It varies from State to State, but many local churches are now either returning to a modified version of gathered worship or will soon. I have talked to pastors all over the country and to say that there is apprehension in the midst of their excitement would be an understatement. Some are really positive about meeting together in the sanctuary again. Others are not. And the difference has nothing to do with politics, but rather with their personalities and personal health. If this is true of pastors, it’s critical to know that is even more true of parishioners. Even if local churches could return to what they did before the pandemic (which most truly cannot do), life would still not be the same. Ministry has changed — forever. But that’s not a bad thing.
As I am navigating re-engaging gathered worship in my own congregation, I am learning that our “new normal” has altered how we do every aspect of ministry. Some are mourning these changes. Not me. I admit the initial shock was disheartening; however, as I saw how people were responding to changes in pastoral contact, online worship and more, I actually became quite encouraged. Do you know that more people are connecting with local churches all over the country than have in years? It appears that there are at least five different responses to worship and ministry in our post-COVID19 world, and fine tuning our ministry to these responses (mostly driven by personality) could make the local church more fruitful than it has been in a very long time.
1. The “Eager”
You know the eager ones — they have been calling and texting you for two months wondering when you’re going to reopen the church. Some of them have felt like all this “lockdown” was nonsense. Others are just “over it” and want to get “back to normal.” The eager folks will not only be there the first Sunday you hold gathered worship, they will come before hand to help you get everything ready. If anything, the pastoral response to these precious folks is to tell them to be patient and allow the rest of the congregation to slowly return to more public life. If pastors are successful in helping the eager folks to understand the other four personalities, they actually can become valuable ministry partners in the “new normal.”
2. The “Not Ready”
The second group to consider when re-opening your church are those that are truly not ready. While the eager adjusted quickly and wanted to gather even when the pandemic uncertainty was still high, the “not ready” folks are still processing what has happened and how it impacts their lives and the lives of those they love. Pastoring these folks requires us to discern where they are in their own process (and not all “not ready” people will process at the same pace!). These are often folks who are deeper thinkers, and listening to them can be helpful. They will sometimes articulate to you things you may have overlooked. As you help them process their own return, you will likely be laying the foundation for some of the other personalities as well.
3. The “Health Concerned”
The “Health Concerned” are a hybrid group, because they will be comprised of the other four personalities with one notable commonality: they have real health concerns that make it unwise for them to rush back into gathered worship. People in this group may actually be eager — but their eagerness is being tempered by a respiratory issue, diabetes or other known diagnosis that makes it risky to be around a larger group of people. Honestly, some of these folks may not be able to return to gathered worship for a long time. It’s not that they don’t want to — it’s that the risk is too great. Ministering to them is going to have to be innovative and personal, responding to each one’s particular needs. Some of these folks may count on technology to keep their connection with the church. Finding ways to keep them engaged and feeling like they are active will be critical.
4. The “Fearful”
There are many good articles being written on reopening our churches. But the one group I have yet to see addressed in all those posts is this one: the “fearful.” These are people who have been negatively impacted by the whole pandemic experience and are now making decisions based in fear. Many may be consumed with media reports — and the more they watch, the more fearful they become. Unlike the “not ready” group, these folks are not processing, they are terrified. Unlike the “health concerned,” these have no actual reason to stay away from groups other than their own anxiety. Before the church can reengage with the “fearful,” we must first help them overcome their fear. For some, this may even require a few visits with a professional counselor who can give them the tools and resources they need to mitigate what they are feeling inside. Fear like this may be based more in perception than reality, but it’s real for those who are experiencing it. The church can be God’s instrument for helping them return to the perfect shalom that is theirs in Christ.
5. The “Newly Engaged”
Finally, there are the “newly engaged” people. We’re not talking about marriage here, but about those who have been drawn to Christ and His Church during the coronavirus experience. For me, I am most excited about this group because they are proof that even the most wide-spread, fearful experience can still be used by God to woo people to himself. But what the church needs to realize is that this group will likely not respond to the ways we used to minister before the pandemic hit. In my own church this includes people who have found and engaged us through our online worship — and they are not geographically in our city (in fact, some are in other states and countries!). It’s possible that the pandemic has given us the gift of a second congregation — one to whom we minister online. We’re having to think about how this will work — knowing that at least some of these “newly engaged” people are seeking Christ for the first time and have found something in our webcast. We need to identify who these people are — locally and abroad. We need to discern their needs (hint: ask them!). And then we need to find innovative ways to either bring these new folks into our ministry or to help them find a good church family wherever they live.
I do not claim to know all the answers — far from it! But I do know that things have changed and we cannot go back to “business as usual.” Of all the people connected with us in this new era of ministry, only one of these groups would even return with that approach. It’s time to take what has not changed — the gospel, apostolic teaching, prayer, etc. — and repackage them to meet the new and unique needs of each of these personalities. Only when we begin to do that will we be moving forward in fruitful ministry for the post COVID19 world in which we find ourselves.
Dr. John Kimball is the Lead Pastor of Palmwood Church in Oviedo, Florida. He is also the Director of Church Development for the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. Having pastored for over 30 years, he finds himself applying the necessary radical changes to local church ministry to meet the needs of his flock and a growing community of people emerging from the recent coronavirus pandemic lockdown.