I need you to use your imagination with me today.
But first, let me paint a picture.
Just a few months ago, most of our churches were tracking along as usual. We had lots of events, a big central program every weekend that we put most of our energy into, and our usual Sabbath Schools, prayer meetings, etc.
Then, along came the pandemic. All of a sudden, our churches could no longer function. Big programs, events, and gatherings were canceled. In a short space of time, our entire church experience was flipped upside down. We did our best to adjust and recreate the local church experience online. Some of us did pretty well, but it wasn’t the same. Bigger churches without small groups had to scramble to find ways to keep people connected. The big programs and gatherings that have for so long formed the nucleus of the church experience disappeared. And despite the fact that some folk got creative, the general trend remains the same: our churches have gone into hibernation. We’ve kept a few key things going digitally, but outreach, evangelism, discipleship – all of it basically went into sleep mode.
In a few month’s time, our churches will open up again. As COVID-19 becomes a distant memory many of us will return to doing church after the pandemic the same way we did it before—big centralized programs, a frail small groups ministry at best, no discipleship pathways or digital presence and a resurgence of program, after program, after program.
Here is where I want you to use your imagination.
Now here is where I want you to use your imagination. Imagine your church has bounced back to its pre-pandemic patterns. All of its programs and structures are back in place. The hibernation has ended and all your energetic and committed people (about 10% of your church) are back to volunteering their time and energy into the many events and programs. Then, a few years down the track a new pandemic arises, and the entire church-shutdown repeats. Another year of hibernation. Another giant pause on effective evangelism, discipleship, and mission. Another scramble to readjust and survive. Another 6-12 months spent trying to find your balance instead of building the kingdom.
After some time, the new pandemic also fades. Things go back to the status quo. Then a few years later another pandemic hits. And once again, the church goes into its shell—struggling to find ways to keep itself together instead of continuing to thrive.
In other words imagine this: an age in which the church is moving forward about as effectively as a kid learning to drive a stick-shift. Jolting onward, only to halt again and again and again as the catastrophes that surround us continue to render everything we do altogether pointless. What does this scenario do to your heart? How does it make you feel? What thoughts come to mind as you imagine what can very possibly be the future of your world and church?
See, here is the big problem I see in the church-conversation right now. Everyone keeps talking about the post-pandemic church, myself included. Now, the problem with this conversation, I have discovered, is that it assumes that we are going from the present pandemic and moving into a post-pandemic world. But what if we aren’t? What if instead of a post-pandemic world, we are actually about to enter a poly-pandemic age? That is, an age marked by an increase in the frequency and impact of infectious diseases on both a local and global scale?
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), “epidemics will become more common with our increasingly connected age.” In their 2019 report “Outbreak Readiness and Business Impact: Protecting Lives and Livelihoods across the Global Economy” (In collaboration with Harvard Global Health Institute), the WEF makes the following sobering claims:
“Several powerful global trends are at the basis of increased frequency of disease outbreaks. Among them is growth in travel, trade and connectivity. An outbreak can travel from a remote village to any major city in the world in less than 36 hours, and the economic or social disruption often travels faster and further. Additionally, the growth of urbanization and associated high-density living, often in unhygienic conditions, promotes the spread of infectious disease.”— World Economic Forum
“The frequency and diversity of disease outbreaks are expected to grow steadily.”— World Economic Forum
“Recent global trends suggest the world is entering a period of increased outbreak activity”— World Economic Forum
In addition to the WEF’s warnings, the Bible also pictures an increase in global catastrophes toward the end of time with pandemics certainly being in the mix. Jesus refers to “pestilence” (Matt. 24:7) as one of the signs that we are approaching the epilogue of the human story. Revelation also refers to the presence of plagues in the last days. (Revelation 15:1, 6, 8; 16:9, 21; 18:4, 8) If this is the case, rather than heading into a post-pandemic age, we might very well be heading into a poly-pandemic age—a season of human history in which repeated pandemics, of both a local and global scale, will become the norm. As Adele Peters said in her article, “Why our shrinking natural world is increasing the pace of global pandemics,”
[W]e can expect to see more pandemics in the near future, some of which may be far deadlier than COVID-19.
