Church growth expert: Pastors must 'lean into' innovations created in response to COVID

Greg Ligon, who has served churches and leaders for over 30 years including both founding roles and executive roles in multiple organizations, speaks at the 'Future FWD 2020' virtual conference.
Greg Ligon, who has served churches and leaders for over 30 years including both founding roles and executive roles in multiple organizations, speaks at the "Future FWD 2020" virtual conference. | Future Forward Conference

A church leadership expert urged pastors and ministry leaders to “lean into” the innovations forced by COVID-19, warning that failing to steward what has been learned in the wake of the pandemic by becoming too focused on getting back into a physical building “would be a colossal missed opportunity.”

During the Future FWD 2020 Conference on Thursday, Greg Ligon, who has served churches and leaders for over 30 years, including both founding roles and executive roles in multiple organizations, noted that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most of the developed world became a multi-site church, meeting at homes all over their communities.

“Churches scrambled to figure out how to stream, how to zoom, how to do Facebook, how to be the church in the midst of a pandemic. And we rose to the occasion,” Ligon said. “We saw more innovation and adaptation in the first few weeks of this crisis than we've seen in the last decade.”

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“But was that just a stopgap measure? Or is there really a major change in how we do church coming about? As leaders, we began to move beyond asking, ‘How can we get through this?’ To asking the bigger question, ‘What are the long-term implications for the church?”

While there are “incredible challenges ahead,” Ligon said he and other church leaders are “excited about the opportunities that are just appearing on the horizon.”

“Even though circumstances are very different, we feel the same anticipation we felt 20 years ago when we began toying around with this idea of being one church, multiple locations. ... We believe that what is coming next will be even more transformational.”

Instead of simply “getting back to normal,” churches are finding “new ways to be one church in multiple locations,” Ligon said, adding that online church is “both a present and future reality.”

“To not steward what has been learned during this pandemic by becoming too focused on getting back into the building would be a colossal missed opportunity,” he stressed. “Church, going forward, must be a both-and world, not an either-or reality.”

Some churches have “added multiple smaller venues designed for a more intimate congregational experience,” Ligon said. He explained that due to COVID, many churches are looking at the idea of multiple smaller venues within a bigger building. 

“Some of this is driven by limited occupancy regulations by the local government, and some is driven by the fear of many together in a large crowd,” he posited. 

The “harsh economic reality of this pandemic” is that many churches will not be able to survive on their own, Ligon said. While this is “difficult,” it’s also a tremendous opportunity for financially healthy churches to step in and make a significant impact for the Kingdom by merging together, he said. 

“This is a chance to bring new life and new hope to communities across the country.”

Ligon said he’s also seen the acceleration of micro churches,” a model driven by “the irreducible minimum for a biblical church: Worship community and mission, opening up the possibility for more contextualized churches,” and micro-sites, which he defined as “a community of connected and invested believers in an area where there is no physical campus for the sponsoring church.”

“The community shares in the life of the church on Sunday and beyond through Livestream discipleship materials and leadership training in small groups, but they usually meet in homes or community centers rather than a dedicated building,” he added.

He also stressed the importance of “multi-brands” when it comes to the future church. 

“Rather than simply replicating the same model over and over, planting independent churches, what if a church created very unique experiences, based on the cultures and demographics of the communities they're trying to reach within with the Gospel?” he said. 

“This [might] be a modern-day expression of Paul's commitment to be all things to all people so that some might be saved,” he concluded. "Let's lean into the future, forward."

Churches across the U.S. have been forced to innovate and adjust to hold services during the ongoing lockdowns in response to the pandemic. 

As many as one in five churches could permanently close as a result of shutdowns stemming from the pandemic, David Kinnaman, president of the prominent Christian research organization Barna Group, recently said. 

As time passes, Kinnaman said that “we’ll look back at this pandemic as a fundamental change to the way Americans” handled church attendance.

Exponential CEO Todd Wilson recently said that “what is church” is “going to become “one of the key questions coming out of COVID,” as the digital way many are currently worshiping is “more of a missionary impulse for evangelism.”

“Personally, I'm predicting it's going to become more of a debate, not less, as we move into the future,” he said. “It seems like the new normal is going to involve greater digital than pre-COVID. ... All of a sudden, churches are going to think about, ‘Why do I even have a physical building? Why do I need it? Why not be completely digital?’”

“At some point, we've got to go through that question of, ‘What, physically, is church?”

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