What Does “Operational Continuity” Mean for the Church?

by lisa allgood, executive presbyter

As many of you know, for the past several years I ran the Board of Directors for Sinapis, a Christian non-profit based in Kenya (We now operate on 3 continents and in 11 countries).  This amazing organization trains young entrepreneurs to run their businesses with basic business-school curriculum. And builds in a Christian and ethical context and world-view.  East Africa and South America, where we do most of our work, were hit exceptionally hard by the virus. This has put many young entrepreneurs on the brink of losing their hard-earned businesses.  

Today Sinapis published the following on their Facebook page. I thought it translates so beautifully to the transitions our churches are also facing. Substitute the acronym SME (small market entrepreneur) with “church” and you’ll see what I mean.

What does “operational continuity” mean for the church?  Continuing Sunday worship, the way it always was?  Or a bigger God-sized horizon in front of you?  How can you take what you’ve learned about connectivity, technology, virtual, innovation, ways of defining membership – forward?

It is time (yes, in January) to really do some deep thinking about what you will become; what God wants for you; when it is time to really begin to open again.  Truly open, not just more parking lot outside worship – but really be open again.  Because there is far more at stake than just access to the building, the resumption of some semblance of normal life, and the big reunion for which everyone is longing.

The biggest mistake church leaders can make is to step right back into “what we always did” the moment the building can be open, making them not a church – but a museum.  Let’s be really clear – “normal” wasn’t working for us.  Normal closed too many of our churches, stunted our witness, and closed too many minds.  Normal can’t be nostalgia.

Of course, in-person church is here to stay, and to be celebrated.  But in the emotional rush to get back into a facility, to see everyone again, to assemble teams and get back to “normal”, we risk falling back into the habits that were about to close many of us by falling back into a model of ministry designed to reach a world that no longer exists.  Failing to acknowledge all that we’ve learned in this crazy journey will destroy what could be.

We’ve already had our eyes closed to the reality of our churches’ long-term viability.  When you walk back into your building later this year, things will not go back to 2019 (or even worse, 1950).  SO many things have fundamentally changed; if we ignore that we’re on the fastest path to irrelevance; in the gap between how quickly things change and how quickly we agree to change, too. 

The coronavirus disruption forced change – how we “did church”, how we witnessed, how we thought about the future.  At first it was a quick pivot to a shut-down.  Then it became a stream of innovative ways to keep going – online services, live streams, and YouTube and Zoom accounts.  And for some the realization there is expanded influence and witness and worship as churches saw online worship engagement – even giving – take off. 

The danger of walking back into your building is that it may kill your innovation, and diminish your witness.  Yes, of course it will feel great to see people again (even with masks and distancing), and to get back to the familiar, and connect. 

But.  The future belongs to the innovators, to those who have learned to capture the good they saw in the pivot and to keep that going – and growing. The future has always belonged, in all venues, to the nimble, agile leaders who adapt and change, who can create conditions for growth and motivate their leaders to work them to create even more adaptation and growth.

Make a list of everything good that came out of the pivoting you’ve done since the disruption started, and think through how much of that would never have happened if you had not pivoted.

If all your energy is re-directed back to in-person worship, you will lose your expanded online presence and the chance to reach those you need to be reaching.  Suddenly you’ll remember you haven’t posted to Facebook in a while.  Your online worshippers will feel like it’s directed to the kid who was sent to bed early while the party was still going on in the sanctuary, and they won’t feel worship – or included.  Suddenly you’ll remember you should respond to all those online comments, and just as suddenly “those people” actually aren’t part of your community.  Online is not an add-on – it’s your required future.  You need skills (and people) to keep up with that, to build engagements around it, and keep that segment growing. 

Fact: You can’t have a massive impact online if you’re spending only 1% of your staffing and resources on it.

You want to reach young new families and millennials? 

Online.  Social media.  Relationships, not institutions.

Millennials generally don’t trust institutions, and they yearn for relationships and significance.  Pass-through donations that go to a faceless “somewhere out there-ish” don’t work for Millennials – they want active, meaningful engagement. In the same way remote work becomes the new normal for many people in the wider economy, online church may become a default option for many people. Hating that doesn’t make it go away.

Is that the last growth you ever want to see?  Then go back to “normal”.  Everyone you want to reach is online. It’s time for the church to finally act like it.

Think ahead!  Onward!