The metric of our success should be the depth of discipleship cultivated in our people.
COVID-19 PERSPECTIVE: Peyton Jones
Church Planting Trainer and Author
At a time when our nation is on lockdown for the coronavirus, I’m holed up writing a textbook. It truly feels like I’m fiddling as Rome burns. I’ve always been in the wrong place at the wrong time. When 9/11 hit, and the Passion film came out in this country, I was overseas and missed the opportunity to act. As I’m between church plants finishing up a manifesto of training the next generation of planters, I wanted to share my observations with the current generation of leaders.
This will be the road mark of a momentous epoch of history, and like 9/11 changed everything going forward, things will be different from now on. Like the space shuttle Challenger disaster for my generation, and the duck and cover drills during the Cold War, this will be as pivotal a memory in the minds of my children forever. It will also be a pivotal time for the church to reexamine what church really is. I’ve been asking church planters for years to define what they would do to reach their communities if they could do anything but throw a Sunday service.
Sadly, I’ve seen the energy go into running the Sunday show remotely as if spiritual input were a streaming service like Netflix or Disney+. When the ship is sinking, all of the rats will run upwards to the last available dry spot. What I’m asking leaders to do is to jump into the water before the ship goes down. Some of us have been diving for years.
At this time, more than any other, I believe that the weaknesses of the Western church are being exposed. Allow me to quote a small portion of my last book, Reaching the Unreached: Becoming Raiders of the Lost Art, where I write, not to leaders, but to the believers everywhere.
Reaching the Unreached
“We’ve been expecting our church services to be the witnesses when we were told that we ourselves would be his witnesses. For decades the church bombarded the enemy with powerful mortars, like a massive battleship, while we safely stood on deck behind the armored plating, swabbing the decks and doing other church chores. That worked great in the ’80s, but in case you haven’t heard, the ’80s were over a quarter of a century ago. Those days are done. That’s why those battle tactics won’t work anymore, and it’s time to regroup.
“Reaching the unreached in the years to come will require people to infiltrate communities like Navy SEAL teams. Our military brass entrusts some of our most critical missions to SEAL teams because they can perform extractions where naval battleships fail. In the case of reaching the unreached, the splinter cell approach is the right tool for the job. The average believer can infiltrate enemy territory throughout the week with the stealth of an airborne ranger, duck-dive over the railings and plunge into the deep. If immersion into hostile waters is an occupational requirement of being a Navy SEAL, we’ve been unable to accomplish the mission because we’ve been afraid to get our feet wet. Just being you, filled with Christ will bring you many more conversations and experiences to proclaim Christ than seeking out a ‘mission.’
“Stories have piled up about communities changed by small unassuming everyday believers discovering new and innovative ways of connecting with individuals as they blunder into mission. Big doors turn on small hinges. Tugboats turn tankers. Splinter cells can win wars. We’re in a different kind of battle, where individual guerrilla tactics make you a fast moving, light footed, low to the ground reconnaissance weapon of witness. You won’t be effective in big numbers in the future. You won’t need the heavy artillery. You’re perfect for the job in a way that your church never will be. No matter what we do, no matter how many programs we launch, stadiums we fill or outreaches we put on, statistics from LifeWay Research tell us that 60% of the unchurched American populace will never come to church. Period. It’s up to you. There is no cavalry riding over the hill, no big guns, no backup ground support, no rescue team coming.
The COVID-19 Pop Quiz
Ministry according to Ephesians 4 says that the gifting of the church with apostles, teachers, evangelists, prophets and shepherds, is about “equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry.” That means that when something like COVID-19 hits, leaders should be thinking of it as a pop quiz to measure how effectively they’ve been discipling their congregations. Now is the time for the church to shine. Even on lockdown.
Our members can display peace in the midst of panic.
They can model sacrifice in contrast to the survival instincts of the hoarders.
They can keep hope lit as a beacon to those who are adrift and tossed by every wave of social media madness.
Perhaps it’s our people who should be instructed how to take meetings online. Maybe our people should be trained to gather online community groups on their street, and act as counselors. Perhaps all those years in small groups, where they learned to use their gifts, and get on mission … oh … wait … I see the problem.
We’ve kept them too busy watching the show all these years. About 10 years ago, I wrote a book called Church Zero. You either loved or hated it. Some thought I was being a bit too harsh, but as a firefighter and RN I’ve been in life or death situations where people were dying and bleeding out, and sometimes to save a life, you might need to hurt somebody’s feelings and bark a bit. If this hurts your feelings, or makes you mad, think about where the anger should lie. Like De Niro’s character said in Ronin, “You’re either part of the problem, part of the solution or part of the landscape.”
