Creatively Adapting In These Challenging Times
‘How did you actually grow your church during Covid-19?’
This is one of the questions many other pastors asked us in the beginning of 2021.
After one year of Covid-19, the number of volunteers and connect groups in our church and giving has doubled.
But how was this possible?
The easy answer would be that we put a lot of effort into making church happen in any way possible. Like most churches, we started online services. We held three drive-in cinema services. We organized a big open-air service in summer and tried to create some really special Easter and Christmas productions.
So, is the key to simply do as much as possible? Of course not.
Adapting to the circumstances of the time in order to grow your church means flexibility. We tried to hold this as one of our greatest values – especially in this Covid season. Flexible leadership means adapting to your circumstances quickly.
When the first lockdown in Germany occurred – we had less than 24 hours to set up the first online service our church had ever done. The question was never ‘should we hold a service?’ It was simply, ‘how can we make a service possible?’ So, we spontaneously booked a camera crew, and we recorded our first service and put it online.
Watching it today, it is far away from how we are doing it now, but it was the best we were able to produce at the time. It actually changed the way we thought about church! We tried to stop thinking about how we were used to doing church and focused on new ways of making church possible in this unfamiliar situation.
That is why we then asked a professional filmmaker to help us and give advice for our online services. Under their guidance, we quickly changed the setting from an ‘on stage’ service to a large industrial setting.
We tried to be flexible, and we tried to think outside the box. One day we heard that a drive-in cinema was planning to open in one of the cities in which we have a campus. I reached out immediately to see if it was possible to run a service there. It was! We could never have imagined the success of this service. We only planned to hold a one-off drive-in service but afterwards we decided to run some more.
We had hundreds of first-time visitors coming to those services and dozens of salvations every Sunday.
As a result of those events and our online service re-design, we had many volunteers starting to serve in our church. Many of them were the very professionals that we had asked for advice in the first place!
It was not actually the sermon or the way we worshipped, but the fact that we had been flexible, creative and forward thinking that made our church so attractive to them. Many had never been in church before and got saved during this season because they saw a group of believers that was so motivated to make church possible and to get the Gospel out there, even in unfamiliar circumstances.
Did everything always work out perfectly? Definitely not. Some things we tried out did not work at all, but to be flexible, to be creative, to adapt to the circumstances around you often means to try, fail and then try something else.
The message of hope remained the same, only the way of reaching our communities with the message changed in so many ways and so many times.
There was no ‘How to run church in a Global crisis seminar’ we could attend and there are many other things we as the Church might face in the future. Hopefully not on the scale of a global crisis, but there will be many future circumstances that require creativity, flexibility, and adaptability from us.
My biggest lesson as a leader in this season would be the following:
Be bold and try something.
We may be afraid that it might not work out but trust me, often we will be surprised by how God is using our effort to make things possible!
It does not have to be something the world has never seen before. It is mostly about embracing the situation and circumstances around you, being flexible and quick to react.
In German we have a saying: ‘The devil’s favourite furniture is the long bench’, which is a metaphor for procrastination. Often the Church’s biggest hinderance in adapting to circumstances is trying to wait it out.
So don’t wait – initiate!
“We’re just checking you out…” is one of the most common phrases church planters hear when starting a church.
I remember when we had just started holding *real* services in our church. This is after the pre-launch phase and team meetings. Now spectators, and even critics, were coming to church.
Each Sunday we were so excited, anticipating the new guests that would walk through the door and finally see if our marketing efforts and dollars had actually worked. Every week Keira and I would stand in the lobby greeting people as they came to church. And for some reason, when talking to guests, I began to hear a pattern emerge in conversations.
Every time I would welcome someone new, they would make a statement like, “We’re just checking you out.” As if to make sure I understood that they were going judge everything about the service – my preaching, the sound levels and everything else – before they would commit to joining. I can remember the nervous pressure that put on me as a pastor, to make church as comfortable and attractive to them as possible.
Now, not only did these comments come with pressure to do things right, there was also pressure from some new guests to not do certain things at all.
Like one time I was greeting a gentleman who I hadn’t met before. He was a big guy and as he walked into the lobby I reached out my hand and said my usual welcome greeting, to which he responded… “This isn’t one of those ‘tongue’ speaking churches is it?” A little startled, I replied… “Well, umm, maybe, sort of, yes?” He then rolled his eyes, grunted under his breath and without shaking my hand (that was still stretched out) just walked straight into service.
I began to notice that all the people who I wanted to like the church were also the ones that didn’t stay very long or caused nothing but frustration while they were there.
So one time, as I was greeting a family that had just stepped into our church for the first time and said that annoying sentence, “We’re just checking things out…” I, maybe out of frustration, replied with… “Oh good, because we’re just checking you out also.”
They looked immediately shocked at my response. I continued… “Because we’re a passionate church, with wild faith and a big vision, and this church isn’t for the faint hearted.” The husband looked at his wife and then looked back at me and said, “I think we’re going to like it here.”
That was the moment we began to build a church we actually liked.
You see, so many church planters feel the pressure to perform for people and make church nice and neat so that people will stay. This will cause you to play things safe and may even prevent you from moving in the Spirit, for fear of things getting messy.
It will also create a church that you don’t even like going to. What a tragedy, to build a church of 1000 people and not like any of them.
Now I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be diligent with following up new guests and being smooth with our transitions… but if you begin to forego values in order to keep people, then you are in a dangerous zone. You urgently need to get the leverage back.
The Bible says that the church is the bride of Christ. We aren’t some ‘thirsty’ girl.
We are not desperate for a date and willing to negotiate on our values so that people will like us. No, we hold to our convictions and create an atmosphere that is a privilege to be a part of. Everyone is welcome, of course, but at the same time we clearly know who we are and who God has called us as a community to be. This is how you gain the leverage and create an atmosphere where new guests are intrigued by the service, rather than critical of it. In fact – let me give you three simple ways to do this.
- Define your distinctives.
Most churches similar to yours will believe in the core elements of Christianity, faith and the Presence of God, but what is it that makes you distinctively you? Is it your passion, your discipleship, your responsive culture or your lean toward social justice? These distinctive’s are what set you apart and define the flavor and feel of your church.
- Set your standards.
Simply put… what you allow and don’t allow. For example, is barefoot worship leading cool with you? Can people freely spirit dance with streamers in the aisles? Are random exaltations from shofars appropriate? If not, these things have to be addressed immediately, with the only reason being that it isn’t the way you do things.
- Create a strong culture.
Is your culture stronger than the culture people will bring with them? Most people coming to your church plant in the early days will be Christians coming from another church setting. They will bring with them a strong idea on how church should be done (even though they left that church). You will find that a fledgling church is more susceptible to strong opinions, so these voices can hijack your culture fast. Be steadfast in your convictions and repeat, repeat, repeat your culture at any and every chance you get.
Trust me when I say that you will still build a large church, now it will just be one that you like going to.
This blog is part of our online church planting resource base. To find out more, ask your senior pastor for access to Xpress.