Rich Martin articulates some of the ‘new things’ he believes the Church will move into once we are fully out of lockdown.

Isaiah 43:19 says: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

The UK entered into its first lockdown in March 2020 and the Church was thrust into a ‘new thing’. I’ve spent this year building local church within the lockdown constraints and speaking with many other church builders about their experiences. One of the top questions church leaders are asking each other is: “What do you see the Church looking like after Covid-19?” Some simply say things will pretty much go back to normal and others say it will be radically different. One thing we all have in common is….no one knows! But we do have a sense, a stirring in our spirits that something new is happening.

Here are some observations of what I perceive the European Church is moving into post Covid.

1. ‘Dominant lead pastor’ models will move to ‘collaborative leadership’ models

When I say dominant lead pastor models I refer to the models that ensure everyone and everything serves a senior leader’s vision. The authority of the leader is felt and heard in every area of the church. A varying degree of success (insert your definition of success here) has been achieved with this model. It is very dependent upon the person at the top and their ability to see their vision through; some churches have grown numerically, but most have grown weary. 

Post Covid-19 there will still be lead pastors (or lead elders), but they will possess the ability to lead their teams in collaborative ways. When I say collaboration, I mean where churches are led by friends, who happen to lead together! The senior leaders won’t need to be front and centre of all things in their church, because they are very comfortable with the dynamics of collaboration. 

It all sounds easy and simple, but the rubber will hit the road when a disagreement or a different way of doing things is raised by someone other than the senior leaders. Are others listened to? Does anyone (but the senior leader) feel like they can raise issues? Are the senior leaders comfortable at listening to and taking strong ideas and feedback from their teams? This type of collaborative environment needs bucket loads of humility from every leader in that mix.  

As a little side note, keep in mind that collaborative thinking is already a staple way of living life for millennials and Gen Z, so collaborative leadership models will inevitably replace ‘dominant lead pastor’ models. 

2. ‘Belong before you believe’ will move to many ‘believing before they belong’ 

Over the last 20 years, the phrase ‘belong before you believe’ has allowed the Church to teach its congregations that anyone visiting for the first time can experience the community and service with full curiosity, without believing in Jesus. This has been a brilliant shift and allowed many people to explore the Christian faith and ultimately find Jesus. The downside to this phrase, is a subconscious drift in our collective assumption that coming to church so you can ‘belong’ necessarily predates your non-Christian friend/ family member/ work colleague’s journey to discovering Jesus. They ‘belong’ first, then they ‘believe.’ Phrases like “Who are you bringing next week?” said from the front reinforce the concept that for people to meet Jesus they need to come to church.

The new model emerging from the twelve months of not meeting is many people are believing in Jesus before belonging to a church community. They may not have their theology all screwed down (who does?), but they are praying for the first time in years and searching out spiritual answers online. People’s hearts are being opened up at a faster rate than we’ve seen in many decades. People are ‘believing before they belong’. This shift is going to require a body of believers that are equipped and ready to go into their workplaces and friendship circles and boldly share the Jesus they know.

People’s hearts are being opened up at a faster rate than we’ve seen in many decades

3. ‘Leadership training’ will move to ‘discipleship training’

For years the Church has had a strong focus on raising up leaders, addressing previous decades of a shortage of local church leadership. This has been a great focus and has allowed the Church to embrace some excellent leadership principles, many of which are found in secular workspaces. I, for one, am very grateful for much of this teaching and have benefitted from learning that God is as much in the laying on of hands and prayer as he is in ensuring people are treated well and led with wisdom. However, I also sense tiredness in the over-emphasis on leadership training. At its worst, leadership training has led us into running church like a business and blinded leaders to the fact that the Church is ultimately a living body, a bride being prepared for the return of Christ. 

Congregations are looking for spiritual leaders, not just people with good leadership principles – if they can get both, bonus. Spiritual leaders disciple. The problem is, discipleship training is not as quick to teach as leadership principles. It’s predominantly caught not taught and needs to be modelled. It requires leaders to do as Jesus did, to take an unlikely disciple and pour their life into them. It’s modelling the way of Jesus. This is a lot more time consuming and doesn’t yield weekly results. There’s no discipleship data point to plot on a spreadsheet.

