The number one question for many of us in church leadership this last year has been, what will church look like coming out of Covid lockdown into a new kind of normal? Will we recover and get back to a version of 2019 church?
What will be the ongoing impact on church attendance now that we have discovered church on line? Will we continue to run church services and home cell groups on line as a hybrid offering of live attendance and streamed viewing? What are the threats and opportunities going forward from here? And what can be learned from our experiences?
There has already been a stack of analysis and preliminary assessment on how our churches are being impacted and the responses and experiences coming through the crisis.1 My own interest in post Covid church lies in the impact on church infrastructure and organisation given the nature of my work and roles within Churches of Christ Financial Services (CCFS) and in Churches of Christ Victoria & Tasmania (CCVT).
In my own analysis, I can see four church trends coming out of Covid. To varying degrees these trends are already underway but are likely to escalate from the impact of the pandemic. If theses trends continue, they will transform our ecclesiology and missiology in feedback loops impacting our use of church resources and networks.
The four trends are:
- An increase in the divestment of church property
- The rise of the hybrid networked church
- Accelerating fragmentation of denominational structures
- A shift of leadership from denominational hegemony to grass roots activism and community engagement
In this post I will look at the first two trends – divestment of church property and the hybrid networked church.
1. An increase in the divestment of church property
In Australia we have witnessed an increase in church divestment of property in recent decades. At a denominational level, the merging of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches into the Uniting Church in the 1970s resulted in substantial sales of multiple church sites over time.2
More recently the Royal Commission in Australia into child sexual abuse and the National Redress Scheme has led to further swathes of church property portfolios being sold to manage the compensation claims. One notable example of this is the Tasmanian Anglican Diocese.3
A further and related trend is the dimise of many smaller to medium sized congregations and connected church buildings due to demographic shifts and the rise of the mega church and church franchises typically gobbling up smaller churches either by takeovers or sheep fleecing.
There is genuine evangelistic growth in new converts but we don’t have enough hard stats on how much of the growth is transfer growth from other churches. The overall trend is more church closures and dropping memberships.4
These trends reflect the decline in church attendance in recent years. The exceptions of high growth, predominantly in the Pentecostal churches, is coming off a low base. Mainline denominational stagnation stubbornly persists in the overall decline in church attendance and membership.
These stats don’t necessarily tell the full story of course. Membership and attendance have both dropped because of a drop in commitment to church as we once understood it. Of those who still ‘go to church’ there are less committed members and overall, less attend as frequently as they once did.
Despite pockets of church growth, the stats flag a drop in overall commitment to local church attendance. If we believe church is a structured religious service held on Sunday or any other regular basis for that matter, and if we see regular attendance as marks of what constitutes church, then church life is in a death spiral in Australia.
But there is another dynamic in play. The financial cost of building and doing church has increased dramatically due to the following economic factors.
- Creeping compliance from rising regulation related to buildings, finance, governance and employment.
- Rising community standards and expectations of church buildings and services.
- Maturing urban property markets from population growth leading to higher property values compared to average household income.
- Property values increasing even more as property appreciates as an investment class encouraged in Australia by favourable tax treatment to property investors.
These drivers have led to the increasing cost of operating church buildings and the rise of the mega and franchise church.
It is naive to simply say that smaller churches are dying due to a lack of evangelism and mission. Dying churches in small regional towns and dormant suburbs are primarily a result of shifting demographics as much as anything else.
The trend towards property divestment from dying congregations and increasing property costs will see an increase in church form experimentation with different models of church from the organic house church to missional incarnational models of church, which are likely to lead to an even greater divestment of older or redundant properties.
Covid will put more economic pressure on churches that are already struggling to pay the bills leading to an acceleration of church closures, amalgamations and experimentation. This in turn will lead to the emergence of the second trend which is already underway.
If we believe church is a structured religious service held on Sunday or any other regular basis for that matter and if we see regular attendance as marks of what constitutes church, then church life is in a death spiral in Australia.Tweet
2. The rise of the hybrid networked church
Leading Hybrid Churches is an Australian book published in 2018 by Healthy Vibrant Communities. In the following year The Coming Revolution In Church Economics by Mark Deymaz and Harry Li was published in the United States. Both books are promoting a new breed of church as a mix of quasi commercial and social enterprise that can financialy sustain the cost of church while also impacting the community.
