COVID-19 has hurt in-person church attendance and overall giving, most congregations report, but leaders appearing at a conference focusing on the future of the local Church say the way forward is to welcome engagement wherever they find Church, be it online or physically.
Dusty Rubeck, president of CDF Capital, which helps churches get the financial and other resources they need to serve their communities, welcomed those attending the two-day virtual FutureFWD2020 conference that ran Wednesday and Thursday by encouraging them to think ahead and strategize.
“A leader with a dream is a good thing, but a leader that has a dream and a plan, that leader will do great things,” said the former head of Dallas Christian College.
The conference is sponsored by a wide-ranging collection of Christian lending firms, leadership development companies, and pastoral study and staffing enterprises.
The Rev. David Ashcraft, the senior pastor over the network of the 15 campuses called Lives Changed by Christ headquartered in Manheim, Pennsylvania, said having his leadership team discuss with Chick-Fil-A the company’s success helped change LCBC’s goals.
The firm said it exists to get chicken to people, not get people into its stores.
“We realized we had drifted away from the true mission of our church,” Ashcraft admitted in a video talk. “For all practical purposes, we’d been acting like our mission had been to get people into our buildings.” The church team then agreed the only reason LCBC exists is to get Jesus to the people.
The veteran of 29 years at the church added that experience helped them in this year’s coronavirus pandemic.
“We were semi-prepared because we’d already decided we didn’t exist just to get people into our buildings,” he explained. “Our mission is so much bigger, so much greater.”
Despite spending nearly $100 million on physical structures in LCBC’s history, he said the church looks at online and in-person attendance as equal.
Campus pastors also now are not just responsible for their flocks but the surrounding communities as well.
Senior Pastor Jeff Brodie of Canada’s Connexus Church advocated clergy adapt to society’s move to virtual experiences.
“We know that institutions are losing influence and networks are gaining influence quickly,” he said in his presentation. “We know that platforms are where people are going for answers more than they are physical places.”
He advocated considering attendees’ experiences with a church — online or in-person — as a whole and allowing them to find their individual blend.
Brodie said a “melded world” of digital and physical should dominate for the foreseeable future.
A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found among those who had looked for a church at some point in life, the largest factors were the quality of preaching (83%), feeling welcomed by leaders (79%), style of services (74%) and location (70%).
At that time, only 37% went online to search for a new congregation. However, Google data indicates COVID-19 brought on a surge in searching for religious topics, especially prayer, which jumped by 50% in volume in the pandemic’s first month.
Comparing the coronavirus pandemic to the famine that Joseph foretold in the Bible, Rubeck gave hope to conference viewers.
“The end of the famine was not the end of the story,” he asserted. “The end of this pandemic will not be the end of the story. Leaders, we’ve got to keep our eyes and focus on that distant horizon.”