Ellen White commented on the pandemics of her time this way: “This is only the beginning of what shall be.” On a separate occasion, Ellen saw visions related to the Civil war. After the scenes of pandemonium passed, she saw what she described as “a little time of peace.” But this little time was—as its description implies—short-lived. Immediately after, she once again saw that confusion, war, and “pestilence, raged everywhere.”
And it doesn’t take much observation to see this materializing before our very eyes. Just last month the World Food Programme (WFP) warned: “that 265 million people could be pushed into acute food insecurity by Covid-19, almost doubling last year’s total”. In other words, we might very well be transitioning from a viral pandemic to a hunger pandemic—what the UN has referred to as global famines of “biblical proportions”. But the situation is compounded by the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO), in their 2010 report “Communicable diseases and severe food shortage” emphatically states that “Severe food shortages are often associated with factors which increase the risk of communicable diseases…” In other words, a pandemic can cause famine and famine can, in turn, perpetuate a pandemic, or be the breeding grounds for a new one.
But let me get back to my main point.
But let me get back to my main point. In this sort of scenario, churches that focus mostly on big programs, big gatherings, and big events will find themselves having to hibernate over and over again. Because the program-centric model cannot function in the midst of a pandemic, program-driven churches will be constantly scrambling to stay afloat, struggling to keep members connected, and fighting just to maintain their regular saint-focused agenda. Discipleship will always be on the back burner. Evangelism will always be ineffectual. And outreach will always be inconsistent.
Therefore, it appears that common sense demands our churches implement permanent change, and we must do so quickly. This change would involve structural redesigns intended to facilitate discipleship, evangelism, and outreach both in moments of order and moments of chaos. This would also involve cultural changes in which church begins to materialize in ways that are sustainable and effective both in moments of normality and abnormality, where pandemics do not send us scrambling to survive but can be met with meaningful patterns and an ethos that facilitates kingdom building with or without centralized programs.
But what exactly would these changes look like? While I don’t claim to have all the answers, here are some of the thoughts floating through my head.
(1) Decentralized Spirituality. If your church wants to develop a model of ministry that is effective both in and out of pandemic scenarios, then the best route is the small group route. However, in order for this to work small groups cannot be another program tacked on to your church activities. Instead, small-groups must be the new backbone of the church. And in order to do this, you have to simplify your weekend gatherings, perhaps even lowering their frequency, cancel the vast majority of all extra events, and put as much energy as possible into developing a consistent, effective, and meaningful small group model that thrives.
This involves a whole lot more than opening some homes and picking meeting times. It involves training, a diverse structure, and a rhythm of group launches and closures among other demands. What this translates to is the decentralization of your church’s spirituality from a big gathering on the weekends, to term driven groups diverse enough to nurture Biblical knowledge, practical spiritual growth, and acts of service/ outreach.
With this kind of model in place, everyone is connected to a small group throughout the year. If a new pandemic hits, the small groups simply have to adjust a low number of people onto a digital platform and continue their work. This is 100 times easier than scrambling to connect people – most of whom no one in your church knows exist – from a giant program to a digital version of the same giant program. This model also enables discipleship, evangelism and outreach to continue with much greater ease because the structure is already in place and easily adaptable. (For more on developing effective small group structures I recommend the book, Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups by Nelson Searcy.)
(2) Glocal Consciousness. Another aspect of your church’s ministry that needs to thrive in the poly-pandemic age is its digital presence. Digital ministry enables the church to have a glocal (global+local) impact. Many of our churches were so digitally out of touch that when the pandemic hit, we didn’t know how to engage the digital world with any level of skill. We don’t know how to use our social media accounts to engage with people, most of our churches have websites that are as aesthetically repulsive as our puke-green carpets, and our live streams tend to have a slightly higher quality than an ISIS cave video. We don’t know how to develop quality content with good audio, lighting, and video quality, and we don’t have designated spaces for filming good content. In short, our digital presence is nowhere near as good as it needs to be to create the kind of content that people are willing to engage with online.
