Through the Lessons of 2020, God Has Made Us Ready to Grow
By Jerry Harris
No matter where you live in the world, it seems there’s always a susceptibility to some form of natural disaster. With some disasters, like floods or hurricanes, there is ample warning to save lives and minimize damages. Others, like earthquakes or tornadoes, provide very little or any warning. I grew up in the Midwest where basements and cellars were vital retreat spaces when tornadoes were forecast.
COVID-19 was completely different. There was nowhere to run and no way to run—it was impossible to get out of its way. The microscopic enemy was no respecter of boundaries, politics, economics, culture, age, or education. It spread over the entire globe; people largely were ignorant and defenseless against it. The devastation was catastrophic, as the coronavirus killed over 2.5 million people and infected more than 100 million. The United States—with all its wealth, state-of-the-art health care and infrastructure, and academic and medical acumen—was the hardest hit nation, enduring twice as many deaths of any other country and nearly triple the infections.
Extreme measures were introduced, including lockdowns, quarantining, mandated mask-wearing, social distancing, shuttering of many businesses, closing of church buildings and gatherings, and countless other attempts to manage the devastation of this invisible enemy. At the same time, racial tensions and political polarization began to take a toll on the American psyche. Altogether, a perfect storm formed over this nation like no one living had ever experienced.
In Ecclesiastes 3, Solomon reminded us that for everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. The political season has now come and gone, for the most part; the racial, cultural, and civil unrest is being addressed and re-examined; and new infections of COVID-19 have waned by more than 80 percent as of this writing, while multiple vaccinations are taking aim at bringing about herd immunity.
Now is the time to evaluate our reaction to COVID-19, learn from it, and form a response that honors God and the mission to which he has called us.
What I Have Learned
The first thing I learned from 2020 is the truth about “the illusion of control.” I spent many hours this past year in Zoom meetings listening to church leaders make decisions in real time as we attempted to manage through the crisis . . . but no one had a crystal-clear picture of the right decisions to make. Early in the pandemic, some church leaders decided to keep their churches closed for many months. Some churches decided in May to keep their buildings closed into fall or throughout all of 2020. They had no idea that a second surge in the pandemic would occur at precisely the time they planned to reopen. Many took strong positions on masking without considering the 33 percent rule—that no matter what decision was made, two-thirds of a congregation would disagree with it on some level. Many felt compelled to speak to the cultural divide only to be swept up into the very division they were speaking out against. At a time when grace should have been overflowing, in many circumstances it was in short supply.
I have been reminded that Jesus’ words about not worrying about tomorrow apply to the big things as well as the small things. Long-term planning is in many ways an illusion. As Randy Frazee says in his latest book, His Mighty Strength, I need to stop trying more and start trusting more.
I have learned that the same challenges in leading a church from “the illusion of control” also apply to leading a nation through a pandemic. No matter who you might have supported politically, nobody had (or has) all of the right answers. Your politics is an empty well from which many try to draw faith. Instead, faith can come only from springs of living water found in God’s Word and a relationship with Jesus.
I have learned to take to heart the words of Jesus’ half-brother: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20). Social media is not a listening platform or a thoughtful communication platform.
I have also learned that while online worship is an incredible resource for first impressions and for filling in gaps in a highly mobile culture, it cannot replace in-person gatherings . . . it just can’t. The 10 prescriptions in Acts 2:41-47 are not optional. The church instituted by Jesus has an authority structure that cannot exist in an online experience. The body ministers through a vast array of gifting that reflects Christ himself, and that gifting greatly exceeds chat hosts—as good as they might be—and so it cannot be fully realized in an online experience.
The fellowship the church exemplifies is described in all of the New Testament’s “one-another” passages, and much of that cannot take place virtually. This became vividly clear as churches began to regather, with the many stories of people weeping uncontrollably at the joy of singing and worshipping together again.
The greatest metric for this reality probably is in baptisms, which experienced a 58 percent decline from 2019 to 2020, according to our survey of 421 Christian churches detailed in this issue. If online worship were as effective as in-person worship, there should have been a surge in baptisms at regathering. As great as technology can be, sometimes it can distract us from what is genuine.