Young people want (and need) to know how to read and wrestle with scripture more than they want to know leadership principles on how to build teams. Churches are full of people who have had diets of ‘5 keys to a successful Monday’ but they now want to be equipped to be a radical follower of Jesus. Teaching people about fasting, laying on of hands, baptism in the Holy Spirit, signs and wonders is what congregations want post-Covid. Not in a religious, legalistic way, but in ways that are personal, relational and ultimately modelled by their leaders. The challenge here is it will require church leaders to lose control and resist bringing a church into fleshly order with the latest leadership principal. The great leaders post-Covid-19 will open up their homes, their lives and start to disciple people closely as Jesus did. 

The great leaders post Covid-19 will open up their homes, their lives and start to disciple people closely as Jesus did

4. Culture-driven church will move to simpler, Christ-centred gatherings

The group that has disengaged the most with the Church during the pandemic has been the 18-25s, the young adults (YAs). I have had many conversations with pastors of large and small YA ministries who have seen this group drop off the map and disappear. There are various speculations as to why this has happened, but the one that most agree on is this: “We’ve taught a generation to fall in love with the culture of church more than Christ himself.” The vibe at a meeting, the coffee that’s served, the latest communicator, the ‘after hangs’, the relevant worship, the state-of-the-art venues, the merch, the on-trend way to open up the word – they fell in love with this, with temporary scaffolding. So when Covid-19 hit, it exposed what little of worth had actually been built.  

Post Covid-19 churches will move to strip back a lot of ‘stuff’ to allow a simpler experience to emerge – one in which Christ is the expectation and focus, not the culture wrapping of the Church. I am all for making the best of what we have, for presenting the good news in ways that help people, but the pendulum has swung far away from Christ. There is fresh energy from leaders to ensure Christ, in his simple, humble way, is front and centre in all they do. This pursuit will ultimately lead to people seeking righteousness and holiness, where the need to blend into society is overshadowed by a Jesus calling and purpose etched into individual spirits.

Christ-centred gatherings of a few people in homes through to people on their lunch breaks gathering to pray, fast and unpack the scriptures together, hungry for more of Jesus, will be the new normal. Larger gatherings will still be part of the Church but the emphasis that this is ‘it’ will fade. Instead, the larger gatherings will form part of a deeper expression of celebration and Christian community and this, most likely, won’t be every week. Instead, a blended approach of small discipleship times, large in-person gatherings, one-on-ones and mealtime conversations with guests will all make up an individual’s church experience. 

5. ‘Comfortable community’ will move to ‘Christian community’ 

Every city, town and village is in desperate need of the good news – more so than ever. The lockdowns have seen rapid rises in mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. The NHS, amongst others, will play their part as people seek help, and of course that should continue. But the lockdown has also exposed a sickness of souls, which only Jesus can heal. Our desire for community has had good intention; safe places for our kids to learn about Jesus and environments that enable us to meet like-minded people to journey our faith together. That is a comfortable community. ‘Christian community’ has these elements but also requires people to love strangers they don’t necessarily connect with, to be patient and listen to people who hold different viewpoints, to overlook and forgive offences, and to look after the most vulnerable in society. These actions require people to rely on Jesus but, as we all know, it is also in the process of these acts that Jesus becomes more evident.

To reach local communities, individuals will be forced to become uncomfortable, to give up their dreams of an uninterrupted, convenient life and embrace true Christian community. In my opinion, this is going to be the biggest challenge of the Church post Covid-19, as it requires people to die to themselves, take up their cross and follow Christ – something the flesh is never keen to do. Thank God for Jesus, who helps us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to let go of the flesh. 

Individuals will be forced to become uncomfortable, to give up their dreams of an uninterrupted, convenient life and embrace true Christian community

John the Baptist’s statement: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, ESV) will be at the core of the Church as we start to regather and repurpose post Covid-19.

In step with the Spirit

As it says in Galatians 5:25: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Our methods pre-Covid-19 have done a lot of good and have seen churches become confident in who they are and how they can shine bright in their communities. I have spent 20 years building churches and believe the leaders leading them have helped to move the Church in Europe forward in an incredible way. Covid-19 is not a pause to go back to all of these ways. It has been a time where the Holy Spirit has stirred leaders’ hearts for new things, new ways and new opportunities. Currently, every church leader is working week by week (there is no other way of working!), so they are learning to keep in step with the Holy Spirit. I am confident that as churches we can continue to plan and outwork new things in step with the Spirit, which will ensure the Church in Europe flourishes like never before.