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!”

Pentecost: When Peter’s world changed

In my last post, I discussed how COVID has shifted our world fundamentally in the economy, the nature of government, the charitable sector and international relations. Into that volatile mix—and since I published that blog post—a new force for change is sweeping the U.S. and is spilling over to Canada and Europe: the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have exposed faultlines around systemic, long-term issues of race and equality. The early indications are that long-silent voices have taken this moment to say, “Enough!” We don’t know yet how these protests will shift the direction already being set in motion by COVID. I think my thoughts here are still relevant.

My previous example of a change of eras might seem extreme; the tectonic shifts we’re facing may be big, but they’re existential and therefore much more difficult to define than a global flood. So let’s look at an example centered around the day of Pentecost we just celebrated: Peter in the first few chapters of Acts.

As a student of leadership, I’m fascinated by the transformation in Peter between his betrayal of Jesus and his emergence as bold leader in Acts 2. He’s just been restored by Jesus in John 21 and given a new commission to feed His sheep, but if he’s to take up the mantle of leadership, he feels lacking. So what does he do? 

First, he compresses a few years’ worth of Bible school into one month. Consider the following. 

  • We know Jesus has just spent 40 days opening his followers’ minds to the Scriptures and interpreting what the Old Testament passages said about himself (Luke 24:27,45). I suspect Peter was a sponge, soaking up everything Jesus could offer him.
  • After Jesus leaves the disciples, we know they spend their days in the temple, worshiping (Luke 24:52). And we know a group of them return to the upper room in Jerusalem, devoting themselves to prayer together (Acts 1:13-14). 
  • When Peter finally speaks up in Acts 1 and 2, the frequency with which he tosses out references to Psalm 69, Psalm 109, Joel 2, Psalm 16 and Psalm 110 reflect the way he’s used his time. He couldn’t just flip to the various pages in his Bible; he has likely memorized these passages after hours devouring the scrolls at a synagogue or the temple library.

Then in Acts 2, the day of Pentecost, it’s showtime. The Holy Spirit falls and gives the believers everything Jesus promised: power, gifting, a message and supernatural linguistic ability. With 3,000 new followers, Peter has to figure out what exactly Jesus meant when he charged him to “Feed my sheep.” What was their religious practice going to look like? There are no models for the Church. I’d be very surprised if Jesus spelled out to Peter what church governance and structure he should use. It’s up to Peter and his colleagues to contextualize. As they do this, the sand is shifting under their feet. Peter will have to draw on all of his preparation to meet the needs, challenges and opportunities that are on his doorstep. 

That’s what makes Peter’s era so relevant to leadership today. Let’s look at a few points of application we can draw out of these early days of the Church, as we consider our own place, on the threshold of the post-COVID world, and the frustrations spilling out on the streets. Maybe this is our day of Pentecost.

1. Establish patterns of discernment and attentiveness

There’s a sense of anticipation about Acts 1. Jesus said to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes. Jesus made it clear that Peter’s education would continue after Jesus’ departure, as the Holy Spirit would remind him of all that Jesus said and teach him all things (John 14:26). So the disciples position themselves in the familiar confines of the upper room. These first believers establish an early pattern of devoting themselves to prayer and fellowship (Acts 2:42), and the apostles will later commit themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). 

The combination of prayer and the ministry of the Word isn’t just about preaching; it includes searching the Old Testament Scriptures and finding application to their situations. That’s what Peter does in Acts 1 when he quotes two Scriptures to support his decision that they should replace Judas among the Twelve. He does it again in the next chapter when he interprets the Spirit’s work at Pentecost as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. 

In a conversation recently about these ideas with leadership consultant Jonathan Wilson  (read more at Lead by Soul), he told me:

one prepares for the future by understanding (or more accurately, discerning) the present. And that’s where Christians have resources that others don’t have, because not only can we do the necessary work of observing and interpreting the various socio-cultural and political dynamics unfolding before us, we have both the Spirit’s enlightening presence as well as theological tools of, e.g. thinking about worldviews and assumptions, about understanding needs, fears and desires, the way societies operate “in the flesh”, etc., that others don’t or can’t readily access. 

Rhythms of discernment and attentiveness are best established before crisis—when intentions are easily discarded and habits remain firmly in place.

2. Hold assumptions loosely

At first, the early Church seems to believe Jesus is coming back right away, perhaps based on Jesus’ ambiguous statements about his return (e.g. John 21:22). To me, that assumption best explains the earliest practices of the Church. They are continually at the temple, praising God (Luke 24:53, Acts 2:46). No need to work, but they do need to eat, so they start selling possessions (Acts 2:45). Their communal living and having everything in common sounds idyllic, but would not be a sustainable model for the future church. 

As each day passes without Christ’s return, the Church leaders have to deal with increasingly complex problems. They need to begin equipping believers for working and living in an increasingly-hostile environment. They shock the community by deploying church discipline (Acts 5). They are forced to find a structure that allows the movement to scale appropriately (Acts 6). They have to start establishing rules and order to these church services. This requires constant re-evaluation of assumptions. 

