Eight ways this current crisis may help us to lead change in ourselves and in our churches.
COVID-19 PERSPECTIVE: Matthew L. Watley
Kingdom Fellowship A.M.E., Silver Spring, Maryland
Crisis is fundamentally what moved the church from being gathered to scattered. It happened at the beginning of the church and it seems to be happening again in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. As I pray for healing in our land, I am also seeking to discern what God is saying in the midst of all this, and what God would have us do as leaders in the church both now and in the future.
The prototype for rapid change through crisis is found in Acts 1–8. In Acts 1:7 Jesus promises the Holy Spirit who will empower the believers to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world. However, the church stays gathered in Jerusalem from Chapter 2, when the Holy Spirit comes on the Day of Pentecost through Chapter 7 when Stephen is stoned. It is only in 8:1, when the full persecution of the church begins, that the church is then scattered to Judea and Samaria and ultimately the uttermost parts of the world.
Just as I believe God did not will the persecution of those early believers, but rather God redeemed it to further his missional work, could it be that COVID-19 is pushing the church to rapidly adapt itself to a new normal. God never wastes a crisis. Instead, God offers us to partner with him in leading change through Punctuated Disequilibrium Theory—a fancy way of saying in the words of Winston Churchill, “Never waste a good crisis.”
Churchill said this in reference to the conditions post World War II, and Rahm Emanuel later paraphrased it in response to the Great Recession. In both cases, the basic idea is simple. Under normal circumstances in organizational life (equilibrium), whether in government, business or church, change happens slowly and incrementally. In times of crisis, the regular lines of internal politics and bureaucracy are erased, and those who are agile are able to lead large-scale change within the organization, and for the constituency it serves.
Here are eight ways this current crisis may help us to lead change in ourselves and in our churches.
1. Reclaiming My Prayer Time
Just as internet providers are scrambling to boost their capacity in light of everyone being at home streaming Netflix, playing video games and teleconferencing all at once, if there are angels in heaven in charge of monitoring prayer traffic, they are likely busy as bees as well. Certainly, this crisis has caused a spike in prayer requests, intercessory prayer and spiritual warfare as we have not seen in generations. The larger group of self-identifying Christians in general, and the church in particular have found the keys to their old prayer closets and put them back into use. Of course, the trick is not inspiring prayer in the midst of crisis but sustaining it afterward.
In my church, and I suspect in many others, the least attended activities are prayer gatherings. Nursery parents get there early before it is full, we fill the room for Zumba classes, and singles and married events are always fully subscribed. Prayer meeting on the other hand always have plenty of room. Recognizing that this reality is diametrically opposed to Jesus’ declaration, “My house shall be called the house of prayer for all people,” I said to my staff and leaders at our retreat in December 2019, “Our church needs to embrace prayer as our top priority.” I said it, the note taker recorded it, it was included in our plans, but it was never acted on in earnest. We have had major prayer campaigns before, but quickly returned to our regular activity-based culture.
COVID-19 has changed all of that for individual Christians and the church, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We have tripled the availability for people to call in to our prayer line, which is lead by one of our ministers. We are training a new team of persons who, through Zoom, will offer intercessory prayer online or over the phone. We are praying more as leaders and ministries outside of meetings to do the work of ministry. We are becoming a house of prayer for all people.
2. Pastor’s Time
It seems almost untoward to admit, but being out of the office has breathed new air into my productivity. My devotional time, personal time of reflection and time devoted to writing have all increased, as you can see. The unexpected gift of time is a benefit in this crisis for which I am deeply appreciative. My family has rediscovered the joy of communal meals, board games, exercising and generally hanging out together. We’ll work hard to keep these elements going when the quarantine is over. I am definitely working harder from home—probably because I don’t have my coveted interruptions from staff interactions and the impromptu meetings that come with time in the office. I certainly recognize that teams need to be together, and I will be returning to the office—but not as often or as long. Zoom has shown me a more excellent way. I don’t miss the commute time, the expense of eating out for lunch or the doldrums of being stuck behind a desk when my laptop works just as well by my fire pit, from where I’m writing this.
We all know that regular personal Sabbath is so important. The problem is, so is everything else—or the consumer culture of churchgoers that we have fostered makes it feel like it is. The race to make ministries bigger and better only seems to heighten the appetite of the Christian country club we have come to call church.
