By Dave Gemmell
“I can’t wait to get back to normal.” How many times have you heard that sentiment lately? Maybe you indulge in the fantasy of a pre-pandemic world as you close your eyes and envision being able to travel across the country, eat with friends at a restaurant, or hug the person next to you in a pew at church.
Returning to normal is a fantasy. Things will never be the same. As Bill Gates remarked in a recent blog post, “The pandemic will define this era in the same way that World War II did in its time. . . . No one who lives through this pandemic will ever forget it. . . . And it is impossible to overstate the pain that people are feeling now and will continue to feel for years to come.”1
Yet some of the greatest advances in American history— the liberation of slaves, Social Security, robust clean air and water mandates—were birthed by disaster. History tells us things will be different. Just knowing things will change helps us hold past things more lightly and allows us to leverage opportunities before us. As Winston Churchill put it, “Never waste a good crisis.”
Jesus gives a simple parable that is suddenly relevant to churches today:
And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. (Luke 5:37, NIV)
The “new wine” is the post pandemic world, and it can- not be contained in a pre-pandemic church, and those who try, risk ruining the church. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins (Luke 5:38, NIV). There must be a new church for the post pandemic world.
Imagine with me what that post-pandemic church might look like. I envision a world where the risk of contracting COVID-19 has been all but eliminated; beyond the fear of getting infected, stay-at-home orders, church closings, economic devastation, job losses, struggles with illness, and goodbyes to loved ones. Imagine a world that is open for business, where churches are unrestricted by mitigation guidelines. In this future church, what things will be restored, and what things will be left behind? Which churches will thrive? Which ones will wither? While I have no crystal ball, nor have I figured out time travel, I do have some hunches. So, I posit eight predictions for churches of the future that may or may not come true.
Future churches are communities of believers rather than buildings
While the COVID-19 pandemic forced Adventist churches across the world to cease their physical worship services, the closures also revealed the ancient truth that the church building is not the church but rather the church is a community of believers.
In fact, the term “the church,” as used in the New Testament scriptures, does not describe a building but rather an assembly or gathering. The believers gathered wherever they could, whether it was a home (Acts 17:5, 20:20; 1 Corinthians 16:10) or a synagogue (Acts 2:46, 19:8). In spite of not having physical buildings to meet in, it wasn’t until the second half of the third century that purpose-built halls for Christian worship began to be constructed. The Christian community, in the first few years, grew exponentially, from 1,000 people to 25 million.
Future churches realize that while the pandemic closed church buildings, the church, as a community of believers, flourished. The takeaway for future churches is to spend less resources on brick and mortar and pews and pulpits, and more on core mission. These churches are not enslaved by the ever-increasing appetite that church buildings have for resources, that are only used a few hours every week. They have found more creative ways to meet, much like the early Christian church; meeting in homes, community centers, coffee shops, schools, or expense sharing with multiple churches.
Future churches are adaptive and agile
Future congregations that were agile in pivoting during the crisis, continue their agility as they adapt to unknown future changes. The history of the Adventist denomination is storied with agility and innovation. Adventists borrowed the best and adopted and adapted it to ever-changing situations. Part of Adventist DNA is the quick adoption of technology from the printing press, to door-to-door book sales, radio, TV, satellite, internet, social media, and now online community.
These agile congregations are not only able to discern challenges and opportunities but are able to quickly jettison practices and technologies that have lost their effectiveness and quickly move the freed resources to more powerful ways of doing church. They are experimental in nature, failing forward, continually refitting and refining practices, taking advantage of whatever conditions the future holds to continually make disciples of Jesus.
Future churches do more with less
Future churches learned hard financial lessons during the COVID crisis. In an economy where at one point one fifth of workers were unemployed, finances were tight. Yet members had strong stewardship ethics and once they figured out how to contribute online through Adventist Giving, the income, although threatened, did not substantially decrease. As of this writing, the tithe in the North American Division in 2020 at this point in the year has not changed much from what is was in 2019. Future churches double down on using online giving making it the standard tool for both physical and virtual attendees.
During the crisis, churches saw their expenses decrease as many of the bills coming from maintaining the physical plant and elaborate programming shrank. Yet the life of the church continued and prospered. Future churches reassess their budgets and promote items deemed essential to mission and demote things that are less essential.
Members in these future churches reduce their personal expenses by spending less on commuting to church. Board meetings, committee meetings, nominating committees, small groups, all have the option of meeting virtually. The reduction in commuting costs frees up funds for members to use for personal discipling strategies.
