Alive to the situation

I’ve seen some believers recently repost a story about a church that wasn’t able to meet together in their building, so they met at a local Walmart. Rather than celebrate with them this act of holy rebellion, I have some questions. Sure, it reflects a complete lack of understanding of the risk levels of worship and whether a church’s practices make a store or restaurant a poor comparison. But my concern is deeper: I wonder if anyone in Walmart that day was attracted to the gospel because of this improvised service. Was it the aroma of Christ to those employees and customers? Was that even on the minds of the church leaders?

My frustration during the second phase of this pandemic is that many churches are hyper-focusing on their rights and their comforts rather than equipping their people for these unique times. They’re focusing internally on whether and how they can hold services, when their congregants are lost to know how on earth they can live out the gospel within our socially-distanced, cancel culture. Few church leaders are speaking to how we can advance the mission right now in spite of, through and because of COVID.

I wonder if it reflects a mind block among leaders—something that is not limited to church pastors. Let me explain.

This is the greatest opportunity in our lifetimes for the Church. Rather than try our best to get back to the halcyon days of February 2020, we need to look for what doors God is opening right now. Churches need to realize this isn’t going away soon, and lesser imitations will only make people crave the old days, the old ways. Once church leaders cross the bridge in their thinking—that we won’t be back to normal on November 4, or even a year from now—then they’ll start seeing the opportunities. What opportunities? I’m glad you asked.

First, we have the same opportunities that the Church had in 1918-1920, when Christians died serving their communities in spite of risks of Spanish Flu. The parallels are clear. Governments today are following the same pattern of lockdowns, quarantines and masks. Churches had similarly-diverse responses: while some pushed back on religious freedom grounds, others got busy serving. These examples in Nashville, Tennessee, and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are inspiring: when in-person church services were shut down, Church of Christ and Episcopal pastors offered their buildings as field hospitals. A.B. Lipscomb wrote in the Gospel Advocate that the epidemic had “opened up a way for the enlargement of the sympathies of Christian people.”

In South Dakota, the 1919 conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church report notes:

Immediately after the conference last fall (1918), the churches were closed on account of the influenza, some for several weeks, and some for several months. This enforced vacation gave our pastors an unusual opportunity to minister to the people in their need and their sorrow. Almost without exception the pastors were alive to the situation and cared for the sick, carrying them cheer and comfort, and in hundreds of cases, burying the dead, some pastors conducting as many as 40 funerals during the ravages of this awful epidemic.

Probably 70-75 percent of the pastors or their families were stricken with the disease, but there was not a death in one of the parsonage homes in the district, and of the unusually large number of funerals conducted by our pastors during this time, it was most remarkable that our church members constituted a comparatively small percentage of the total number.

Capital Journal, Mar 19, 2020

Second, this is an enormous opportunity to adapt our model. I’m waiting for churches to begin truly innovating. In the early days of COVID, when churches had to scramble because they were suddenly locked down, there was some experimentation. Churches tweaked their practices out of necessity. But going to online streaming, virtual communion and squirting holy water isn’t really innovation; most of it could be categorized as lesser imitations of the original.

Let’s look at a parallel. To walk into most restaurants today is a depressing situation. Tables are marked off and furniture stacked in a corner. Hastily-improvised plexiglass screens are hung around the register, ordering counter or concierge desk. These adjustments have all the markings of an expectation that this is a short-term inconvenience. If restaurants in urban centers are struggling, you can imagine how challenging it is for an island setting, so imagine my surprise when my wife and I walked into The Groove Kitchen + Cafe in Mayne Island, BC last week.

The owner shared with us about how difficult the past few months have been for their business, and they almost didn’t make it. Hearing his story, I fully intended to tip well. So, when I went to pay and there was no opportunity to add a tip, I asked. He asked me, “What would you be tipping for?” They’ve reduced their services and costs so much that he believes tipping would be unreasonable. They’ve streamlined their staff from 14 to 2. No dishes to wash. All ordering goes through their website, with customers encouraged to order ahead of time and given the opportunity to eat on site, pick up the prepared order, or grab pre-packaged ingredients and cook the menu at home. All their seating is outside, and they used the inside space to launch a specialty grocery store for the items in their menu and ingredients unavailable elsewhere on the island.

The owner told me he wished they’d made these changes years ago. “We’ll never go back!”

Innovation is coming to our industries. If existing restaurants, stores, businesses and congregations don’t get there, new upstarts certainly will. We know the Church will go on for another generation, but it may not be traditional churches that do, or even church plants that do their best imitation of the the model that has been successful in the past decade. The question is who is going to get there first?

