A Holistic Mission Guide

The Church’s Response in Times of Crisis

Paradigm Shift: Thinking About the Future of the Church in a Post-Pandemic World

“It’s time to think big about the future of worship before the future passes us by.”[1] This is the argument Joseph W. Walker, III, makes in his article, “Let’s Stop Pretending that Virtual Worship Isn’t Here to Stay.” Walker is the pastor of a thriving megachurch with three locations in Nashville, Tennessee, and the Presiding Bishop of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. He knows intimately the challenges that ministries now face in the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

It is instructive, then, that Walker maintains that many pastors and church leaders are asking the wrong questions when it comes to what worship will look like in a post-pandemic world. He suggests that, instead of focusing on the logistical concerns involved in congregants returning physically to our buildings and sanctuaries for worship with the hopes of eliminating the need for online offerings, pastors and church leaders should be thinking about a hybrid worship model in which in-person and virtual worship exists simultaneously.[2] Walker is arguing for a paradigm shift in the way that pastoral and ministry leaders envision and think about worship. However, Walker’s argument could be applied to every aspect of church life. COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to rethink every facet of what we do, how we do it, and why. To paraphrase Walker, it is time to think about the future of the church before the future passes us by.

Church leadership scholar Lovett H. Weems, Jr., seems to agree. He discusses navigating the difficulties of congregational leadership and change in his book Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church. Weems argues that deep and permanent change occurs when congregations spend time reflecting on their own unique story and allow change to happen as a natural but guided and intentional evolutionary process.[3] He suggests that churches often struggle to find their place in the new and often shifting “generational, social, cultural, and spiritual landscapes” they face today.[4] This was true before the advent of the coronavirus, but in a post-pandemic world, the reality of change will be felt more acutely and failure to embrace change will prove to be more costly and a greater threat to continued viability and existence for many churches. Missing the opportunity to rethink, reimagine, and retool for 21st century ministry today may mean ineffectiveness, failure, irrelevance, and closure tomorrow. 

This is why those who are charged with the task of congregational leadership and the ministry of institutional stewardship must seize this moment to think deeply about the future of the church in a post-pandemic world. COVID-19 has taught us that there is a myriad of possible futures. Our task is to discern God’s “preferred future” for the church and hasten toward it.[5] The work of discerning God’s vision for the church in a post-pandemic world should be seen as theological work because change is inherently theological.[6] Paradigm shifts in the life of a worshiping community are not about changing for the sake of change. Rather, change should happen in the life of the church because it is trying to better situate itself theologically, spiritually, and institutionally to live into the future that God has for it.[7]

Change is a necessary and important work that must be done if the church is to remain a relevant witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their communities.[8] This is Walker’s point about embracing a hybrid worship model. Walker asserts that churches that refuse to adopt a “both/and” approach to worship run the risk of becoming obsolete as worshipers continue to look for and expect virtual opportunities to engage their faith communities. While Walker’s assertion about hybridity and worship models may have some contextual limitations, the thinking he employs to get there is sound and can be applied to other areas of church life. Though concerns about technology, platforms, and worship formats are important in some contexts, in a post-pandemic world there are other components of institutional life that are of wider concern. 

For example, the pandemic has revealed that many of the administrative functions of the church can be done remotely. This means that in a post-pandemic world many churches may need to reconsider their organizational infrastructure and staffing needs. Additionally, consider the fact that many churches have had to think through new and different ways to “be the church” as they were unable to engage in ministry work like pastoral care in the ways they did before the onset of the pandemic. Future models of pastoral care may now need to include virtual counseling sessions, much like telemedicine appointments offered by medical doctors and other practitioners in helping professions. 

These are only a few of the areas of church life that may be forever changed in a post-pandemic world. Pastoral and church leaders must create a process in which they can think through and assess all aspects of church life in community with other congregational leaders and stakeholders. This process should be an ongoing and generative process that evaluates and re-evaluates church programming, policies, and procedures for their effectiveness, efficiency, and fidelity to the vision and mission of their ministry contexts. This discernment process is as important, if not more so, as the processes that we use to think through worship planning, budgeting and finance, and Christian education and discipleship. Re-assessing programming, policies, and procedures today will better position churches to be relevant, thriving faith communities in a post-pandemic world tomorrow.

[1] Joseph W. Walker, III, “Let’s stop pretending that virtual worship isn’t here to stay”, https://religionnews.com/2020/07/24/lets-stop-pretending-that-virtual-worship-isnt-here-to-stay/, accessed on February 1, 2021.

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Lovett H Weems, Jr., Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2003), 18-19.

[4] Ibid,12.

[5] Weems, 16.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 15.

[8] Ibid, 19.

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. What does your congregation do now that it did not do before the pandemic and why? What creative changes might stay with you beyond the pandemic?
  2. What are some things that your congregation did before the pandemic that it no longer does and why?
  3. What are some challenges your congregation has faced during the pandemic?
  4. What challenges might your congregation face in a post-pandemic world?
  5. What programming, policy, or procedural changes will your congregation need to overcome those challenges?

About the Author

Rev. Xavier L. Johnson, D.Min. is the pastor of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio. He is also the Director of Contextual Ministry Education and an Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana.
Xavier L. Johnson

Related Articles