Reflective time is one of the first casualties of time leaks. Spending time in prayer, devotion, meditation, study and strategic thinking is not time away—it’s the job. Unfortunately, “the job” suffered pre-coronavirus. David’s declaration in Psalm 23 that the shepherd “makes me lie down in green pastures” has actually always struck me as odd. The idea that the sheep is being forced to do something so relaxing and refreshing seems counterintuitive. Yet, I feel that is actually what God has done for us in this season. We’re all lying down and for many of us, this pasture really is pretty green.
3. The Need for Church Unity
By far for me one of the most painful, frightful parts of this entire episode has been the lack of civility in church leaders I’ve seen portrayed through countless posts and comments on social media. Pastors, with all of the vitriol that they can muster, questioning the ministerial ethics and integrity of their colleagues who chose to have church, was disgusting. Equally vulgar were those who criticized people like myself who chose to shutter our doors and go online, as being “driven by fear.” All of this conflict in the open allows the skeptics, critics and the curious to feel justified, strengthened and encouraged in their negative view of the body.
Bob Russell, the founding pastor of Southeast Christian Church, aptly states in When God builds a Church that unity is the single most important factor for church health and growth. While he spoke about the local church, the principle applies to the church militant. People are surrounded by division in their families, in society, in our politics, on their jobs and everywhere in between. The last place people want to see fighting, especially in times of crisis, is in the kingdom of God. Nothing will kill the church faster than officers at odds with the pastor, or members who snipe at one another, or pastors who refuse to engage in ecumenism, civility, or celebrate the diversity of the body of Christ. The body of Christ is intentionally diverse; which means we must not simply tolerate differences of opinion, ministry praxis and theological views, but we must celebrate it.
Jesus and the epistles make clear the means by which we are to diffuse, reason through and settle conflict in the church. Taking to social media and lambasting pastors is mentioned nowhere. Direct messages, conferences calls, mediation or church councils require more effort, sensitivity and spiritual maturity, but are by far more likely to influence others who are seeking to make life and death decisions for their members and their churches. In the immortal words of the Reverend Al Green, “Let’s Stay Together.”
4. Leveraging Technology
Being at home has caused me to recognize how many items on my home improvement to-do list have gone undone. Likewise, creating a more robust online presence and investing in and building greater infrastructure for electronic engagement have definitely been on our churches’ to-do lists. Yet, the crisis has not just put it to the top of the list … it is the list.
Like a uniquely talented but underappreciated athlete pining to get into the game, looking to hear their number called by the coach to go onto the field, technology has been waiting to show the church what it can do. From being better connected to our congregation for pastoral care, to providing multiple means for regular giving, to broadcasting our messages to an audience much larger than those who will ever enter the doorways of our churches, to teleconferencing and developing more electronic content, the game is now changing for church, even if it is by compulsion.
My tech leader and I are putting the finishing touches on a home studio, something that should have been done at least half a decade ago. I am now using robocalls to personalize messaging to our church to great effect. We are now finding our own social media algorithm for each unique platform, and the way each of those audiences processes content. This crisis has allowed technology to take the field, and the church of the Lord Jesus Christ shall be the better for it.
5. Core, Congregation, Crowd
Since the first rule of public speaking is knowing one’s audience, the question must be raised, for whom have we been devoting our ministry time and resources? Certainly, for us it has been between our core and our congregation. Several years ago, it hit me that of the tens of thousands of dollars we spent in staff hours and vendors creating engaging graphics, videos and print materials—they were all inwardly focused. Not one dime was spent on advertising, marketing, radio or cable time, podcasts or any other outward facing thing. Sure, we posted sermons on YouTube, but with no deliberate effort to cultivate an active viewership.
Well, no more. This season has taught us that if we merely focus on those within our walls we do so at our own peril. Not simply because the “attractional” model for doing church is out of sync with the flow of our society, but more importantly because it’s off-mission. The church of Jesus is ever moving, heralding, even failing, and trying again to reach the lost at any cost for the sake of the gospel. Seeing and hearing the void within the minds and hearts of people because they lack a saving relationship with Christ, and a kingdom perspective, causes me to recommit myself to evangelism and disciple making. Like a computer that is frozen and unresponsive to any input, a hard reset is the only means that can be used to get things going again, and God is using this crisis to do it.
