Welcome to the Wilderness

This new season will require churches to pivot quickly to remain resilient.

COVID-19 PERSPECTIVE: Alan Briggs

Stay Forth Designs

I was with 60 kingdom influencers in the mountains when we realized COVID-19 was upending how we do life. And church, of course. Over a few hours the stress meter steadily rose. The world began spinning faster. We prayed for each other. Some checked updates constantly. Others filmed videos sharing next steps with their church. Others scrambled to cancel conferences and upcoming events. We discussed how this might affect schools, families and businesses as we swayed in our rocking chairs. It felt right to process it all together.

Over the blur of weeks since that moment I’ve been in checking in with a scores of leaders. I’m sure you have, too. I coach leaders in church, nonprofit, business, sports and medical spaces. The new normal has changed for every one of them. They have all lost something. After all, change is loss before it is opportunity. As they are trying to grieve the very real things they have lost they have to activate forward and make hard calls.

The word I keep hearing from leaders is pivot. This is a common word in basketball. When the defender blocks one direction, the offender pivots the other direction on one foot. It opens up new angles and possibilities. It may give you a better opportunity to score than you had before. It’s Plan B in motion. It’s movement in a different direction, not a dead end.

Every church has pivoted. This season has changed how we gather, pray, worship, study, give, connect, communicate and celebrate. Many are saying, “The church has changed forever.” I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I sense it’s true. But amidst the lost lives, lost dreams and lost opportunities from the coronavirus beautiful things have squeezed their way out of the cracks.

LIMITATION BREEDS INNOVATION

Limitation breeds innovation. The less we can do the more creative we must get. Somewhere down deep we believe excess creates creativity—If we just had enough money, staff or time we would launch that. It sounds right, but that’s not how it works. In hours and days churches pivoted to launch innovations that would’ve taken months or years. Urgency can be a wonderful thing. So can limits.

The first wave of change in churches was about recreating gatherings. Through a screen, many stages looked identical to their weekly gathering, minus anyone in the chairs, of course. But as stay-at-home orders increased teams embraced a completely different feel; living rooms and tables became altars. It added a dose of courage when TV hosts began broadcasting from their living rooms also. Then the true innovation began. New ways of interacting and connecting popped up; Zoom prayer rooms, drive-through communion, family Easter services on the couch, live Q&A and digital small groups. And my personal favorite, some churches even went back to an old school phone chain.

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EFFICIENT OR RESILIENT?

A futurist I know (yeah, cool title) worked with prominent leaders from major corporations for many years predicting how kinks in “life as usual” create kinks in organizations. He shared about two very different types of organizations; efficient organizations and resilient organizations. Efficient organizations rely on mechanistic models that are highly tuned to the current environment, and when a shift arrives they are brittle. They are struggling right now. While every organization needs efficiency the ones winning the day are resilient organizations. These organizations are built around ecosystems, not just systems, and have redundancy so the organization can survive these changes.

Look at these definitions of resilient.

a : capable of withstanding shock without permanent deformation or rupture

b: tending to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

Shock. Misfortune. Change. Those words resonate deeply right now at gut level for the CEO, the stay-at-home dad turned teacher, the small business owner and the pastor. Human behavior translates if our lives are tuned to listen for it. But language and leadership both require context. Words and decisions don’t always have a direct translation. The church is a community, not a corporation. And each church is unique, so each church will have to pivot uniquely. We’ve gone off the paved path, and we’ve been invited into the wilderness. We are not strolling; we are route finding. We need to trade in our flip-flops for hiking boots.

Don’t forget Jesus was no stranger to the wilderness. He slipped away to the wilderness to detox from demands, expectations and notoriety to reconnect with the Father. John Mark Comer reminds us, “The wilderness isn’t the place of weakness, it’s the place of strength.” Welcome to the wilderness, friends.

In this hour we need resilient churches led by resilient leaders. David Kinnaman says, “The Christian community in North America does not need stronger leaders; we need more resilient leaders.” Strength helps us prepare, resilience helps us pivot. More change and misfortune are on the way. For some church leaders resilience meant laying off staff early, for others it meant finding a way not to. For some it meant giving immediately to community needs, for others it meant holding their reserves to serve the community in the fall. There aren’t smooth paths in the wilderness.

My futurist friend was quick to share: there aren’t just two cut-and-dry categories. It’s never that easy. He talked about a third category of organizations who have some extra space and time to adapt. Whether they have prepared well or not people will give them the benefit of the doubt, because people are so connected to them. They bring purpose and meaning. David Brooks calls these “thick organizations”. Employees wait as long as they possibly can to get paid because they were more than a job; they an ecosystem of meaning. They are family, not a following.

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If we can take a moment to zoom out and breathe there is good news; Jesus’ church is the more resilient organism on the earth. It’s been around for a few thousand years, and it will last forever. It’s been fraught with struggle and it’s proved sturdy over countless pivots. Eugene Peterson reminds us, “The way of faith is not a fad that is taken up in one century only to be discarded in the next. It lasts. It is a way that works. It has been tested thoroughly.” The church may not be efficient, but she is resilient.

QUESTIONS FOR THE WILDERNESS

Can we guarantee your church will make it four more months? Four more years? Forty more years? Nope. There’s no stimulus package for that. But the church will continue to adapt to change and misfortune. If we are called to serve and lead within the church part of our job description is leaving the safe confines of the smooth path and navigating the wilderness. Plans are good, but they change in the wilderness.

The wilderness has more questions than it does answers. Like Jesus, a man strengthened by the wilderness, we need to become known for asking questions quickly and answering them slowly.

When will life feel normal again? Let’s see.

What will the new normal be for each church community? Not sure.

What is the role of technology when we can gather in proximity again? Every church will decide.

Will this create deeper hunger for proximity (dare I say physical touch?!?) or an unhealthy dependence on technology? I have no idea.

What will have to die in each leader and church in order to move into this new future? Ask the Almighty.

This is a moment to hold the questions in tension and seek the Father. Our plans were blocked, and it’s time to pivot. The path was nice, but the wilderness is our only option. God put you in place to lead your family, your team or your church for a reason; keep shepherding. Pray. And pivot.

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