A Letter of Encouragement to My Brothers and Sisters in Ministry
As Told to Jessica Hanewinckel
Dear Fellow Church Leaders,
It’s been a rough year and a half.
But when the pandemic began, I was honestly a little bit excited. By nature, I am (as I think most pastors are) optimistic. It seemed like a paradigm shifter. I compared it to how the U.S. emerged from the Great Depression. It wasn’t necessarily FDR’s New Deal. It was that the U.S. was forced to build factories for World War II, and after the war was over, they became the vehicle for massive economic growth. So I thought, That’s what’s going to happen to the church during this time. I hoped it would ratchet up this idea that our people need to be capable leaders who are able to multiply the church at a micro level.
I’d been saying for the previous two years that we need to no longer be satisfied with the common definition of maturity in the church—you know a lot about the Bible, you don’t get divorced, you vote pro-life and you memorize Scripture. That’s not the goal. The goal is that we want to be able to drop off our members in any city in the world, and if there’s not a church there, they know how to gather in small groups of people, essentially planting a church the way we see happening in the book of Acts.
Raising Up Everyday Leaders
At The Summit Church, we had about 12,000 people meeting in 12 locations, but I told our congregation as the pandemic began, we’re going to be 12,000 people meeting in 2,500 locations, and a lot of you are going to become that kind of church leader. Because we couldn’t gather in person, we needed people who were going to oversee getting together in small groups on the weekends, to play a pastoral kind of role in seeing people connected and discipled.
Some of that did happen. We had about 200 new people step up into that space and gather new people from their neighborhood who didn’t go to church previously. We probably had 500 or so groups that were meeting on the weekend like that during the pandemic. Sending has always been a huge part of our church, and that’s what I think gave us those leaders who stepped up. Over the last decade, we’ve tried to inculcate into our people a love of sending. We’ve emphasized the fact that church success isn’t measured by seating capacity but by sending capacity. The goal is not a large group of people who are basking in the anointing and gifting of a few select individuals. The greatness of the church is realized in new leaders and ordinary Christians being raised up in the power of the Spirit and leading in the spheres God has given them.
The DNA of Replication
When you look at the early church, you find some of the most incredible growth without any of the things we say are necessary for growth. Rodney Stark, co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, says the maximum number of Christians at the end of the first century was about 7,500. That’s not a lot. The apostles, at this point, were all dead, and they left 7,500 people, so we need to get out of our minds the image of them preaching to these huge stadiums and people getting saved by the boatloads. But what happened in the next 200 years is you had so many people in the Roman Empire and around the world identifying as Christian that Constantine converted to Christianity for political reasons. How did they go from 7,500 to over half the Roman Empire becoming Christian? It was the DNA of replication at the lowest levels.
They didn’t have money, stadiums, any of that. Every member and every church understood it was their responsibility to multiply. In Acts 11, you’re seeing ordinary Christians planting churches. They didn’t call a mission board to plant a church. They did it. And because of that, it kept multiplying. I’ve felt like COVID-19 has been a time where those values have been more greatly inculcated into our people, though we’ve yet to see how effective it was. I don’t want to overstate our success, so I’m being really guarded until more time has passed for us to really see the extent of that.
A Renewed Vision
There is a sense, at least to me, that everything is starting over again. I’ve been spending a lot of time saying, Lord, I need you to reteach me this vision. It is said that the thing D.L. Moody prayed for pastors was that God would renew their commission, that initial calling, so they would have as much energy in their current stage as they had in previous ones. That’s kind of what I’ve been feeling. Maybe if I hadn’t been through a year where everything was different, I wouldn’t sense that need so acutely, but I do now. And because of the past year, a lot of people feel like it must mean they need to transition, like they don’t sense that excitement. The excitement comes from tasting it and seeing it, so if you aren’t excited about your church, it’s because you haven’t been at your church in a normal way in a while. So I would encourage you not to look at that feeling as God leading you somewhere else, but that you need a renewal of your vision, of your commission.
We don’t have a lot of models to understand what is happening right now. That makes me cautious to make any big changes. God might call you away from your church to somewhere else, but give that some time. I’m really hesitant to declare victories and losses yet because I just don’t know. It might take three or four years, so I don’t want to make major life decisions I’m really unsure about. Let’s just slow this thing down and persevere through it together.
Be Still and Watch
Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations.” In quarantine we had no choice but to be still. People love to put the first part of that verse on a coffee cup, because it makes you feel sentimental. But the second part, “I will be exalted among the nations,” is a reminder that God is going to get stuff done. He’s saying, I’m going to build the church to impact the nations, so when you be still, watch what I’m doing. I’m still leaning in pretty heavily on that.
When you look through the book of Acts, you don’t find a lot of times when the church felt as if they had it all together. The whole leadership got decimated in one afternoon. They were all scattered everywhere and the apostles didn’t even go with them. It looked like chaos, like the death of the church. But what you see is that when they felt like they weren’t in charge, the Spirit of God was doing his best work. And Psalm 46:10 tells us that. Throughout Acts they had to be still as things were chaotic and God was building his church. He’s doing the same thing today, and I think you can just rest in that. I told our staff we need to look at this like relaunching our church. We took everything off the table and only put it back on the table if God wanted it there. We prayed through it.
Our Finest Hour
I love that scene in the movie Apollo 13 in which they’re trying to bring back to Earth the crippled spacecraft, and the NASA director says to Chief Flight Director Gene Kranz, “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever experienced.” And Kranz, played by Ed Harris, replies, “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.” I kind of feel like that.
We look at the last year and a half and think, This is a disaster. No, I think this is going to be our finest hour, because the Spirit of God is doing a lot of new things. He’s putting a lot of new giftings and capabilities into the church and into pastors. Those things are going to come to the surface, and we’re going to look back and say this was one of the greatest chapters that none of us ever wanted to go through, but it was our Acts 7 and 8. The storm decimated the community and the church, but look what the Spirit of God did—he did a new thing. And maybe he’s taking us back to Acts, when the church multiplied faster than anyone thought possible.
What if we got back to those New Testament roots, where the DNA of multiplication is at the lowest levels? What if that’s what God is doing in our own age of chaos that lets us accomplish things we’ve tried unsuccessfully to achieve for the last 100 years?
Just imagine what that would look like.
Your Brother in Christ,
Pastor, The Summit Church
Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina