4 Crucial Lessons for the Post-COVID Church

This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org and is reposted here by permission.

In 2004, Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk edited and contributed to the book Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone. Since its publication, people in Pacific Northwest (PNW) religious circles have discussed and strategized ways to do ministry in the “None Zone.” The house church movement, the emergent church movement, and even the missional church movement to a certain degree have all attempted to be the one movement to challenge the growing tide of secularism to which Killen and Silk pointed.

Fast-forward 16 years to 2020, and with the introduction of COVID-19, denominations and their local churches are now battling on two fronts as they try to live out the kingdom of God in the PNW. On one front is secularism. On the other front is the inability of the body of Christ to meet weekly in worship services, or even in small home groups. The result, at least here in the Seattle area, has been tired pastors who are frantically trying to learn, among other things, to be videographers, editors and IT specialists.

From a leadership perspective, the emerging question that needs to be addressed is not, “How do I learn all these new skills so I can keep the doors open?” The leadership question that needs to be addressed is, “What trends are emerging that will change the way discipleship happens in the future?” This question requires leaders in the church to shift their focus from addressing technical solutions to embracing the adaptive challenges that lie ahead. Along with this question comes the need to ask how God is calling the church to be present in the midst of this time in history.

The idea that we will be able to return to “normal” might never happen. As companies such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others are openly discussing how their remote work policies are changing and adapting, I believe the church needs to do the same as it considers its ecclesiology. I am not suggesting that core ecclesiological convictions need to change regarding who is the church is, but I do believe the “how” within the church’s ecclesiological expression needs to be reconsidered in light of the pandemic the world is facing. With this in mind, I’d like to share with you four things I have learned in my role as provost at the Bible Institute of Seattle (BIOS) equipping lay and church leaders within the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA).

1. A Hybrid Digital-Analog Approach Has Opened New Doors.

Prior to COVID-19, our operating assumption was that digital classes took away from, and distracted, the building of genuine community. As a matter of fact, in the academic council meeting a month prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States we debated over a telecommuting policy, and it was with some hesitation that we agreed to one. However, when we did have to stop meeting in person, having a digital option available was key to keeping our students on track to meet their goals in the time they had originally planned.

In the process what we found is that digital isn’t all that bad. For our students who only attend evening classes, it allowed them to better navigate life, and for our faculty it challenged them to re-evaluate what they were presenting and whether they were doing it in the best way possible. In the process of going digital, we became better communicators of the gospel, and we found that our original concern about community was not nearly the obstacle we once believed. Interestingly, our sense of community seems to have gotten stronger as people have had to intentionally be present in digital settings.

Moving forward, we have seen how the digital space can help meet the needs of our community in ways we were unable to do so before. This has led us to explore a hybrid model as we move into the future—a model that can bring people together who not all that long ago didn’t interact much, and yet that can add clarity and insight to our community. As I ponder the local church and parachurch organizations, I cannot help but think a hybrid “how” as an addition to the current ecclesiological expression could greatly aid in our pursuit of the missio dei.

2. Context Is King.

Alan Roxburgh, David Fitch, Michael Frost, Alan Hirsch, and others have been writing, teaching, and lecturing about the missional and neighborhood church for years. In my former mainline circles, their voices often failed to get the attention they deserved, but looking back, they were onto a key insight: that belief and action have to be connected.

If and when belief and action are disconnected, faith becomes an idea that neglects to serve God’s mission. When belief and action are connected, faith becomes inspired and dances in concert with God. In order for belief and action to be connected, ministry must be contextual. It needs a place to practice. What we have learned at BIOS is that if ministry is not contextual, if it is not addressing one’s neighborhood, the belief and action connection fails to happen and the mission of God is not practiced. As Fitch might say, the presence and kingdom of God are not breaking into one’s neighborhood; rather, local antagonisms are being birthed.

For the local church, and the ecclesiological “how,” I cannot help but think that God is providing us with the reminder that we don’t just need to be God’s presence for the world; we need to be the presence of God for our neighborhood.

3. Skills Are Better Than Knowledge.

Higher education is going through a change. The generation beginning to enter college look at Gen Xers and millennials and question whether it was smart to take out huge loans for degrees they may or may not use. This next generation is asking if there is another way to achieve their goals. Who can blame them?

Their questioning has led many of them to value skills over knowledge. Why wait to get a job when you can get an entry-level position and then gather both skills and knowledge along the way? At BIOS some of our students want a degree, but others only want to get the skills needed to be licensed and ordained through the C&MA. Maybe they will go back for a degree, maybe not. But if the goal is ministry, why spend $100,000 when there is another option?

COVID-19 has made it clear that part of our ministry is to serve those who think this way. I should mention that it is not just this emerging generation that desires ministry skills; we have also found that many boomers are interested in expanding their ministry skills too. For the local church, and the ecclesiological “how,” this insight has made me ponder whether we have been approaching discipleship as a knowledge pursuit more than a skill pursuit. And, if so, what might we need to change to speak to the surfacing need?

4. Apprenticeship Is Cool Again.

With the increase in people seeking skills, apprenticeships are becoming desirable again. An apprentice is someone learning a trade … much like a disciple. Unfortunately, we have treated ministry as if it were a profession when Scripture clearly shows it’s a trade. It is something in which we continually walk with Jesus, learn from him, and live out his teachings.

COVID-19 has shown us at BIOS the power of an apprenticeship. People want to learn how to be disciples, and they are craving apprentice-type opportunities that intentionally develop themselves in their walk with Jesus. For the local church, and the ecclesiological “how,” I cannot help but believe that educational programs are crying out for reform.

These are just a few learnings we have picked up in the “None Zone,” and if we really are facing an adaptive challenge then the solution will continually evolve as we continue to learn new ways of discipleship. As a discerning community responding to God’s unfolding mission, we need to keep the conversation alive.

What would you add to or modify from this list?

© 2020 Missio Alliance—Writing Collectives—All rights reserved.

Wes Telyea
Wes Telyea

Wes Telyea is provost of the Bible Institute of Seattle in Fall City, Washington. As a pastor, Wes served congregations in Bellevue, Washington, and Issaquah, Washington. He has a passion for church leadership development, emerging ecclesiologies and the future of the church.