The church works best when it’s decentralized and missional.
COVID-19 PERSPECTIVE: Hugh Halter
Author, Marketplace Ministry Consultant
February 27—What a bummer for those folks over there in China. I hope it doesn’t get over here.
March 1—Wow, this thing is spreading, but I’m sure our government has plans to keep us safe.
March 2—I think I’ll wash my hands a bit more often.
March 3—I’m not watching the news today.
March 4—Wow, they have people trapped off the coast of San Francisco in quarantine.
March 5—I google “pandemic” and it’s not comforting.
March 11—I wake up to a text from a friend, “What is happening?” I turn on the news and the NBA has cancelled the season!
March 12—Oh, crap! The Players championship is cancelled. Then the Masters is postponed. Then I cancel our cruise to Alaska in May.
March 13—Facebook posts about how thousands of churches are trying to figure out how to hold Sunday gatherings via the internet because it’s impossible to have large gatherings and keep people safe at the same time.
March 14—The eve of the first Sunday where tens of thousands of churches stopped public gatherings.
March15—The Free Market Church officially, unconsciously, ubiquitously starts and the world and the church will never be the same.
Would you ever have thought that in two weeks’ time we’d go from (church) business as usual to less than 10% of all American churches having a Sunday service?
Would you ever have thought that in one weekend, 100% of the church leaders in our country would be wondering if their ministry, their church, their livelihood, their methodology and their physical lives could stand up to this heat?
Like the 103 degree fever that lets you know you’re in trouble, the heat from this virus has exposed our collective ecclesial frameworks and has found them wanting. Like chaff that burns up to reveal, so this crisis has revealed that Sunday-centric, paid-pastor led church cannot adequately handle the scope of human needs or the searching for hope the world “out there” is looking for.
Did God start this virus? Probably not, but in his great mercy he is giving it a length of leash required to force us to decentralize this movement we call Christianity. The church just changed. It’s not a debatable issue anymore. It will never be the same.
Are all churches struggling? No, in fact if we understand and believe the reports that half the American church has already been decentralized into house churches then only half the church is struggling. “Where is the missional movement?” so many have asked the last five years? Well, the real answer is that the missional church, with decentralized form, is alive and well. Like cockroaches to the coronavirus, we know how to navigate and even prosper among the rubble. We already know how to live off the meager scraps. We are everywhere and we’re healthier now than ever before.
That morning, March 15th, I drove over to a home where one of our faith communities was gathering. We didn’t give any instructions; no one had to prepare much to say. We ate, talked and then eventually moved into a living room and shared our hearts, read Scripture, encouraged one another, talked about how we could serve our town, and then we prayed. No money necessary, no stress, no planning and very little leadership required. And it was beautiful and something I look forward to next week if we’re allowed to gather at all.
Rinse repeat, just like we’ve been doing for the last two years, since we moved to this new city.
But this story is not new to us. We’ve been living this way for almost 20 years now. We burned the ship of consumer, Sunday-centric Christianity almost a quarter century ago and now our own adult children who live within six blocks of us are leading the same type of life and church as they grew up in. They continue it because they know no other form of church.
The Lagging 50%
So what about the existing church? Most of my work as a consultant is working with these. They are led by good-hearted, kind, sincere and humble leaders who have been asking:
• How do we move away from consumer church to real disciples?
• How do we change our small groups into true missionary communities?
• How do we move from needing so much money to needing far less?
• What role do I play as an equipper instead of as a doer for everyone?
• What are the new ways to sustain some funding that will hold a movement together?
• What does it mean to gather God’s people anymore? Is it central? Or is there something else?
These are the honest questions, and you’ll notice in the coming days people offering simple answers to get back on track. Don’t waste your time. God is asking us to ask the bigger questions, and he’s asking us to make bigger shifts than we’ve ever made before.
If I’m honest, I haven’t had much hope for the church to make the transition because I know people will always take the path of least resistance. Thus, they will only be as creative as they need to be. They will only make the sacrifices necessary to barely move the dial forward.
But Sunday the 15th of March, everyone had to face the music even if it wasn’t even playing anymore in our sanctuaries. That day the church stopped on a dime, but time will tell if it turned on a dime. Regardless, it lost trillions of dimes and the loss of money will be the single most powerful inertia of true change. Creativity is always born of some real misery and in the first week I heard so many great new stories.
On March 17 I was fortunate to be on a webinar with New York City pastors and planters and encouraged to hear a pastor of a 300-person congregation move it from Sunday-centric to 12 neighborhood communities in just four months’ time. Others were megachurch pastors sharing how they creatively crafted, downloaded, webinar-based or livestreamed their services. I heard people who used Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon’s methods of doing a teaching from their bathtubs, or churches picking 10% of their church homes for spontaneous breakfast churches. I also heard many say, like us, “Yeah, nothing really different happened on that day. We’ve been doing church like this for years.”
Creativity was released in so many forms because small tweaks or minor adjustments wouldn’t pay the piper or pay the bills anymore. People were moved into radically new forms, new experiences, new tensions and thus new growth.
So herein lies the great opportunity that many will miss. Herein lies the lie we’ve been sold, the bill of goods that no longer cashes at the bank. Here we are forced to pick a side. We can either try to prop up church as usual or we can lean into the frigid winds of change. We can circle the wagons, ride it out and hope we can reload Sunday-only church or we can release, send, equip and encourage a decentralized movement of missionary ninja cockroaches! We can either keep not inspiring the world or we can finally be the counterculture, deeply embedded change agents, that salt, light and a city on a hill require.
We need a new thought. We need to settle one issue.
Here it is.
Church is a free market.
It shouldn’t cost anything at all. In Matthew 16 Jesus gives us the free keys to the kingdom. In Acts 1 and 2 we are given the free ministry of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. In the rest of the book of Acts we are given the substructure, or frameworks, of ecclesial gatherings (home) which also are free of charge. Then in Ephesians 4 we understand that God has freely given us gifts that hold the church together, propel us into mission—and he calls that maturity.
So if the kingdom DNA is free, the church environments are free, the ministries and gifts are free, then maybe church should be a free market church.
Read more COVID-19 Perspectives from pastors and church leaders.