Here is that quote:
“It all comes down to this operating principle: We’ve gotta keep ’em by playing to the crowds and entertaining the masses with clever homilies or they’ll leave. They’ve already begun to leave—we just haven’t been paying attention. As a result of the valuable time, attention and resources wasted on empire building over the last two decades, church planters are now having to reclaim the defecting prodigals while expanding the kingdom outward. The late great Larry Norman once challenged America that it had starved its children to beat the Russians to the moon. Our churches got to the moon, but where are the youth? I realize this is a tough pill to swallow, but I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes. When I left this country in 1999, the youth were still around. Now we’re lucky if we can keep the church kids. Research says that 90% of them end up leaving after watching our shenanigans.
“There is coming a time when the parents are going to ask the spiritual leaders in this country some blunt, serious and difficult questions: Why did our kids leave? Why didn’t you address it? Why didn’t you stop it? Of course, the churches will lay blame at the feet of the parents and say that it started at home, but the parents will respond, ‘You were supposed to be leading us as we led our families.’ The fact is, we didn’t give a rip about their families—just crowds. Getting more families to the drive-thru window of our churches just meant that we got to supersize our order.
“And today’s youth see right through us. They see our big buildings as money-making machines raking in millions of dollars, and they’re disgusted. In the book The Millennials, an unchurched girl named Rebecca said, ‘The boomers give money to the church, but it comes right back to them to keep them content. They hire the staff to do the ministry they won’t do. … That’s not New Testament Christianity. That’s a religious social club.
“Some pastors have been playing the game for so long that they feel unable to leave their pulpits for too long to help new gospel initiatives because the church has become a personality cult about them. Because they don’t occasionally share the pulpit with four other roles, people demand that Pinocchio dance for them every Sunday, and as long as people keep throwing the gold coins on stage, they keep dancing. Sadly, if they’d discipled others, they would have been expendable like Paul, with an apostolic backup team at their disposal. Paul could leave a church at a moment’s notice, as he had to in the case of Thessalonica and other churches he planted.
“If there isn’t an arsenal of discipled guys waiting to take to the skies to plant and others to hold the fort down, it’s because the leader has neglected his duty to train up men who are also able to teach others. When the church fixes its eyes upon leaders as the Corinthians did—‘I follow Paul’ or ‘I follow Apollos’ or ‘I follow Cephas’ (1 Cor. 1:12)—it’s taken its eyes off of the crucified Christ. It’s unbiblical for leaders to allow it and carnal to enjoy it. When Corinth became enamored with personalities, Paul’s antidote to Satan’s snakebite was to administer the antivenom of looking to Jesus ‘crucified for you’ (v. 13). When people get their eyes focused back on Jesus and the cross, it eliminates most of our problems in Churchianity.
“I’ve got a theory that if you attempted church reform, you’d lose about 90% of your people. That’s why most pastors will never do it. Good riddance, I say—let their butts darken somebody else’s pews as they exercise the gift of sitting. If you unloaded the burden of the dead wood, as in Jesus’s pruning illustration, you’d really begin to channel sap into the concentrated areas where it would create greater fruitfulness.”
Good for the Church?
Many have said that this crisis will be good for the church. Somehow they feel that the church will sacrifice meeting in the building, and that going online is a step forwards. My friends, it’s a step backwards. The worst part is that as long as the show can still go on, leaders have hope that the online giving can keep the institution afloat. If you’re paying attention, you’ll know that the first thing that the mind of ministers went to was “how to still focus on us.” The first “emergency” in the mind of ministers was how to still watch the show because after all, “The show must go on!”
Why must it?
I hope that the answer truly isn’t to keep the coins showering up onto the stage while you dance. My hope is that you see this as a sending out the 72 moment in the history of your church.
Of course, some churches have been doing this already.
The metric of our success should be the depth of discipleship cultivated in our people. I’ve been seeing reports of people buying groceries for their elderly neighbors. Churches are buying groceries for the poor in the community, bagging them up, and allowing the church to serve as a relief center, still maintaining social distances. Toilet paper is being emptied from the stores of the churches that are no longer meeting, and the local community is being invited to get three rolls per household.
In all of this, perhaps the most disturbing part is that leaders have formed the nasty habit of always trying to have the answers for everything. Maybe right now is the time to stop being Yoda, as if lived 900 years you have, and know about coronavirus and quarantine you do. I have some words of wisdom. Lived through this anymore than the rest of us, you have not. Now is the time to simply mourn with those who mourn, to be someone who listens to the fears and anxieties of the people around us that we are called to reach.
I have no issue with you taking your services online. Heck, I sent out some advice from a friend of mine who could help with some guidelines, but I also included some wisdom, comfort and solace from the writings of C.S. Lewis who focused the people back on God, and as a result I received more thank-yous than I have in years.
People are scared. They are helpless and harassed, like sheep without a shepherd. Think about that last part.
They don’t give a rip about your shows. They don’t care right now that the church survives and can pay the bills. They’re worried about what this means for their families. They are scared for their kids. The question I’m asking you is, Have you even noticed? Have you listened? Did you assume that they needed your 30 minutes of worship played to an empty room, and broadcast like it was business as usual? They need your preaching of the gospel, but not the 30- to 40-minute message preached like it was business as usual.
