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There will be no going back to a pre-pandemic church. This is because those who were reached during the pandemic and those we hope to reach when it’s over will demand something different. In fact, the nature of the divide between a pre-pandemic church and a post-pandemic church will be about what people will expect from a church.
Here are five expectations that people will have of your church:
1. You will put safety first.
People will expect churches, along with all other retail, sports and entertainment venues, to implement any and every “safe” practice. Whether it’s disinfecting or sanitizing, distancing or taking temperatures, there will be the expectation that all that can be done, should be done.
2. You will have an ongoing online presence.
People will expect an ongoing, robust online presence for churches. Countless numbers of churches were forced online in recent months; the expectation is that churches will stay there. Not solely there, of course, but the expectation that you will continue to be available online will be assumed. As one woman recently said to me regarding the online book discussion group she had joined through The Grounds (our bookstore and café), “You are going to keep those after this is over, aren’t you?” Before the pandemic, all of our book discussion groups met in person. After the pandemic, we most certainly will continue to offer them online.
3. You will continue to allow their “attending” to include the virtual.
People will naturally vacillate between online and in-person offerings (i.e., virtual and physical), feeling that either of the two options are not only acceptable, but equal in terms of counting as having… well, attended. Churches will want to lift high the value of physical presence in community with others while simultaneously understanding that a digital revolution has taken place. Attending an event will increasingly be seen as either: a) attending in person or, b) attending online. People will choose based on the desired experience, readiness to surface physically and, even among your core, that week’s life circumstances.
4. You will make their interaction with you “phygital.”
Let’s camp out on this one. The word phygital has grown out of the necessity for the seamless flow between the physical and the digital. As an article on Bizcommunity put it in relation to the retail world:
Innovative phygital business models, where bricks and mortar and digital seamlessly integrate, are popping up across the globe. But the best phygital experiences still remain aligned with old-school sales strategies: customer attraction, retention, engagement, experiences, loyalty and the brand itself. The factors that keep shifting are shopping behaviour and new technology. The upshot is: to keep in the retail game, phygital is the way to go and it’s currently an adapt or die situation.
I really like how that was worded. In the phygital model for the church, working to have a seamless integration between the physical and the digital, the “old-school” best practices we must retain (using church terms) are church growth, assimilation, discipleship and serving.
Think of someone being introduced to your church through an online service. Could some of that online experience be seamlessly integrated into their (hopeful) physical attendance? For example, think of having children’s ministry check-in handled online and an app that offers additional content or learning in light of that weekend’s message. Or maybe opportunities for people to attend a service in person, but then be a part of a virtual small group to dive deeper into the content of the series.
5. You will make sure their physical experience matches the virtual experience.
Actually, I should have rephrased that. The expectation will be that the physical experience at least matches the virtual experience. I’ve noticed that many churches are “importing” their online service, using videos and even worship/music from outside sources that did not originate with them. I get it. Everyone is scrambling. But be careful… this could prove to be a “bait and switch” turn-off of epic proportions when the pandemic is over.
There are obviously more post-pandemic expectations than these, but let these five at least start your thinking. Why? Because all of the growth you’ve had over the last three months has been online. When you reopen, the bulk of your “first-time” guests (read first-time physical guests) will be those reached online.
And the only church they’ve known has been a virtual one.
Sources: Eben Esterhuizen, “Phygital: 6 Ways to Adapt, or Die,” Bizcommunity, April 30, 2019, read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.