It’s the same for us today. Strategy and plans that were developed before the pandemic need a critical look to see if they’re relevant anymore. Activities need to be weighed against criteria, such as whether they’re essential to accomplishing the mission and whether they’re the best way to approach something in light of the new realities. All of these assessments start by holding our assumptions loosely, or even deliberately questioning them. 

Wilson says that this is the moment for organizations to use a

combination of strategy and agile methodologies to engage in adaptation and, even, eventually, self-reinvention. It’s actually too early to truly reinvent, as we don’t know what we’re reinventing for, but it isn’t too early to build the capacity and capabilities for quick adaptation that, coupled with the kind of “discerning the times” I mentioned above, equip an organization to reinvent over time.

3. Reframe setbacks as opportunities

The idyllic model for Church of the first few chapters of Acts is built around the favour of the people and the government (Acts 2:47). Persecution, on the other hand, is an external disrupter, scattering the believers. A Church that risked becoming insular and territorial is suddenly thrust into fulfilling Jesus’ mission in Acts 1:8—witnessing throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1-4). The movement continues to grow in the face of adversity. 

But these shifts bring new grey areas. Now the leaders of the Church need to either establish central control, managing the dispersed Church from Jerusalem, or embrace polycentric ministry, with multiple centres of influence. A combination of factors, such as a coming famine (Acts 11:27-30) and the killing and imprisonment of leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-5) invert power and allow the dispersed church to minister back up to the mother church.

What new things is God doing right now through COVID? What new doors is he opening that you never dreamed could happen? How do you reframe for your followers the setbacks we’ve faced? Shifting the narrative, and the thought processes behind the stories we tell, is critical to the path your organization will take: either merely trying to revert to normal or keeping the good things that have emerged while remaining open to new ways of structuring and operating for the future.

4. Never stand in God’s way

Then the Holy Spirit leads the Church to expand to include the Gentiles (Acts 10-11). Between a new satellite location in Antioch and Paul’s missionary journeys, a mixed church arises, based on a new identity in Christ rather than race, culture or caste (Gal 3:28). The church council meeting in Acts 15 is a pivotal moment in the Church as they decide whether they will truly become global or remain an offshoot of Judaism.

How does the Church respond? Look at the phrases I highlighted in the following statements and actions:

  • In Acts 10, when the Jewish-background believers are “astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles,” Peter asks, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (Acts 10:45,47)
  • When he faces criticism, he then asks: “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)
  • After Paul explains to the Council of Jerusalem that Gentiles are hearing and believing, James concludes they would not make it difficult for the Gentiles who turn to God (Acts 15:19).

All of these phrases are about control. When the Holy Spirit is moving, and your assumptions are challenged, it’s a great principle to not get on the wrong side of an issue if God is on the other side. Rather than standing on principles and trying to fit God into your dogma, rewrite your principles around the movement of God.

So here we are, just after Pentecost, facing an unknown future. What can you do today to prepare yourself for the ambiguity ahead, and the movement of God that seems to accelerate when we stand between eras? Through the help of the Holy Spirit, Peter and his fellow leaders got a lot of decisions right. I pray He helps you do the same.

 

How do you develop followers?

I’ve been in Atlanta this week at the Christian Leadership Alliance Conference. Here are a few relevant notes from a workshop by Wendy Johnson of Amor Ministries.

Point 1: How do established leaders need to change to lead Millennials?

Millennials don’t need to adapt to our world. We’re already in theirs, so we’re the ones that need to adapt. We’re trying to figure out how to use their technology and work in their cultural setting. We’re marketing and selling our product in their world. Therefore, it’s not their job to learn how to work in our culture. It’s our job to study them and adapt where necessary.

That’s an interesting point for me. What she’s saying is that a leader’s job is not to make other people conform to them and follow them, but to boldly make the changes so that followers will follow. Those changes might be personal or they might be corporate. Where do I need to change to adapt to leading Millennials? And where do I need to change my organization to gather Millennials to my cause?

Point 2: How can we create followers of Jesus Christ?

As leaders, we have the ability to shape our followers to be:

  • Faithful and loyal – These cannot be mandated, but leaders have the power to draw followers by their vulnerability and trust. We need to be loyal to them and allow them to make mistakes.
  • Obedient – We need to identify the boundaries that matter and hold our teams to them while allowing flexibility on the means. Millennials will follow the rules if we recognize their methods and processes are different, not wrong.
  • Last – Leadership doesn’t necessarily happen from the front.
  • Open – Leaders will know everything about their team. Will we be open in return? If you lie to your followers, you’re done.
  • Willing – We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for sacrifice. If we hold to the essentials but give up the how, we’ll get what we ask for and more.

I like this idea of follower development. Wendy said that it’s easier to discuss followership than leadership, because the latter is so hard to define. Leaders have the ability to build on the strengths of our followers and to shape our followers into incredibly effective teams. There’s more to think about here. I’ll come back to it in the days ahead.