Why increasing the density of disciples even when the overall numbers decrease will lead to renewal
After one year of COVID-19, the anxiety among Christian leaders is palpable. On-site Sunday morning services, discipleship seminars and children’s programs have been shut down or impeded in one way or another by COVID-19. Instead, churches have been gathering on Sunday via Zoom and other broadcast platforms for months, and now interest seems to be waning. Like a rug pulled out from under us, the things pastors and leaders have traditionally looked to for a sense of accomplishment—attendance at services and programs—have all been diminished.
Alternative virtual communities are sprouting up all over the internet drawing interest from our parishioners. And so, with COVID having disrupted the churchgoing habits of parishioners, many of us are wondering: Will there be church after COVID-19? How should we plan for church after COVID-19?
THE INCREASE DENSITY APPROACH TO CHURCH GROWTH
But what if COVID-19 affords us the conditions for the renewal of our churches? If indeed COVID-19 reduces the numbers who attend our church gatherings, but also sorts out and brings together those with a strong and ready commitment to Christ’s kingdom as well, could the church come out stronger post-COVID-19?
In the past I’ve called this the “Increase Density—Decrease Numbers” approach to church renewal. The “Increase Density—Decrease Numbers” approach to church renewal proposes we change the sight lines for what we seek to attain in organizing church.
Instead of pursuing increased numbers of attendees to a Sunday morning event, let Christian leaders pursue an increased density of committed Christians to the kingdom. Instead of focusing on the Sunday morning social space, let Christian leaders focus on organizing local spaces in the neighborhood where Christians can gather during the week to be with others interpersonally; listening, praying, discerning the presence of Christ.
Don’t stop gathering on Sunday mornings, just make the local neighborhood social space equal to (or above) the large gathering space on Sunday in importance. This increased density could provide fertile soil for a renewal. These smaller local social gatherings would open space for the Spirit to inhabit and work in ways that would transform people’s lives and amaze onlookers as they see how Christ works.
But few leaders of large churches could afford such a plan before COVID-19. This kind of organizing focus would surely lose attendees on Sunday morning, and decreased attendance on Sunday would hurt the bottom line.
With so much mortgage debt and payrolls dependent upon the cash flow from large crowds, the “Increase Density” approach to renewal is risky business at best. It puts the livelihoods of real people at risk. Egos will likely take a hit as well. One’s ego as a ministry leader is often tied to large crowds. And so, pre-COVID-19, my presentations on the “Increase Density—Decrease Numbers” strategy were often met with a yawn. But what we could not do out of practicality before COVID-19 is now being forced upon us out of necessity because of COVID-19. Could it be that COVID-19 is the preparation for church renewal we’ve been looking for?
THE WAY IT WORKS
Down through Israel’s history, God has regularly worked through the “Increase Density—Decrease Numbers” approach. When its people became lax in belief, succumbed to idolatries or yielded to sin and violence, God would allow the consequences of sin to bear its brunt on his people. But then he would start renewal by calling out a remnant—a smaller, more dense people committed to faithfulness.
When Jesus set out to renew the nation of Israel he did not start out by “running for president” of Israel (or other positions of worldly power) or enforcing a new program from a perch of authority. He started by assembling a group of 12 disciples. The number 12 is significant here because this group would be a representative of the 12 tribes of Israel, but smaller in numbers. His 12 disciples would be a denser miniature Israel. Through this group of 12, Jesus would work for the renewal of all Israel to its calling to be a blessing to the nations.
Likewise, in Europe during the Dark Ages, small, dense communities living monastic life preserved and renewed Christianity. Thomas Cahill wrote a book entitled How the Irish Saved Civilization to tell the story. In the pre-Civil-War U.S., the holiness movements raised up little cell groups, calling them society meetings. This led to abolitionist movements and other forms of renewal. Over and over again, over thousands of years, it seems this is the way God works for renewal: He calls out a remnant—a smaller group of people with increased density of commitment—where he can do mighty things.
What is not easily recognized among North American Christians is how the density of committed followers of Jesus in small local spaces creates the social dynamics for the Spirit to work. Often churches grow large by offering religious goods and services to individual Christians who come and go conveniently to get what they think they need. If a church can offer excellent worship, superb preaching and a children’s ministry beyond compare, organized for an ease of accessibility, it will grow to mammoth numbers quickly.
In this process, however, there’s much less social interaction between Christians. Percentagewise, there are many fewer stable groups and social spaces for people to be present to each other’s lives. I am sure there are large megachurches that attempt to counteract these social dynamics, but it is nigh impossible.
But the God of our Lord Jesus Christ is a relational God. In order to work, he requires (actively chooses to work through) social spaces that are open to his voice, his conviction, the ways of lament, repentance, reconciliation, giving, sharing of finances, prayer, spiritual gifts, speaking truth in love, and I could go on. Because God is love, because he works through presence, he will not coerce. He will not act like a bulldozer and force his way into people’s lives. He comes where he is invited and able to work. And yet, he comes on his terms or he will not manifest his presence at all.
Therefore, when a small group of people gather to submit to Jesus and his work among them, as opposed to people gathering as individuals seeking something from him, the social dynamics are set loose for renewal. Space is opened up for prophetic voices. The Spirit is released. This social space is opened for God to be discerned and reconciliation to happen in his presence. In these social dynamics the Spirit can heal, move people to forgive, move people to provide for one another. This kind of movement of the Spirit spills over to one’s relationship to one’s neighbor and disrupts the injustices in the neighborhood. It has a multiplying effect. The Scriptures are replete with episodes of this dynamic from beginning to end.
And so small social spaces, given to the practices of tending to his presence among us, act as a tinder box for igniting the flames of the Holy Spirit. As we cultivate the smaller social spaces of life together in the neighborhood, and the density of committed believers working together in Christ, we set into place conditions for an unpredictable renewal of Christ’s kingdom.