I learned that even in the midst of adversity, God provides incredible benefits. As a movement of churches divided by independence and geography, it has been easy to focus on our own circumstances and remain unaware of others. To its credit, the pandemic broke down certain resistance among us to asking for help, seeking out community, and sharing the leadership burden. And while technology might not be a replacement for church gathering, it became a lifeline for leaders and networking. We leveraged our unity like never before by encouraging one another and sharing tools—by really helping each other. It was invaluable for getting through this difficult time.
But mostly, I’ve learned that God was never not in control. God leveraged his people and their creativity to reach out in new ways. We built bridges in certain areas that formerly had been off-limits—with school systems, community programs, organizations, and civic leaders—and we showed that the church can be an asset, friend, mobilizer, and a great force for good. As we exit the pandemic, we have a fresh understanding of what people truly need and how to fill it with the message of Jesus.
I have heard plenty of talk about “new normals” with regard to church. I’ve heard that we must rethink church, make online our main thing, and de-emphasize in-person services. I’ve heard the church of 2019 was a dinosaur that fell into the 2020 tar pit, and that the church must evolve. I’ve been told we should never expect the church to recover to the levels it once enjoyed, and we need to relearn how to do ministry.
That is not what I believe.
I agree we have found new ways of reaching out and connecting with people, new ways of doing ministry that we must not neglect or forget, but I do not believe that what God has done over the centuries should now be consigned exclusively to the past. I believe we are living in the greatest time of revival for the church!
I think people are longing for relationship like never before. I think people are thirsty for human contact, to see in-person expressions on other people’s faces, to be embraced and encouraged, to be surrounded by a great cloud of living witnesses praising the Lord, to hear the Word proclaimed, to engage in small circles of discipleship, to break bread together at the Lord’s table, and to rejoice in a harvest of baptisms like never before.
I believe we stand in a moment of great opportunity, that a door has opened to the hearts of people who are ready to listen and engage like never before in our lifetimes. I see a people who have detangled their politics from their faith, who have learned that faith in government yields little in results, and who now better understand the Lord is who brings about real change in the human heart. While some church leaders are expecting smaller attendance or fewer decisions, I am expecting an awakening.
The fact that our churches’ giving and finances weathered the pandemic so well—as the 2020 Christian Standard survey indicates—shows us that our commitment is resilient. We have shed much of what was unnecessary in our programming and come through this leaner and more focused than before. God has made us ready to grow. But how?
In this age of technology, churches have gained much but also forgotten much. We have collectively forgotten one of the best tools available for bringing people back to church and growing it greatly.
The percentage of people who have returned varies by region, state, and church, but at The Crossing, which I serve, we have seen almost 70 percent of the people return to in-person attendance. I anticipate that will grow to 80 to 85 percent by Easter. How will we reach the final 15 to 20 percent of folks we haven’t seen in a long time? We are going to chase those strays and we are going to do it old school!
We are making calling lists for all 11 of our locations and we are training our staff how to make calls. Let me explain . . .
We are not going to send out email blasts, text messages, or make phone calls. Instead, we will be handing our staff members lists of people’s names and addresses. These workers will then get in their cars, knock on doors, ask to be invited in, sit down on couches, and engage in conversations about coming back to church. Our people—our strays—are going to see that we really care about them, how they are doing, and how they feel about how we’ve been doing. We’re going to listen carefully, we are going to value them and expand our knowledge of their circumstances and viewpoints, and we are going to grow from it both personally and as a church.
As I see it, our church is figuratively in that scene from Field of Dreams where James Earl Jones says, “People will come, Ray . . . they will definitely come!” I want to be ready for it.
Many years ago, I was serving a church in a small town in western Indiana. Many of the homes needed roofs, paint, siding, or just something to reverse the toll of aging on the community. Then a major tornado came through that damaged most of the homes and our church. After the initial cleanup, insurance companies, various homeowners and businesses, and civic leaders got involved and pulled the community together. Soon, a flurry of activity occurred—demolition, repairs, and reconstruction. A year or so later, the town looked fresh and new. All the damage had been cleaned up, repaired, or replaced. The town actually looked better than before the tornado.
That is how I see the present situation. Tornadoes and pandemics have their times and seasons, but God is always faithful to his church.