Once every few decades, church leaders are given the opportunity to bear witness to Christ in an extraordinary moment, one on which the reception of the gospel hinges for years after. Such “hinge moments” can advance or significantly set back the church’s work and witness for decades.
In Enfield, Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards preached what is likely the most famous sermon in American history, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This sermon in 1741 was part of the First Great Awakening, which set a standard for later revivals in this country. Billy Graham’s hinge moment came in 1953 at a crusade in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when he refused to seat white and black people in segregated sections of the stadium. Without this decision his ministry could never have flourished around the world.
Now as we enter the recovery phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must consider how we will live out the implications of the gospel in this culture-wide hinge moment.
Learning to Pivot
This crisis has fundamentally changed the way Americans engage their spiritual lives, and the church will have to pivot accordingly. Online gatherings of the faithful will return on occasion during snowstorms or when people have to work out of town for extended times, for example. The pivots we’ve made will surely open new possibilities for ministry and connection, but they also will make it easier for parishioners to feel disconnected, even forgotten. So building networks of accountability and follow-up will be essential.
As we enter the recovery phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must consider how we will embody the gospel in this culture-wide hinge moment.
Discipleship and spiritual formation will also look different, perhaps with new twists. Meeting with a small group that includes people in different states, even countries, now seems far more normal than it did pre-pandemic. And it churches with large online resources and worship gatherings may become more prominent, drawing followers across time zones and exacerbating the trend that was already afoot before the pandemic: large churches will grow and small churches will shrink even further.
Leveraging This Moment
So how the institutional church prepare for what lies ahead? For starters, look at how others have expanded their influence through societal hinge moments.
In 1934, a burgeoning grocery store in south Texas decided to dedicate a share of its earnings to benefit the local community after the area was devastated by a massive hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast. Howard E. Butt, founder of the H-E-B chain, created a corporate foundation to benefit the area back in the bleakest days of the Great Depression.
Since then, H-E-B has maintained its commitment to giving back, and still today, the firm gives away 5 percent of its pretax earnings every year. Not coincidentally, H-E-B’s customer loyalty and employee engagement measures are among the best in the industry because generosity is always valued.
Just as H-E-B pivoted from the natural disaster that struck Galveston to become a force for good in the community, so also must the global church in 2021 help the world recover from the pandemic with new ways of blessing and serving our communities. While researching our latest book, Hinge Moments, we found countless examples of great leaders who leveraged particular crises, even failures, to become greater forces for good.
Jimmy Carter, for example, told us how his loss in the 1966 gubernatorial election affected him so deeply and eventually led to his passion for the gospel. After this defeat, he studied theology and renewed his faith in Christ through a born-again conversion. The loss was his crucible hinge moment, setting in motion not only his path to the White House, but also shaping the contours of his life’s work that continues to this day.
So how should the church posture itself as we emerge from COVID-19?
First, focus on initiatives that meet immediate, tangible needs. No doubt, people will want to do things that they haven’t been able to do for over a year—such as dropping off the kids somewhere for Mom and Dad to enjoy a date night or providing respite for those who’ve been caring for elderly loved ones at home. Help lighten the load for people to enjoy a break.
Second, it’s likely that many people who stopped attending services during the pandemic may not come back at all. So find creative ways to woo some of them back by addressing needs brought on by the pandemic. Run seminars for those dealing with anxiety or depression and offer free counseling for those who cannot afford it. As people discover new resources and friends at church, they will see the community as key to their journey of recovery.
Finally, the church—more than any other institution—can help people make sense of all that’s happened in the last year. After all, the gospel speaks to the full spectrum of human experience—tragedy, pain, loss, and despair, but also recovery, renewal, healing, and hope.
The church—more than any other institution—can help people make sense of all that’s happened over the last year.
Perhaps most important, the church will have the opportunity to model before a watching world the extent to which Christ offers a different approach to recovering from the pandemic. Our culture preaches a gospel of self-actualization and self-improvement, but the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that rebirth comes not from our efforts but from the transforming work of God. It occurs as we willingly open ourselves to the Spirit’s leading and as we recommit ourselves to be used, individually and institutionally, until he makes all things new.