Local Church Ministry

Perpetual Holding Patterns

I am not a frequent flyer. As a boy growing up in the hills of eastern Kentucky, the closest major airport was a three-hour drive away, and there never seemed to be a need to travel by air. In fact, I was already married before I boarded a plane for the first time.

Although my flight time is minimal, I know what it’s like to be in a holding pattern. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I once was on a flight that circled around the city of Detroit for an additional 30 minutes before we were given the green light to land. I know it was only 30 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. We were in the air, but we weren’t going anywhere. We were just flying in circles. It felt like such a waste of time – and I don’t like to waste time!

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, many churches have been in an extended holding pattern. Nearly all ministries were placed on pause, and many have been slow to return. Most church leaders decided to take a “wait and see” approach, prayerfully waiting for the number of cases to decrease to a safe number before restarting significant ministry efforts.

As the pandemic drags on with no end in sight, churches are still waiting and seeing. Unfortunately, COVID cases did not subside this summer like many had hoped. Now that fall is upon us, many expect case counts to surge for a number of reasons. This has left many churches in a perpetual holding pattern. 

The Dangers

Just as a plane is not designed to remain in a perpetual holding pattern, neither is the church. Eventually, the plane will run out of fuel and crash. The reality is that churches face similar dangers if they are unable to overcome this prolonged ministry paralysis. Here are five ways that these perpetual holding patterns pose a threat to the church:

  1. It creates an inward focus. Churches that aren’t busy doing ministry tend to start looking inward. Church leaders begin focusing all of their time and energies on learning new technologies and making the most of the Sunday morning worship experience. Unfortunately, little time is spent on community outreach.
  2. It stifles opportunities to serve. Many parts of the body have not been used for the past six months, and ministry atrophy has begun to set in. The church is called to serve one another and our communities, and a perpetual holding pattern makes that more difficult.
  3. It fosters spiritual apathy. The majority of churches have regathered for in-person worship services on Sunday mornings. Some have seen higher percentages return than others, but nearly all have less in attendance now than before the pandemic. However, the church is so much more than just a weekly worship service. Because so many other vital ministries are still on hold, church members may begin to develop spiritual apathy toward the church.
  4. It produces frustration. While a perpetual holding pattern will cause some to gravitate toward spiritual apathy, other church members will become increasingly frustrated. In particular, pastors and church leaders long for things to return to some sense of normalcy, and the longer things remain in a holding pattern, the more frustrated they become.
  5. It neglects the church’s mission. There is no doubt that the pandemic is an overwhelming obstacle. For most church leaders, this is the most difficult challenge they’ve ever faced in ministry. But the church has always faced obstacles. From the earliest pages of Acts, we see how the church faced and overcame significant challenges and managed to turn the world upside down through the power of the Holy Spirit. This pandemic is certainly a major obstacle, but the church’s mission still applies. A perpetual holding pattern may cause the church to neglect that mission.

Starting Points

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not recommending that your church should suddenly bring everything back all at once. In fact, I’m not recommending that churches bring every ministry back at all. Some ministries may have served their purpose and do not need to return. But, I am recommending that churches who are in a perpetual holding pattern begin to take steps to return to some type of ministry beyond the Sunday morning worship service. 

Every church is unique, and church leaders will need to decide which ministries need to come back first. However, if you don’t know where to start, here are three suggestions:

  1. Small Groups. Churches have had some success with online small groups via Zoom or other online conferencing platforms. However, participation waned for many groups throughout the summer, and some churches have considered abandoning this approach altogether. I believe online small groups are still a good option, but they shouldn’t be the only option. I suggest that churches consider offering at least four different options: (1) Online, (2) Onsite, (3) Offsite, and (4) Outdoor. Providing multiple options will allow groups to choose the one that best suits the specific needs of their group.
  2. Outreach. Because perpetual holding patterns prevent churches from reaching out to their community in so many ways, church leaders should explore safe options for church members to engage their community once again. Prayer-walking, servant evangelism, online outreach, and smaller outreach events are all easy ways to re-engage your church in evangelistic endeavors. (For more ideas, see here and here.)
  3. Prayer Ministries. Prayer can take place anywhere and everywhere. This is the easiest way to engage every member of the church, whether they have returned to in-person services or still worship from home. All it takes is a few folks to develop an intentional prayer strategy, and then share the needs with your prayer warriors!

Ministry paralysis is a real problem right now. Perpetual holding patterns are causing churches to run dangerously low on fuel. If this describes your church, I pray that you’ll use one of these suggestions or develop your own strategy to slowly but methodically relaunch the most vital ministries in your church.

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