I have blogged on The Coming Revolution In Church Economics. This approach is very much in our thinking and development within Churches of Christ in Victoria and Tasmania (CCVT) but it is not what I mean here by hybrid churches. Instead of hybrid church, I call these enterprise church models.
At CCVT we talk about mission motivated developments and missiological enterprises which pick up on the social-mission aspects of church that can also generate funding streams. But the emphasis is on ‘mission’ not ‘enterprise’, ‘hybrid’ or ‘economics’. We will see more of this shift towards enterprise church but in unexpected configurations which I’ll pick up on in the third trend – accelerating fragmentation of denominational structures – in my next blog post.
What has now come to be known as hybrid church is a networked church expressed as a hybrid of a more traditional experience, such as in person attendance in a building for Sunday worship, embedded with options for participating in church online. Covid ushered in this seismic shift in online church services in ways which we never dreamed possible.
The jury is still out on whether this is a net win or loss for the church but regardless, church on line streaming will more than likely continue alongside the return to souls on seats under the one church roof. It is still early days but I believe we will see the new hybrid networked experiment morph church in ways we would not have anticipated pre Covid, bringing unexpected transformation that will continue to suprise us.
The trend towards property divestment from dying congregations and increasing property costs will see an increase in church form experimentation with different models of church from the organic house church to missional incarnational models of church.Tweet
For starters we will see a positive two way feed back loop grow and develop from hybrid networks.
The first loop is a positive experience with congregations wanting to return to pews. We are created for live community. People are wanting to return and will come back to join together in real time-and-flesh worship, communion and fellowship.
There is a caveat based on US stats emerging of dramatic drop offs in post Covid return to live church numbers, particularly younger post Boomer generations. It still remains to be seen how this plays out in Australia’s locked down states of NSW and Victoria, expecting to emerge out of lockdown late 2021.
The second loop is a positive experience in congregations, continuing in part, to access church on line from the busy fragmented 21st century, 24/7 lifestyles that most of us have bought in to. Sports, shopping, work and coffee over brunch all happen on Sundays and most of us are ‘guilty’ to some degree of this ‘Sabbath breaking’.
But there are also the sick, frail, elderly, and travellers that can’t physically make it to church at the designated time. Streaming and recorded services will continue because they are convenient and meet these cohorts’ needs.
If it were just for these two positive feed back loops, we could expect a potential net overall benefit to local church participation from the new hybrid church. But I believe we will also see a negative two way feed back loop come into play that will benefit some churches while disadvantaging others.
The first negative feedback loop is the opening up of a faster more fluid channel for church on line shopping (or hopping) which will make church attendance patterns more volatile as people shop around between churches. There are potential winners and losers from this. The more competitive, consumer driven churches are likely to become even more attractive and win a greater share of the dwindling church attendance numbers.
The second negative feedback loop is the increased fluidity and volatility of church ‘attendance’ patterns likely to impact negatively on people’s commitments to programs, giving and lay ministry. This will make it more challenging than ever for church leaders to co-ordinate logistics and services.
Most churches rely on a good percentage of the congregation for volunteer ministry from music to hospitality teams. Volunteerism has been on the wane for some time due to the erosion of our free time and the professionalisation of services, such as the church treasurer, due to increasing compliance and regulation.
It has become increasingly difficult over recent decades for churches to muster volunteers for property maintenance rosters, committees and ministry participation.
Covid will accelerate this decline in church volunteers because of the increased instability of committed congregations due to volatile attendance patterns.
Our churches are highly reliant on volunteers to run programs, facilitate ministry and provide administrative services. For churches that are already running on a shoe string budget, a drop in volunteers required in post Covid church programs and ministry enagement could well spell the end.
The net impact of these binary feedback loops – both positive and negative – is less critical than the volatility they will create which will lead to an increase in competition between churches, experimentation of how we practice church, a collapse of more churches and amalgamation of others.
Together these two emerging trends will lead to an acceleration of two macro trends already on the rise – a fragmentation of denominational structures and a loss of authoratative denominational leadership as church networks and mission enterprise leadership emerges alongside grass roots activism and community engagement.
In the next blog posts in this series I will discuss these two macro trends that may well burst the old wineskins of existing structures.
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