And that’s because you were scared. You were scared of losing this thing you’ve built. You were scared that it may all come falling down, like the taco shop down the street that may close its doors permanently. And to be frank, you looked scared to me last weekend, when you were begging people in emails and online to give, watch, share.
I have news for you.
That’s not what they need.
You were singing the wrong words to the tune everyone else was hearing.
What they needed was for you to be shepherds right now; shepherds who put the needs of the sheep first; shepherds who will glorify the chief shepherd, and not try to get the attention back on yourself.
Our appearance obsessed culture is just so far out of whack, that the perfectly fit pastors with tanning salon celebrity glow and designer duds have led to you act just like a rock star for so long that perhaps you’ve forgotten this very important lesson. It’s not about you. It never should have been.
From Reaching the Unreached:
“In the ’90s, our megachurches were at the tapering end of their growth spurt, and had begun to plateau. We just didn’t realize it. There was another growth spurt in 2001 after 9/11 hit, as people came through our doors looking for answers. They quickly dispersed after they discerned we didn’t have anything that reached beyond Sunday mornings. After all, most of the emphasis in leadership circles was based on ‘making your Sunday service better.’ The seekers and visitors didn’t care for our meetings, because they quickly deduced that our meetings didn’t care for them.”
I would venture to say that there are a few things I’ve noticed are always present:
1. Keep giving to us.
2, Keep watching us.
3. Keep following us.
Here are some things that are conspicuously absent:
1. A call to prayer.
2. A focus on Christ himself.
Prayer and Scattering
I know it’s not my place to act the prophet, but I think that this time of isolation should be spent with God, in a room, on our knees in prayer. Perhaps there is some repenting that we must all do before God. I mean, he has our attention right now, doesn’t he? We are a captive audience, are we not?
Don’t you think it ironic that the only person you’ve probably heard a call to prayer from was the president? What happened to all of our spiritual leaders? I guess they were busy figuring out how to keep the show running.
Be careful leaders, the world is watching. They are watching what you are saying, and they’re also taking note of what you’re not saying.
Jesus warned the religious leaders of his day, who went on with their religious shows yet neglected him that, “I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”
I believe that God is going to bring revival during our lifetime, but I also believe that this is one of the ways that he chiefly does it. The scattering of the church through Saul’s persecution of it led to “the gospel going throughout all the region” in Acts 11:19–21: “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”
Do you know why? Because they were discipled well in Jerusalem. Remember those believers in Acts 2:42, the passage we love to quote, but never live? The passage about revival? These believers were full of faith and full of the Holy Spirit—but they were also discipled extremely well. If they got scattered, everywhere they went the gospel went out and people came to faith.
Leaders, that should have been your goal up to this point. This should have been what you’ve been wanting to see in the church.
Perhaps your ministry needs to change. Perhaps this is the time for the sending of the 72. Perhaps this is when you encourage your people to host community groups with their neighbors online, setting up an online block party every week.
In it they share:
1. What have you been doing to keep busy?
2. What have you been reading? (Bring a quote.)
3. What have you been watching? (Maybe we could have a film club.)
4. What are you learning?
5. What has inspired you this week?
Those last two questions will be the ones where your people will shine. They will share readings from C.S. Lewis, Scripture or anything else that God is using to lead them with. This will allow your people to be the person of peace on your street.
What I’m asking you to do is to empower them to lead house churches, to start up core teams with unbelievers. This is what I did for years in Europe. This is first century mission, and quite frankly, this is the first century definition of success. Like the 72 who were sent out, your people will learn to fully depend on the Holy Spirit as they engage in mission during a time of crisis. They will learn why prayer is important. They will learn the lesson of Matthew 10 when Jesus gave the instructions to the 72 before sending them out. They will learn to depend fully upon him as they boldly embark on mission. This is the time we’ve been waiting for. This is the time we should have been preparing for.
Starting in April, I went to work for Exponential as content director. This year’s theme is “Empowered,” and will focus on releasing believers on mission in the power of the Holy Spirit. On the very first podcast I did for the Reproducing Churches Podcast with Exponential co-founder Todd Wilson, he said something that rocked me, and made me proud to be working with them. He said, “Exponential’s goal is to mobilize the number of churches that reproduce in North America from 4% to 10%. My goal is to hit the tipping point, so that when that happens, Exponential isn’t needed anymore.”
Brothers and sisters, this should be our attitude in the churches we lead. We should be striving to ensure that they don’t need us, rather than panicking that they may have to go a Sunday without hearing our voice in a microphone or seeing our beautiful faces on stage. We should be hoping that they’ve moved beyond the bottle-feeding, and are ready to engage on mission at times such as this. As Yoda said in The Last Jedi, “We are what they grow beyond.” Having that goal, and measuring that as success is the true test of a leader’s worth.
Read more COVID-19 Perspectives from pastors and church leaders.