Sunday morning quarterbacking: Due to lack of interest, church is closed.

For the last ten years, I’ve had the privilege of working in our church. My life prior to church work was schools.

Churches and schools have much in common.

Both work with people.

Budgets, staffs, buildings, and curriculum are in their footprint.

Churches and schools are in plain public view. This equals more scrutiny and criticism.

And over the last two years, thanks to COVID-19, schools and churches have been walloped by this pandemic.

At our church, Trinity United Methodist, our response to the pandemic has been a week to week scramble to react to the whims of this unfriendly virus.

The Captain Kangaroo cartoon character Tom Terrific used his funnel shaped “thinking cap” to figure out life’s challenges. Churches have been pushed to put on their collective “thinking caps” too.

When the pandemic shutdown our building, we shifted our Sunday worship to a virtual broadcast. Luckily, we had the technology infrastructure in place to accomplish this. But, we were also required to invest in newer technology to keep us current.

As the virus teased us with a decline in cases, we started a spring early morning worship service in one of our parking lots. Sometimes, weather conditions were a factor, but overall this approach was a refreshing change.

Being outside, seemed to work really well for young families with children. They had space to move around. Being outside allowed the environment to absorb their chatter unlike the cramped confines of a sanctuary pew.

Our staff worked to implement other program options too. Some found traction, some didn’t.

But during this time, there was always the pandemic undertow of division. That division came from policies for dealing with the pandemic.

Initially, this was a collaborative effort from the Virginia United Methodist Conference and our local district. One requirement was for our church to develop our own healthy church team. This team consisting of staff and congregation members was charged with monitoring the pandemic and developing our response.

No matter how hard this team worked to keep people healthy and safe, no decision completely satisfied every member of our congregation.

In turn, we lost members who became frustrated with our policies when compared to other churches in the area.

Clearly, those departures had an impact. And they served to reaffirm that no matter the team’s decisions—wins were few in this environment.

But, in truth, churches were not in a winning position before the pandemic either.

Back on December 14, 2021, the latest Pew Research Center findings revealed: “That about three-in-ten American adults are now religiously unaffiliated. Self-identified Christians make up 63% of the U.S. population in 2021, down from 75% a decade ago.”

The Pew data continues to validate what churches have known for several years—finding the path to bring people back into church is a challenge.

In Tony Morgan’s book The Unstuck Church, the author uses a bell curve diagram to chart the life stages of a church. Mr. Morgan starts with the exciting launch, and sadly, concludes with the church being on life support.

From my work in a church, I sense churches really struggle with attempts to change.

The capacity to change is grounded in the ability of church staffs and their congregations to form honest relationships. Staffs and congregations must be able to talk, listen, and acknowledge differences.

Despite being in a weary and worn COVID-19 environment, churches must insure that these challenging conversations take place. Failure to talk and ponder the future will only continue to reduce the ability of churches to pull out from this downward spiral.

In Ecclesiastes Chapter 3, the point is made that there is a time and season for everything. The word “time” is cited twenty-nine times in those eight verses.

Time might be a critical piece for churches to consider in figuring out their futures. How do churches reinvent themselves with compelling offerings that will make the “religiously unaffiliated” curious enough to give of their time to check out church?

No matter whether a person is “religiously unaffiliated” or a longstanding member, churches are vying to capture time on either person’s calendar.

One thing is very clear to me—churches can’t continue to rely upon their past successes to sustain them in the future. Why? We are in a different world.

With urgent diligence, churches must invest in time to find a path forward.

Otherwise, “Due to lack of interest, church is closed” will become a dismal reality.

Author’s note: Sunday Morning Quarterbacking: Due to lack of interest, church is closed was submitted to the Richmond Times-Dispatch for consideration as an op-ed piece. On Sunday, February 20, 2022, the piece ran in the commentary section of the newspaper. I am honored when a piece of my writing is published beyond this blog site.

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