Geographical boundaries soften for future churches
Many of the attendees of future churches are located far away from the church building. This trend began when churches began broadcasting their services on radio, TV, and internet streaming and reached people outside of their geographical circle. This initial foray into virtual church was given an accelerant during the pandemic when churches around the world were forced to go virtual or go out of business. Folks were free to roam around the country, surfing the waves of virtual church. They discovered a great diversity of worship styles, ethnicities, languages, and ideologies within the Adventist tribe. Some found a greater affinity with a church across the country than with their own nearby church. Churches that found their subtribe and perfected the new virtual worship format exploded in attendance.
Future churches include those from far away who find deeper, richer discipleship opportunities gathering with likeminded people. And because of their affinity, they spend less time in working through cultural, language, and ideological differences and more time evangelizing their own kind.
Future churches have not been stymied by conference policies and geographical restrictions. These churches have figured out creative ways to interface with multiple conferences while still working within the policies of those conferences. Through satellite congregations, memos of understanding, and sharing of resources, these future churches have flooded multiple conferences with new members and tithe growth. Villages have been pioneers in inter conference satellite churches.
Future churches fuse physical and virtual worship
Future churches blend their physical and virtual worlds to get the best of both. With the instant radical pivot to virtual during the pandemic, churches experimented with different platforms and worship elements to find out what worked best for online worship.
Before the pivot, online worship was largely an observation peephole where online viewers looked in on worship- pers. During the pandemic, many churches quickly moved beyond peephole worship to a highly engaging virtual community, mostly through video conferencing platforms. Worship became engaging as worshippers could see each other chat it up. Preaching became interactive and conversational. Short, well-produced video clips from attendees near and far away gave the worship service intimacy and authenticity.
After the pandemic was over, future churches fused together virtual and physical by designing a worship experience that was interactive and engaging for all. Future churches do everything in their power to eradicate the wall that separates the two groups by integrating the virtual worshippers into the physical worship and visa versa. While nothing can replace the ecstasy of worshipping shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of believers, the virtual features such as chat and video inserts remain and are supplemented by still more engaging elements.
Children’s division leaders take full advantage of the massive learning that emerged during the pandemic from the education world. In future churches children can attend Sabbath School from home or on site and receive the same high-quality discipling experience.
Unprecedented evangelism takes place in these future churches as folks who are used to shopping online, working online, watching movies online, discover through friends and social media, that they can now worship online with those same friends.
Future churches may be led by volunteer lay pastors (VLPs)
Future churches are blessed with the ministry of VLPs. These are unpaid leaders, working under the supervision of a professional pastor to lead out in congregations. These VLPs have a passion for ministry and has been equipped by the conference in the basic skills of pastoring. With church viewed now as a community of believers rather than a church building, the job description of the pastor has been slimmed down to focus specifically on equipping people for discipleship. By focusing only on the essentials, these VLPs are able to maintain another full-time job as well as spend a limited amount of time each week leading these ‘no frills’ congregations. Many of these future congregations are satellite campuses of larger professionally staffed churches. The mother church provides a cafeteria of resources for these satellite campuses including worship programming, music, preaching, discipleship curriculum, children’s Sabbath School programming as well as administrative functions.
Future church planting explodes
No longer needing a physical structure, geographical location, or paid professional pastors, future churches can pop up anytime, anywhere. There is an explosion of future church plants, targeting the multitudes of sliver populations unreachable by traditional churches. Taking full advantage of low-cost public venues as well as virtual platforms, folks in these future church plants may never all gather together in one geographical location, yet they are indeed a real church.
Future churches leverage the Adventist brands of hope and wholeness
Adventist churches historically have prospered during times of world crisis because one of Adventism’s core brand values is hope. During the chaos of the pandemic, people found hope in knowing that God was in control and that a spectacular new normal is imminent at the return of Jesus Christ.
Future churches continue to offer hope and add the brand of wholeness to their values. The pandemic revealed startling inequalities in society, where different populations experienced much greater risk of severe infection and death. Future churches leverage their competencies in wholeness to enhance the health of the communities they serve. These future congregations also seek justice toward correcting the underlying social factors that put certain communities such as the African American and Hispanic communities at greater risk.
I don’t know if those eight predictions will come true. But I am hopeful about the future of Adventist churches. Adventists have a history of thriving in the midst of chaos. Innovation is in our DNA. We have highly engaged, passionate, creative, entrepreneurial pastors. And we have a message of hope and wholeness. If ever there was a time for Adventists to make a difference in this world, now is that time.
–Dave Gemmell, DMin, is an associate director of the North American Division Ministerial Department. Email him at: [email protected]