The “Increase Density—Decrease Numbers” approach prepares the way for renewed witness for the gospel. This is because God is revealed, not just in what happens inside people’s souls, but in what happens among people, between people, in social spaces. When amazing things happen in these social spaces, God in Christ becomes visible. People notice. They cannot help but be drawn in. People tell other people what they just saw. Witness happens. “And the Lord adds to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
Let’s say a neighbor, a Black person walking down my block, is stopped by three police cars. I notice the unusual police presence for just one man. I (a white man) gently walk up to this neighbor and stand with him nodding my head to him in recognition of our friendship. Let’s say I learn more of what happened as I meet with my neighbor over coffee to debrief. I stand with him at a court hearing and watch as it is dismissed by the judge. Let’s say my local neighborhood social space shows him support, and we initiate a meeting with police. The police chief meets with us and our neighbor. Some understanding, repentance and forgiveness happens. A neighborhood commitment to work for police reform comes out of this one small meeting.
A year later, our church gathers for a prayer march to support our brothers and sisters in the protest of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A little boy stands up among the opening ceremonies and asks if the police officers are going to hurt him today. The police chief kneels with grief and assures the boy. Spaces open up to confess, make things right, restore and over time Black persons in our community begin to tell each other something is happening here and we don’t know why? A visible concrete manifestation of God’s work among a people takes place that cannot be denied. Jesus begins to be recognized (and proclaimed) as the source of our (those of us who are white) repentance and love. And the Lord adds to our number day by day those who are being saved.
Let’s say there’s a financial need revealed among a small gathering of people meeting in a neighborhood home. In this small social space, needs are met in ways that come out of relationship, not charity. Justice among these people becomes evident in the way these people share resources. When conflicts happen, there’s a richness to reconciliation that borders on the miraculous. Marriages are different. Single life is different. And people who know these people are amazed. They did not know this was possible. And the Lord adds to their number day by day those who were being saved.
In these small social spaces, life looks different. When people get sick, they are cared for. Sometimes people are even healed. Imagine one evening a person with severe shingles is prayed for in the presence of the risen Christ, and is healed. People who know him are astounded. And some are drawn to this Christ. And once again the Lord adds to their number day by day those who are being saved.
Out of this “Increase Density” approach comes a renewal of witness. Witness happens when a way of life takes shape among a group of people. In that way of life together, realities are made possible in his power and presence. And people are amazed. And the Lord adds to their number day by day those who are being saved.
AS WE LOOK TO THE FUTURE
There will be challenges ahead no matter how we navigate church life coming out of COVID-19. Following the “Increase Density” approach to renewal will surely test the survival instincts of most pastors and church leaders. How will we manage the mortgages on our buildings? How will we meet the payroll for staff that serves the church? How will we shape a vision for church as life together with Christ in this new world?
As I have listened to pastors and staff, they are being forced to broach these subjects with their congregations. They’re starting to have conversations they could never have imagined a year ago. Should we repurpose our building, develop new relationships and revenue streams for users of the building, should we even sell our building and rethink our organization as a whole? Should we think about shifting our staff, over a three year horizon, to co-vocational models of leadership, where our pastoral staff takes on other jobs to generate income, creating new relational networks, yet still able to devote 15 to 20 hours a week cultivating a church that can live the Christian life in our neighborhoods? Instead of producing high-quality services to Christians as our singular goal, let’s explore spending our time equipping leaders to gather fellowships in the neighborhoods, discern the presence of the risen Lord at work in the places we live?
These are the kinds of conversations, it seems, COVID-19 is calling us to.
KEEP ON CULTIVATING THE SOIL FOR THE RENEWAL
This past year many churches have been forced to shut down the big weekly gatherings. We’ve been forced to go online. We’ve been forced to organize church in smaller groups of 10 or less. Furthermore, as the worship gatherings have gone online, it’s taking more commitment to actually be with each other in smaller groups, engage others in our neighborhoods. Meanwhile many pastors, elders, leaders and Christians have persevered in the tedious day-to-day work of cultivating relational engagements with one-on-one phone calls and Zoom meetings.
We’ve had to pray for one another through Zoom calls, find places to meet safely with 6-foot social distancing. We’ve had to connect those struggling financially with help. We’ve had to connect those with depression to a lifeline connection or a phone call. It’s been long, hard, sometimes desolate work.
And now we’re tired and wondering what comes on the other side. How much smaller will our congregations be when all this is over?
Let us recognize that we’ve been cultivating the soil for a renewal. A deep hunger for fellowship and being together has been growing among a smaller group of people. Smaller, closer, denser social spaces are being seeded, an increased density of believers for the future renewal of the church. These groups are keeping the embers glowing, preparing for the time when Jesus can ignite the flame.
So, keep on making the phone calls. Keep on organizing the small social spaces that shall seed the flames of renewal, those groups that meet safely to read Scripture, interact, encourage one another, pray and engage neighbors in need in an interpersonal, safe way. Keep on provoking people to look in on our neighbors, pray for those who are hurting, lonely and depressed. Keep nurturing the meeting of those small in-person gatherings, gathered in some safe way around a firepit, or in a large space distanced. Let us pray for the poor, help with the food drives, help those who live close to get to the vaccine when it’s available. Cultivate the seeds that become the stick of dynamite that will explode an awakening that will engage the world’s injustices, break the chains of racism, renew broken relationships of all kinds, when we are finally coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This will not be wasted time. Out of this time will come a remnant that God will use to renew the church in North America.
*For a helpful guide to reshaping the church for mission see David Fitch’s new book What is the Church? (Herald Press, 2021).