I submit that it will the leaders who stop lamenting the way church was done and seek out the new opportunities in this virus and ways to do things differently. They’ll draw the best ideas from other industries, and they’ll create some fresh interpretations of ancient practices. Some of these ideas will fail, but a new model will surely emerge from their efforts. Some of them will see the new version and conclude, “We’ll never go back!”

The Bible speaks to isolation

One of the things that constantly amazes me about the Scriptures is their relevance to every situation we face. The Bible speaks to every generation, to every era, to every situation. It doesn’t speak in the same way, and contextualization gives new appreciation for passages that were always there but didn’t speak to us in a previous context, or didn’t speak to a previous generation the way it does today.

That means, even though I’ve never thought about isolation before, I knew before I even looked that I’d find relevant passages to our context today. It turns out there are loads of examples in Scripture. Here are a few that I’ve been reflecting on:

  • What was it like for Noah to spend a year and ten days on the ark with his immediate family? What load of grief did he carry for the earth’s population who lost their lives? What trauma did he carry from hearing the screams of those outside the door of the ark? He certainly had lots to do, in his floating zoo, but a year in a small space is a long time! (Genesis 6-9)
  • What was it like for a normal, healthy person in Jesus’ day to suddenly get infected with leprosy? The instructions of Leviticus 13 include going to a front-line worker, a priest, and being quarantined for 14 days before being forced to live alone. How devastating it would be to be cut off from one’s family and pushed away from society! These castaways often formed a new community of the marginalized, with perhaps their only commonality being their shared illness. (Episode 6 of The Chosen has an amazing depiction of Jesus interacting with a leper.)
  • What was it like for Paul to transition from an active missionary lifestyle to sudden confinement in prison? Acts 20 and 21 describe the premonition Paul had that imprisonment and affliction awaited him, and show that he was thinking about end of life issues. It wasn’t easy for Paul. Once imprisoned, Jesus paid him a visit at night telling him to take courage and helping him say on mission (Acts 23:11). As an unmarried single, he talked a lot about his desire to see those he loved. He eventually settled into life as a WFH author (working from home).
  • What was it like for a young Joseph, whose plans and career trajectory were disrupted by sudden injustice not once but twice—first, when his brothers sold him into slavery, and second, when he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife? He found himself confined to the royal prison. Yet, even there, “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor” (Gen 39:21). (Story in Genesis 37-41)

I encourage you to mine these examples and send me the insights and applications God uncovers as you look at them again through the eyes of isolation and physical distancing. God’s Word is alive!

Our polarization was manipulated!

“We have lost our ability to listen to alternate points of view, to compromise and reconcile. As the edges of our debates are so sharp, we find it necessary to approach every discussion with weaponized arguments.” —Marc Emmer

How did we get to this point? As I wrote last month on my President’s blog, it’s at least partly attributable to a deliberate campaign:

The news for weeks has been filled with a series of revelations on the full extent of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s intelligence operation to drive wedges into western issues. Russia operated a massive “fake news” effort that targeted the 2016 political election in the U.S. They made social media posts “that reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service… they focused on race, religion, gun rights, and gay and transgender issues.” Russian third parties even went as far as paying coaches to offer self-defense classes for African Americans to increase the chance they would fight back against aggression. These coaches had no idea they were being manipulated by Russia.

We’ve been manipulated to hate each other! We’re standing here with fingers on the trigger only to discover that all of this tension we feel toward each other is the result of a carefully constructed plan! The person or group we thought hated us really doesn’t!

So now what do we do?

Let’s think tactically for a minute. When military commanders identify their opponent’s strategy, they try to work it for their advantage with an ambush. When intelligence officers identify their opponent’s strategy, they run counterintelligence operations and turn spies into double agents.

I’m not actually interested in how nations are responding to Russia’s strategy. I’m interested in how we respond as believers. As shocking as the scale of this operation is politically, it’s a familiar tactic to those of us in Christian ministry. Satan has been driving wedges for millennia against God’s purposes.

As I said in Driving Wedges,

As believers, exposing the strategy is the first step. But how do we wage an effective battle against a strategy to divide? Do we simply strengthen our defences and put up better firewalls against division? What would an offensive strategy look like? Would it mean trying to divide our opposition, responding in kind? Or could we intentionally pursue unity and collaboration?

The problem with seeking to respond in kind is that the ends don’t justify the means. God is just as concerned with how we wage war, and in our growth during the battle, as he is in the results. It’s the luxury he has in knowing he’s already won the war.