6. Finding Our Voices
A brief study of “The Blitz” the nickname given the nine-month attack by Germany on the citizenry of England during World War II, shows that what was meant to break the spirit of that country ended up saving it from total annihilation. While Germany focused their incendiary bombs on city centers, the airfields and airplane factories of England which had previously been bombed were rebuilt. New pilots were recruited and trained, and Germany was never able to achieve air superiority.
England’s military reality came at a terrible price to the nation. The terror triggered within the people by the air raid sirens followed by the bombs created a climate not unlike what we are facing today. Yet, the citizenry soldiered on under one determination: business as usual. More than anything else, history records that it was the steady, determined voice of Winston Churchill that rallied solidarity and courage among the people. What a great model for ministry during this time.
My old basketball coach was fond of saying, “Crisis doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” The pulpit is one of the last repositories of great thinkers, people of integrity, and the one source for real hope for our world. We must speak. While you may not hold the bully pulpit of politicians or have the millions of social media followers of celebrities, you have a voice, and God has a way of allowing the voices of God’s heralds to be heard. You must speak. Like me, you may have avoided opportunities to stand on larger platforms, happy to allow the more ambitious among us to seek the spotlight. But recess is over and it’s time for the adults to take the stage.
The great part about the way our society is currently structured is that you only need a camera phone or laptop to reach millions. The ironically named phenomena of “going viral” only requires one influencer to hear your message and share it, and boom your voice has a megaphone. While it’s important to attend to the needs of your church and congregation, you must recognize that the world is waiting for new voices to give it leadership, particularly since it is seeing that the old voices really have nothing to offer. Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime Video are being used right now as the true opiate of the people to numb them from a reality they are ill prepared for but must face. This crisis has forced the world to become a captive audience as we shelter in place. What better time than now to offer the gospel of Jesus Christ. Cry loud and spare not; it is time to speak.
7. Pastoring Rebooted
A steady hand and an assuring voice are needed now more than ever before in our lifetimes. The muscle memory of years spent working with families through grief, and the counseling of that young person who was being drowned and driven by the culture, is going to kick in now. The discernment that has allowed you to intuit the pain of the people in the pew as you stood behind the pulpit, and the ability to inspire and organize people toward helping the vulnerable in your community will be a needed salve for the hearts of millions of our fellow citizens.
For years the Barna Group, Thom Rainer, Pew Research and publications like Christianity Today have documented the decline of Christendom in America, and have worked to wrestle through means of reversing the trend. I don’t think those efforts were in vain. I believe they were preparation for this time. It is like the umbrella salesman who sits quietly in the open-air market while other merchants hawk their wares, seeking to gain the attention of potential customers. He sits quietly reading his newspaper and listening to music on his earbuds. If you wonder why he doesn’t put forth greater effort it’s because it’s hard to sell umbrellas when the sun is out, but when the storm clouds gather—they sell themselves. As pastors we have become fatigued and hoarse trying to sell umbrellas in the sun, but the rain is here, and it is our time to offer shelter from the storm.
8. The Tables Have Turned
Most of us choose to focus on the celebratory portion of Jesus’ Palm Sunday activities rather than deal with his weeping over a city that will soon fall, or his turning over tables of a religious institution that had become hollow and meaningless. The truth is, much of the pastoral burnout I have witnessed has been born out of either frustration with being unable to pursue God-given vision because of organizational resistance, or unending congregational demands which can never be met, and leave the pastor utterly exhausted. With this crisis, the opportunity has come for us to weep for and with the people. To share our humanity, and to enter into theirs with compassion and hope, is the essence of the incarnational ministry that God has called us to live and practice during this time of crisis.
Likewise, God has allowed the strengthening of strongholds that certain families, big financial givers, strict constructionist, church polity members have used for years to keep the church just like they want. As churches are forced to either rapidly change or die, the normal order of debate and delay have been upended. Just as the federal government has the power to constrain private industry to conform to the needs of the nation in times of emergency, so pastors have been afforded a new means of grace. To steward this moment well will lead to a blessing to the church and the kingdom, and to abuse this sacred trust may work in the short term, but will meet with accountability down the road.
Read more COVID-19 Perspectives from pastors and church leaders.