In the beginning of 2020, Oakdale, Minnesota, had two movie theaters.
After months of COVID-19 restrictions, the city now has one movie theater, and even it has not returned to business as usual. Completed blockbuster movies sit in studio vaults, awaiting release dates that keep getting pushed further into the future in hopes that soon crowds will return to theaters.
But what if the movie theater is dead?
The same scenario is occurring in the Church. We affirm that Christ will build his Church (Matthew 16:18), but will every local congregation survive?
I think movie theatres can survive. However, like the church, they cannot survive as they were. What steps can we take to ensure that the Church survives?
The Oakdale theater that has survived made innovations before the pandemic ever happened. Realizing that the true competition was home theater systems, they added reserved seating in recliner seats and a full-service restaurant and sports bar to enjoy before or after the movie along with waiter service to those watching a movie. People bringing in snacks during the movie was an interruption 20 years ago; now people pay a premium ticket price for it.
While the church has consistent worship and formation elements over time (singing, praying, reading, preaching, responding, mentoring), the content and delivery of those elements have changed and continue to change. Congregations who had already engaged in small group formation, online worship and communication, electronic giving and community service were better positioned to continue growth in 2020.
While I believe our next hurdle is quality and engaging online group spiritual formation, sometimes innovation looks retro. When people can’t meet in person, and especially if people are not technologically savvy, phone calls and letters (as on paper, in an envelope and with a stamp) keep people connected.
Examine your purpose
A theater that believes its purpose is to show new movies is already dead. Even before COVID-19, new movies were being released via streaming. Disney innovated and released “Mulan,” a potential theater blockbuster, straight to their streaming service. The movie theater is new in human history, but the theatre as a place for people to gather for entertainment is ancient. It may or may not be practical for a theater to remove a screen and build a performance stage in one of its auditoriums, but at least that would be remembering their broader purpose. I remember when movie theater lobbies had some of the best arcades. Even sticking to movies, some theaters are finding new life by showing old movies, which I will discuss in the final point.
The church’s purpose never changes — fulfill the Great Commission in the spirit of the Great Commandment. In other words: love God, love people and make disciples. The Church does not exist to entertain people or God. However, like the movie theater, some congregations, practically speaking, limit their purpose. Having an in-person Sunday worship experience should be a method, not a purpose, and any organization that has elevated a method above its mission is already on the downward slope of its life cycle. Reexamining our purpose may give us fresh eyes to see if we are using the right tools for our context and culture.
Right now, people both desire to gather and fear gatherings. Despite the fear, and sometimes the danger, people are gathering, in bars and restaurants, at motorcycle rallies, and for political action and protests. A movie theater in Des Moines figured out what these gatherings have in common and got people together for a showing of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” a 38-year-old movie. Trekkers are not strangers. They got together not to see the movie (everyone attending probably already owns it); they wanted to see the movie together. The experience was not about going to see something they hadn’t seen before. It was about having an experience with other people who are equally enthusiastic about the subject. Community trumps novelty.
Recreating community may be the biggest challenge for the church during the pandemic. If buildings can be used at all, capacity is drastically reduced and not all climates allow for meeting outdoors. When Heartwood Church returned to in-person worship it was so sterile that people said, “I come to church, but I feel like I’m still watching on video.” We had to adapt in-person worship to be both safe and interactive. The people who never lost community were those involved in small groups, which never had to stop meeting during the pandemic. We’re still figuring out how to make virtual groups feel and be as authentic as face to face.
Even as COVID-19 continues, congregations cannot continue to wait for things to go back to normal. Globally, society has experienced a paradigm shift, and we need to move into the new normal to reach new people with the good news of salvation in Jesus. If you’re already implementing these lessons, continue moving ahead. If you haven’t yet, why not start today?
Rev. Paul Tillman is senior pastor at Heartwood Church in Oakdale, Minnesota.