I’ve never seen or experienced anything like the uncertain times we’ve been living through. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I asked several smart and visionary leaders, “What’s next for the church?” but no one has had a good answer. This season of ministry has been a learning experience for all of us.
The key thing I’ve learned about leadership in the past 18 months is that courage is a nonnegotiable quality. When the world is in crisis and everyone seems to be panicking, a leader needs courage to inspire confidence and provide purpose.
This isn’t the time for the church to cower; this is the time for the church to be courageous. And to that point, for Bethany Christian Church—which I serve—this is the time we’ve started making plans to open a third campus. (More on that later.)
Most leaders don’t start out courageous. Many leaders who have displayed courage honed this quality during crisis—leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Margaret Thatcher, and heroes of faith like Moses, Daniel, Peter, and Paul.
It’s not that they were smarter or more creative. They simply were more courageous or, at least, the quickest to act out their bravery. John Maxwell said, “Successful leaders have the courage to take action while others hesitate.”
A courageous leader steps into the unknown and influences others to do the same.
Courageous Leaders Take People on a Journey
Leadership is about taking people on a journey. A leader sometimes is like a tour guide. The leader has been to the destination before, but the people they’re leading never have. It’s easy to lead as a tour guide.
There are also times a leader is like a travel agent. The leader has read up on the journey and knows what to expect at the destination, but they have never experienced it firsthand. A travel-agent leader asks others to follow them to a destination they personally have never been. That’s scary!
The story of Moses and Joshua leading God’s people to the Promised Land highlights how to do this. Moses knew about wandering and how to deal with people who complain. Joshua knew about warring and leading courageously. He was clear, decisive, hungry, and humble.
God laid out his plan to take back the Promised Land from groups of squatters who lived there. Moses and Joshua both bought into God’s plan. Both were convinced something better was beyond the Jordan River.
When Joshua assumed command after Moses’ death, he knew he must lead God’s people into an unfamiliar land during uncertain times. His speech before they took a step of faith into the Promised Land included that famous line, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). It’s a rousing speech about stepping into the fog that is the future.
Joshua was aware of only two certainties. He was certain there was going to be a fight, for the squatters were fortified and settled in. And he knew God had told the Israelites not to hesitate in taking possession of the land.
Joshua issued the order, “Get your provisions ready. Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Joshua 1:11).
Joshua and the people he led had far more uncertainty than clarity. Imagine all the questions Joshua and his leadership had to field during those three days. “Hey, Joshua. How will we cross the river?” “How will we defeat an enemy that has fortified cities and organized armies?” Joshua probably thought, I don’t know how we’re going to get this done. I just know that God has called me to get it done.
Three days later, Joshua courageously led God’s people through a dried-up Jordan River. The Israelites stepped into the unknown and began to take the ground God had promised them.
Courageous Leaders Move Forward and Take New Ground
There comes a time when a leader must decide to either cross the Jordan and venture forth or to take shelter on the shoreline.
I’m convinced, now is the time for courageous leadership. It’s time to take domain for God’s kingdom, to courageously press out with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I serve with a leadership team probably best described as strategic opportunists. We may not be the smartest or most inventive leaders, or the first to identify opportunities, but we have the courage to move ahead with a plan even in uncertain times. When an opportunity is identified, we have the fearless ability to pounce on it.
At first, the pandemic caused us to shelve our plans as we put much of “normal” life on hold. These plans included a huge expansion of our campus in Washington, Indiana, increasing the size of our ministry team, and starting new ministries for our community. Instead, everything was put on hold.
Honestly, I felt like we were just waiting for this crisis to end so we could get back to our prepandemic game plan.
However, last I checked, God never commanded us to merely hold ground, he commanded us to take new ground. Jesus commanded us to press out and preach the gospel. There is no “pandemic clause” to that command. Staying put is not an option for the church.
Since we were convicted to push on with the gospel, we changed our plans. Instead of waiting, we started working on strategies to take ground for God’s kingdom.
We decided to advance the timeline for starting a third campus. We had originally planned to press out those plans in 2023, but we determined the best time to take ground for the kingdom was right now—amid financial uncertainty, the vagueness of government policies, and the fog of an unpredictable future.
I could share the names of several congregations with courageous leaders who are advancing while many others are hesitating. These advancing leaders are successfully leading their churches through generosity campaigns, raising tens of millions of dollars. I suppose everyone has stimulus money. Why not tithe with it? This might be the best time for a generosity campaign.
I know courageous leaders who have restructured their staffs to better emphasize engaging a growing online congregation. I know courageous leaders who are transitioning traditional Sunday services to a weekday night. Courageous leaders who used the shutdown to bury lifeless ministry programs. Courageous leaders who are unplugging the live feed of the service and producing something completely different for an online audience to experience. Courageous leaders who recognize the pre-virus church and the post-virus church will be different.
How about you? What’s your plan to move ministry forward and take ground for the kingdom of God?
Courageous Leaders Take Steps into an Unpredictable Future
Every church with which I’m acquainted pushed pause at the start of the pandemic in hopes of hitting play after the pandemic. Sadly, many have yet to hit play.
Perhaps you’re still at a standstill. Here are three ideas that can help you take a courageous step into the unpredictable future.
1. Pastor people. You can never go wrong pastoring people. When the pandemic hit, the first thing our ministry team did was call everyone we could to pray for and encourage them. Do that! It’s simple. I’m sure you still have folks who have yet to return to a worship service. Let them know they are not forgotten. Give them a call and spur them on. Reengage the disengaged.
2. Love your neighbor. Like, your actual neighbor! It might be difficult to mobilize the masses to do large outreach events in the community. Our congregation and community just aren’t ready for that (at least not at the time this was written). Yet, I can equip and empower the congregation to love their neighbors through acts of service. Unleashing every individual and family to help meet the needs of their neighbors is not a stretch. Find their hurt and help to heal it.
3. Build up the big Sundays. During the pandemic we taught offline people to do church online, and now the reasons to stay home are greater than the reasons to attend church services.
Here’s the truth: church isn’t something you watch or even something you attend. Church is something you are. Christianity isn’t an alone thing, it’s a community thing. And when Christians are in community, they are the church. If you don’t believe me, study the word ekklēsia. It’s difficult to assemble while staying home. It’s also incredibly difficult to engage in corporate worship at home. I know, because during the shutdown, I tried.
There is power when God’s people get together as his church. Each of us knows that because we were disconnected for several months, and it was awful!
There need to be big Sundays on the calendar that produce a “had to be there” kind of feel. Those Sundays need to have a special feel . . . something like an Easter or Christmas service evokes. Whether it’s a powerful way to celebrate and honor American independence or our war veterans, or a great sermon series, create big Sundays people don’t want to miss.
The first series I preached after we reopened our doors for in-person worship was called “Summer Blockbusters.” The series used movie clips as a method to apply biblical principles, and the clips couldn’t be shown online due to copyright laws. If you wanted the full experience, you had to be there.
Courageous Leaders Don’t Press Pause . . . They Press On!
The book of Acts is a quick history of how the church lived out the mission of expanding and embracing God’s kingdom. The book concludes by saying the church took ground and gained subjects for the King of kings.
The church expanded God’s kingdom when they were forced to scatter. The church moved ministry forward even though they faced horrific persecution. Nothing stopped them! They found ways to courageously take ground for God.
The last verse of Acts says Paul never pushed pause, he only pressed on. “He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:31). The kingdom of God grew rapidly and the church took domain for God.
The church has multiplied during times of persecution, and I believe we will see growth as we come out of this pandemic. At this time—and at all other times—the church needs to be courageous. Step out today and do something courageous in the name of Jesus Christ.