The Changing Church

The Challenges Facing Church Leaders

By Carlson Wakefield and Julie Gumm
11/15/2021 6:00:00 PM

 

Pastors balance a multitude of responsibilities and priorities. While keeping up with technology, developing a web presence and maintaining robust social media pages are important parts of the job, these tasks have never topped the list of pastors’ concerns, according to Barna, a research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture. 

Then came the pandemic. An online presence became crucial to maintaining an authentic connection with congregants. Church leaders now face unexpected challenges and shifting focuses as the coronavirus shines a spotlight on already existing issues. 

While the pandemic seems to be nearing an end, its effects on churches may never entirely be reversed. 

Before March 11, 2020, churches across the U.S. varied in their adaption of social media and online video, but the abrupt spread of the pandemic and ensuing quarantine and distancing guidelines caught many congregations across the U.S. flat-footed, facing the looming question of how to move forward as a community when they couldn’t meet. 

Josh Kruntorad, a 2017 graduate who serves as the assistant youth director at Faith Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, recalls this moment vividly. 

“When we were told we couldn’t meet in person, we had to start streaming our Sunday services,” said Kruntorad. “We didn’t have any online presence before last year. We had to set up a website and figure out how to stream our services on the fly, and that was a challenge.” 

For some churches, the work to create a virtual experience was entirely unfamiliar; others identified a need to improve their digital presence if that was the only way their congregants would be experiencing Sunday services. 

Before the pandemic, Community Christian Fellowship (CCF) in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, had typically posted a single-shot video recording of the Sunday service to their website and Facebook page early the next week. 

Throughout the pandemic, instead of holding a livestreamed service from an empty church, CCF prerecorded the various service segments — announcements, worship, communion and sermon — during the week, edited them together and then premiered them on multiple platforms including Facebook, YouTube and Church Online on Sunday at the normal service time. 

In the end, an hour-long worship service took many hours to prepare, record and edit. But Mark Gumm ’94, who serves as associate pastor, said the staff felt the payoff was worth the work it took to create a quality online experience that most closely reflected the experience of being in CCF’s worship center. 

One silver lining to streaming Sunday services was that it provided an opportunity for many churches to expand their reach. 

“Our pastoral staff would always be online during the streaming services, and it was a great way to stay connected with our church family in Siloam Springs, with old friends of CCF — people who had moved away — and new friends who had never attended in person before,” said Gumm. “It was also great to see some of our missionaries be able to participate in online services.” 

Now that in-person services have resumed, Gumm said he sometimes meets new families that watched an online service before attending on a Sunday morning. 

As churches have begun to return to in-person services, many Sunday mornings still look different. Some hold outdoor services; others have returned to indoor services with a variety of safety measures. Kruntorad’s church works to make services available for all. 

“It’s been a challenge to accommodate all members of our church, but we’ve managed to do it,” Kruntorad said. “We have a room during the service that’s mask only, and then our sanctuary is mask optional in order to serve all members of our congregation.” 

But a big challenge still lingers for many: getting everyone back in the seats. 

Trey Hammond ’98 is the lead pastor at Crossroads of Life Church in Byram, Mississippi and has been working to fight the decline in church membership since the pandemic. 

“I’d say we have about 50% in service, 20% watching online and around 30% not doing anything but receiving text messages from our prayer ministry,” Hammond said. “We’re really just trying to keep people connected.” 

This tracks with research published by Barna in late May 2020 that showed that one third of “practicing Christians” stopped streaming church during the early months of the pandemic. For millennials (ages 26-41) that number rose to 50%. 

Now with most churches back to in-person worship, research shows that church attendance is down anywhere from 30-60%. 

Church leaders are starting to make decisions about what is best for their church when it comes to maintaining the online platforms that served their communities during the pandemic. For some, it is difficult to determine if the resources they’ve devoted to video production and streaming are still worth the investment. 

“Obviously we want our congregation back in the building, so we have to decide if streaming is the best thing to do,” said Steve Genheimer ’76, administrative pastor at Community Covenant Church in Yukon, Oklahoma. “For some people, the streaming option is a great alternative for health and safety reasons, but I think some people have simply gotten comfortable streaming at home and don’t recognize the importance of community within the church.” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, research indicates that younger Christians are still more inclined to log in rather than sit in. According to a Barna/Stadia survey done in late 2020, 71% of baby boomers (born 1946-1964) wanted to return to primarily in-person gatherings. But for Gen Z (born 1997-2012), that number drops to 41%. 

While reaching younger Christians in a postmodern society has been a primary concern for pastors across America, COVID-19 has added layers of complexity that have proven difficult to navigate. 

“Not just our church, but our whole community has experienced surreal lack of student participation,” Hammond said. “I think the pandemic has them in a place where they don’t really see the necessity of the church community. Whether that’s because of their parents not emphasizing it or them making that decision on their own, it’s been really hard.”

Genheimer attests that Community Covenant Church had to work hard to engage younger generations even before COVID-19 disbanded in-person meetings. 

“Absolutely it’s a problem, but it’s not something new,” said Genheimer. “It’s always been difficult to get youth involved, but we are always trying new ways to bring students and their families into the church.” 

Still, other churches like Kruntorad’s have seen growth in the past year and a half. Faith Presbyterian hired Kruntorad in response to the growth their youth group was seeing.

“We have seen a growth in our youth group and our millennial population, and I think it really comes down to our mission, which is be kind to people,” said Kruntorad. “When students feel comfortable bringing their friends who don’t feel like they belong in certain churches, and we are able to make them feel welcome, that has contributed significantly to our growth.” 

“It’s definitely been a blessing to be a part of,” Kruntorad said. “God has allowed us to grow and love our community, and we’ve really seen God work this past year and a half.” 

While the need existed long before COVID-19, pastors are also recognizing an increased demand for counseling services for their congregants. 

Barna research performed before the pandemic shows that half of U.S. 18-35-year-olds “expressed anxiety over important decisions and were afraid to fail,” nearly 40% often felt sad or depressed and 34% felt lonely or isolated from others. 

“We were already working on getting a counseling service in place for our church [before the pandemic],” Hammond said. “Seeing increased suicide rates, family struggles, high anxiety, etc., we saw it as an area where we could really serve our community.” 

Hammond, along with colleague and associate pastor Lydia Decker, launched Wise Counsel Services in September 2020 with one goal in mind: to serve their church and community. 

“It was slow going, as far as a community response at first,” Hammond said. “But now we are providing counseling to not only our church, but we’ve got an influx of community members and pastors. We’re still only in infancy, and it has already been so powerful.”

Like so many other companies and businesses, the church has continued to meet the challenges brought up by the pandemic with creativity, maintaining their diligence in answering the call of the scriptures to evangelize and disciple believers. 

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