From the very beginning of the Coronavirus-related lockdowns, church leaders have been wondering about the survivability of many of America’s churches. Not having services on a weekly basis can be a serious blow to not only income, but to peoples’ interaction with and dedication to their local church family.
Many churches survive on a week-to-week budget. Many did not have pastors in the pulpit, and as a result may have lacked clear leadership through a very complicated time. Others were crumbling from within before the pandemic hit, and an external crisis simply sped up the inevitable.
Early on, Barna Research began to do important work on the state of churches, pastors, and leadership decisions during the pandemic, and thought early on that maybe 1 in 5 churches in America might close their doors by the time this is all over. That’s a lot. There was even talk of as many as 1 in 3.
At 2020 lumbers on, I see other trends in American churches and ministry leadership that I think will add to the complexity, and possibly the number, of churches facing significant demise or outright closure.
Here are the types of churches I think may have the hardest time surviving the Coronavirus pandemic.
Small Churches that did not Adapt
“Small” can be a relative term, but most American churches are around 100 people or less. A church of this size may have lacked the budget or technology to be able to reach out when physical contact was basically a national prohibition. Some of them may simply have not had the internal leadership to know what to do.
According to Barna research (and my personal anecdotal evidence), some of the congregants of these churches began “attending” the online services of larger churches with great production value. They may or may not return.
Young Church Plants
Heather and I planted a church, helped plant another, and tried to help the planting/revitalization of three other churches. Church planting is not for the faint of heart, even in the best of circumstances. Every day is a question mark and every weekend is a mixture of equal parts exhilaration and disappointment.
A lot of church plants rely on schools, theatres, and strip malls for their leases. They don’t have the money to buy or build, so they go to local principles or property managers for a chance to worship.
Public schools have the complicated decision ahead of them of reopening and controlling as much infection as they can. Will they allow outside organizations to lease from them? Many have already said no. Theaters are not all open, and many are only open under severe restrictions. Will they make the same decision?
This one is a heartbreaker.
In more churches than we want to imagine, their internal structure has been dysfunctional for a long time and has either chewed up and spit out a string of young pastors every couple of years, or has been ruled by a tyrannical senior pastor for way too long. In many of these cases, church death normally takes a long time, but the lockdowns have sped up the process.
Medium to Large Churches Gone Woke
The most interesting trend to me right now is the decision some larger churches (some of them mega churches with multiple campuses) are making when it comes to the cultural trends of 2020: Black Lives Matters, LGBTQ+ and Transgender activism, Socialism and Marxism, and secular Progressivism. They are going “woke”.
The pressure for churches to change their teaching to match the most recent cultural trends is nothing new. What is new is the content of the current culture trend, which makes capitulation so incredible to me.
Historically, the Church that survived nearly every conceivable culture and political atmosphere is the one that did not surrender. Yet, with every generation of pressure there is a cadre of pastors who believe the only way the church will survive is to give in. Cultures and cultural trends come and go, the Church endures, yet these pastors and churches chose cultural trends.
Historically, this decision is like signing a death certificate. Denominations, what we often call “mainline denominations”, have been in decline for over a hundred years, in large part because they are the churches that capitulate. The death of those denominations is taking generations, but large cultural crises have a way of speeding up trends already in play. Many of these churches made the decision in April not to meet for the rest of 2020!
Will this new round of ceding churches take generations to die? Many of them are not physically meeting right now, of if they are, they are meeting at a fraction of their previous in-person numbers. Does the lack of normal week-to-week attendance mean the decline is, in effect, already happening? Will many people simply never show up again?
I don’t know. But I do know that history tells us that the decision to become more like the culture in order to reach the culture does not bode well for churches.
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