What tactics can we employ then?

First, redirect our anger. Turn it instead on the one who manipulated us and raised the stakes. No, it’s not actually Mr. Putin. Look behind him, because our battle is not with flesh and blood. We have a common enemy. It doesn’t mean we set aside our differences, but we make those differences secondary.

I was convicted a couple of weeks ago in Montreal when I heard a Catholic bishop point out that, when churches are in maintenance mode, they see each other as competitors. But when they are in mission mode, they see each other as collaborators. Division within the ranks of God’s kingdom is a luxury of peace and prosperity. When we’re united by a common enemy, we put our energy first into advancing the kingdom of God and putting the gates of Hell on their heels rather than promoting our own agenda or point of view. We can still pursue that while holding to our unique identity and beliefs.

Second, assume our positions are a whole lot closer than we’ve been led to believe. If we lay down our weapons and try to listen, seeking more light than heat, perhaps we will hear the heart behind the other side’s perspective. Remember the good advice that you can’t argue against someone until you understand the person’s argument well enough to articulate it yourself. Most of what North Americans believe about Muslims is simply not true. Most of what Republicans believe about Democrats is simply not true. One way to intentionally break those stereotypes is to broaden our media exposure to intentionally include the other perspective.

Earlier this year I found myself in a surreal situation. I was standing on a rooftop patio in a closed country, talking with a group of Muslim scholars interested in preserving indigenous languages in their country. So we had at least one area of common interest that brought us together. I wish I could have recorded the conversation when these Muslims began to rant against fellow countrymen doing violence in the name of Islam. Every time another attack takes place, they said, their job gets harder. People view them with more skepticism. Their country, their people and their religion are defamed. They yearn for peace in their country.

Third, learn to wage peace. The more time I spend in Canada, the more I appreciate some of the voices that have contributed to this country’s international reputation. One of those is the Anabaptist/Mennonite voice that has come out of the prairies. One author says their thinking has morphed over the past sixty years from quietism and passive nonresistance to activist peacemaking. It’s an art that defies the typical thinking that peace and unity are weak. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi showed us that nonviolent force can change the world.

One tool for waging peace is the third table. When two groups are so distant from each other that they can’t communicate, a third space is designed to allow for honest discussion around issues once each side steps away from their militarized zones. There’s no “home team advantage,” but a safe place to try on different lenses, listen well and find common ground.

A friend recently pointed out that I’m good at creating third spaces. When people present a binary decision, I often don’t buy the thinking, but instead seek another way. Perhaps it’s my upbringing as a third culture kid who moved from Ontario to the Deep South when he was eight. In my first year, I tried holding to my culture—at one point refusing to sing the U.S. national anthem. Then I tried assimilation, changing my clothes and dropping the unique way I pronounced certain words. Eventually I came to appreciate my neutrality and unique cross-border perspective. Perhaps it’s the fact I was born in Canada, which has a a multi-party political system, a propensity for apology, and a strength in active peacemaking around the world. Perhaps it’s my resilience and strategic mindset that finds a way when seemingly forced into a choice between two undesirable options. Perhaps it’s my experience in an interdenominational, intergenerational organization that values language and culture. Many of my edges have been broken off over the past twenty years.

Conclusion
I’m growing in my conviction that we’ve been manipulated, and we urgently need to craft a response. Believers need to take the lead, because we have tools the rest of the world desperately needs.

Believers, we need to realize we are at war. It’s Satan’s most effective strategy to convince us we aren’t. As we do that, our response needs to meet the Matthew 10:16 standard: shrewd as snakes, innocent as doves. The problem is that the world knows Christians as naive. Luke 16:8 points out, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” Falling for peacetime thinking is perhaps chief evidence of our naiveté.

Being a Christian is not about denial—being nice and ignoring offence. Being a Christian is not about pretending someone didn’t mean to hurt you. Rather, it’s about being realistic about the hurt we’ve experienced, the world’s hatred of us and Satan’s hell-bent hunger to destroy us, and then intentionally choosing a counterintuitive weapon against those tactics. Turn the other cheek when antagonists expect retaliation. Show kindness to enemies when there’s no reason you should. Forgive the person who doesn’t deserve it.

Leaders, we have an important role here, challenging lazy thinking and crafting responses appropriate to these attacks, these schemes, these tactics. Our followers, our organizations, our churches and our countries are depending on us and looking to our lead. We need to assist them in fighting Satan’s strategies appropriately. For more, see my series on Wartime Leadership.