As a result, one of our priorities in the redesign needs to be the development of an innovative, culturally savvy digital presence for all our churches. A presence that actually has a place in our discipleship strategy and isn’t merely a tack-on with no intentional strategy behind it. (For info on how to run an effective digital ministry, check out digitaldisciples.info)
(3) Simplified Programs. As I mentioned in point 1, our programs need to be simplified. No more spending exorbitant amounts of energy in putting together a show that cannot function in a poly-pandemic age. I’m talking about the talented people in your church wasting their time making bulletins for the saints by chasing random people for random info to create a pile of papers that end up on the floor after your program anyways. Or young people of incredible talent stressed out with how to organize the worship program week after week just for the “coalition of the concerned sisters” to complain about it anyways. Or committed members spending time and energy trying to keep “the preliminaries” alive just because we have always done it. We need to pull back from this logistically demanding program and redirect that energy toward digital and homegroup models that will not only grow the kingdom of God in the seasons of order to come, but also the seasons of chaos, pandemonium, and disruption that are soon to increase in frequency and impact.
COVID-19 is Not an Interruption
In his article, “Are Churches Behaving Like Malls In the Age Of Amazon, Just Hoping for People to Shop Again?” author Carey Nieuwhof makes the following powerful observation,
“It’s amazing to me that despite the fact that virtually every thought leader and business leader I’ve read or have personally spoken to believes that the crisis is a disruption, not an interruption, a surprising number of church leaders still think of the current crisis as merely an interruption.” — Carey Nieuwhof
Carey’s point is simple. Many of us are treating COVID-19 as a mere interruption. It’s like those breaking news stories that pop-up in the middle of an episode of your favorite show with the statement, “We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming to Bring You This Breaking News…” As annoying as these interruptions are, you know that once it’s over you can go back to watching your show just as you were before. And that’s how most of us are treating COVID-19 right now – as an interruption to our regularly scheduled church program. However, Carey argues that this is not an interruption but a disruption. The distinction is simple but meaningful. You can ride an interruption out and once it’s over go back to your agenda. But a disruption cannot be ridden out. It cannot be ignored. It does not allow you to go back. It changes things so drastically that it forces you to change, even if you don’t want to.
Sooner or later, we are headed into a poly-pandemic chapter—an age marked by repeated infectious outbreaks. And if this is the case, then our program-driven churches will be forced to change even if they don’t want to. And my invitation is, let’s not wait until all this materializes. Let’s redesign now! As the church slowly eases back to normal, resist the temptation of normal. Instead, redesign your churches for mission and develop models and patterns that will enable you to build God’s kingdom in the bad seasons to come.
In Testimonies volume 5, Ellen White makes the following thought-provoking statement:
“The work which the church has failed to do in a time of peace and prosperity she will have to do in a terrible crisis under most discouraging, forbidding circumstances.” In this statement, Ellen echoes the warning of Jesus himself when he said, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” (John 9:4)
COVID-19 has given us a taste of this. As my friend and fellow pastor Max Souradeth said during a recent meeting, “This pandemic caught us with our pants down. We were completely unprepared to address it.” And what this season has done is it has shown me how hard it is to do mission when the winds aren’t in our favor. But a darker night is coming and if we want to be prepared to engage the culture with relevance and effectiveness then we must redesign for mission, take advantage of the daylight by restructuring and adapting, and when the night comes we might just be prepared to build in the dark.
Note: The term “pestilence” in Matthew 24:7 does not appear in all NT manuscripts.
Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers 444
Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 268
Testimonies For The Church, vol. 5, p. 463