What’s Gonna Happen?
COVID-19 has thrown our world into a storm of uncertainty. The economy is in disarray as businesses have shut down, people have been laid off or furloughed, and the thought of reigniting it by slowly opening things up causes anxiety and anger.
I think we can safely say that the majority of the world has been touched in some way, shape, or form by COVID-19. It’s disrupted our lives and its effects will move far beyond the moment when stay at home orders are lifted and people can begin to cautiously emerge from their homes like groundhogs tentatively looking for their shadows. The world is not just untouched during this time, as we move ahead on the other side of the virus, the world will not be the same.
Nowhere has this felt the case more to me than within the church. As a pastor of a barely half a year old church plant, risk is something that I am well aware of, but moving to the other side of this will be an exercise in self-reflection that will only be achieved as we ask ourselves hard questions to which we give honest answers.
Here are five important questions that I think the Church needs to ask herself in this time:
1) Will we embrace change?
Whether the church likes it or not, this time of separation has forced us all to embrace change on some level or another. I have said for years that the church is one of two organizations in the world that struggles to embrace change (the other is the educational system, who has stepped out during this time). Even when we think we’re good with change, we can generally open up our stable to reveal a host of sacred cows we’ve been hiding.
Change for change sake is never a good idea, but change for the sake of contextualizing the Gospel of Jesus Christ is essential. We see it within the New Testament as Jesus met people where they were as did Paul and so many others within the Book of Acts. It’s an essential part of communication to speak a language that those to whom you are speaking can understand.
The medium may change, but the message stays the same. Will the church embrace change in order to more effectively communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
2) Will we compromise or coalesce?
Changing does not mean compromising, and I believe that many within the Church don’t always get that right. Adapting does not mean conforming to the culture. Attractional ministry can easily lead us down a road where we compromise our values and shift our moral compass simply to appease people we are trying to reach.
I’m not one to harp on certain issues that have the potential to divide, but simply avoiding them is not the right approach either. Will we compromise who we are and who God has called us in order that we can become more “relevant”?
3) Will we focus inward or outward?
One of the reasons that I became a church planter is because, since I became a pastor sixteen years ago and even before that, I had grown frustrated with the inward focus of the local church. The Great Commission has not changed since Jesus spoke it. We are still called to GO and make disciples, baptize them, and teach them what Jesus commanded.
I believe that the local church can often get caught up in the last part and forget the first part: GO. While spiritual formation and discipleship is essential within the local faith community, I believe that we have created an unsustainable model that looks more like a spiritual daycare than a training ground for disciples of Jesus. If our people still look the same as they did five years ago, that inward focus isn’t accomplishing what we thought it would.
Outward focus allows us to put into practice the spiritual practices and ideals that we claim to be learning. It allows us to put hands and feet to ideas and concepts. It also allows us to constantly be changed by seeing those whom God has a heart for, those who have not yet begun to follow Jesus Christ,
If the church is to survive, we need to get back to the essentials of evangelism and discipleship rather than transactional and attractional ministry.
4) Will we build community or clubs?
Community is essential. I’ve told more than one person in the past few months that when I write a book, the theme will most likely be community. My own personal experience with community has shaped and formed me. I would not be where I am had I not been surrounded by a loving, caring, and giving community to help walk with me through some dark periods of my life.
I am well aware that there is an entropy of sorts that happens within churches, even the most progressive and creative churches. That entropy moves us from a place of intentionality of openness to a place of unintentional cliquishness (if that’s even a word). We seek to be welcoming and eventually can become so comfortable with who we have that we simply build a social club.
If the church is simply a social club, there is nothing there that can’t be replaced with a thousand other clubs or organizations. We need to be something much more than just a club, we need to be a community that seeks to change the world one person at a time.
5) Will we become extinct?
The church in America has been declining for decades. Denying that is not just foolish, it’s ignorant. Instead of lamenting that the United States is no longer a “Christian” nation, we need to get down to brass tacks and begin the hard work of evangelism and discipleship once again. If we are simply building local churches around our preaching, music, and programs, there will inevitably come along someone else who can do those things better than we can. We will continue to swap members until Jesus returns and I fear the rebuke may be equivalent to the one talent servant in Jesus’ parable.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18 were, “…and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Church will not fail because the true church isn’t a building, a program, or a person. The Church is a movement of people, disciples, seeking to be kingdom-minded and be part of God’s kingdom expansion in this world. Building the kingdom does not mean adding some beautiful aesthetics to pretty it up, it means literally building and expanding it beyond what it is today.
Will the church become extinct?
I think these questions and many more are essential questions for every disciple of Christ to ask themselves during this time and beyond? The thing about hard questions is that they demand hard answers. While some may see my criticism as harsh, the more complacent we become, the harsher the criticism for us to move out of that complacency to a place of effectiveness.
May God give us the courage and boldness to ask the hard questions of who we are in the church. May we seek his kingdom first and deny ourselves the desire to build a kingdom of our own making. May we elementarily return to our original commission and seek to go and make disciples rather than simply making consumers of programs whose sustaining power is only as effective as the latest trend.