in-person gathering isn’t possible.

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Whatever your scaffolding looked like before isn’t the question. The question is: What was behind it?

In “non-pandemic times” (which is now a thing for us), the debates in the church world were:

  • missional vs. attractional
  • small vs. big
  • authentic vs. corporate
  • live vs. online

But this pandemic has leveled the playing field, so to speak. You don’t have your missional church or your attractional church. Small churches and big churches alike cannot meet. And if you still think there’s a debate of whether or not online church is actually church, well… I don’t know what to say to you, to be honest.

The pandemic and the absence of local public gatherings of any kind has revealed a better debate all churches of every kind are beginning to sense – and one that will undoubtedly carry on post-pandemic when gatherings resume.

And that is:

To what degree is your ministry environment just scaffolding (metaphorically speaking)?

To remind you of what scaffolding is:

  • a temporary structure for holding workers and materials during the erection, repair, or decoration of a building.

  • a raised platform or stage for exhibiting spectacles, seating spectators, etc.

  • any raised framework.

( also defines scaffolding as “an elevated platform on which a criminal is executed, usually by hanging.” Hopefully that part of the metaphor doesn’t ring true at your church.)

In the absence of a public gathering—whether it’s a major production with hundreds of volunteers and thousands in attendance or a few faithful families—every church is seeing their church for what it is (and isn’t). The scaffolding of every kind is simply… gone.

What’s left?

Well, for some churches, what’s left is pretty discouraging. The respective badges we wore about our respective churches have been ripped off. Finances at the big expensive church and the small modest church are very constricted. There’s a loss of identity and a lot of uncertainty. Why? Because although it might be different kinds of scaffolding, that’s all it really was: just a temporary structure for holding people and volunteers; a stage; a framework that now does not exist.

But for other churches, this pandemic has been a gracious reminder and a breath of fresh air. 

Churches are finding ways to personally connect to, care for, and disciple people: 

  • Small groups over video conferencing platforms do work, and in some cases, work better than requiring everyone to be in a home or on site for an evening a week.

Engagement in these groups go up, in part because the times we’re living in provide a lot to talk about, process, and pray about… but also because we’re realizing that these mediums of connecting are advanced enough that interactions can be genuine.

  • One church gathering in many homes around a screen watching a service is still “church,” and in fact, mirrors what a lot of the early churches did (not with screens, but with letters).

Worshipping with your family, listening to the Word being taught and preached, hearing the challenge and the encouragement… even children’s ministry programming can be delivered in an engaging way that helps people take steps in their faith.

  • More people are inviting their unchurched friends, and more unchurched friends are saying yes to that invitation.

Why? Because it’s easier to invite someone digitally to a digital gathering, and it’s easier to say yes to that invitation. The risk is lower on both sides. And some of these digital platforms—like Facebook live—are simple to set up, use, and foster personal connections that a live environment often cannot.

  • 1-on-1 spontaneous care and volunteer development are also going up.

Without the tyranny of the urgent, “Sunday is always coming,” hallway conversations, random interruptions that church offices and culture burden staffers with, they are… you know… connecting with people. I know… weird. Kids small group leaders are touching base with parents. Staffers are connecting with their volunteer leaders. Teams are devising systems to communicate with, discover, and meet the needs of their people. 

  • Engagement with local, compassionate mission and community organizations is going up.

Again, without this general malaise of having “so much to do” for Sunday, priorities have changed. Being a tangible blessing in the name of Jesus at food banks, schools, and other places has shot up to near the top of the list.

I could go on. But I think what a lot of churches of all different kinds are discovering is that you can still be the church in a time where an in-person gathering of any kind isn’t possible. 

Whatever your scaffolding looked like before isn’t the question. The question is: 

What was behind it?

The mission of the Church never changes; but the truth is, our strategies change with every new generation. How we “do” church just changed forever. While it’s unclear what the new normal will look like, it is clear there are big shifts to make.

We help churches get unstuck. Over the last 10 years, we’ve helped 400+ churches clarify the vision (where they believe God’s called them to go) and their strategies (how they are going to get there). We can help you navigate the future of your church leadership.

Don’t let yourself wish for things to go “back to normal.” Lead forward! And let’s talk

Jesse Tink

Jesse is the Pastor of Campus Development at Prairie Lakes Church, which currently spans across six campuses in northeastern and central Iowa. He’s served in various roles including college, music, production, teaching, and senior leadership. Jesse has led teams in urban, suburban, and rural locations, from campuses of 50 to 1500. Married to Erin, they have their son, Jude, and their daughter, Ellie. He’s outside in the colder months hunting deer and turkey at their family-owned ground, and roots for the Iowa Hawkeyes and New York Yankees.

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