I have heard it said by many and I have said it myself in recent weeks; We are living in unprecedented times! Coronavirus / COVID-19 has brought us a new vocabulary of Sheltered at Home, Social Distancing, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and more. It truly is a global event. I agree with the term unprecedented, in that it has been several generations and seventy-five-plus years since World War II in that critical moment the whole world was mobilized in the manner we are seeing today in response to COVID-19. We are being asked to do things we would never have imagined a month ago.
As a priest and pastor in a liturgical tradition, I could not fathom the need to cancel services and especially the meaningful and profound services in Holy Week and the following Easter celebrations. In an instant, our Third Places of gathering have been shut down. In addition to churches; schools, work, coffee shops, gyms, restaurants, parks are now off-limits for meet-ups.
I have watched with amazement in social media how my clergy colleagues and church leaders quickly pivoted to Facebook Live or ZOOM and other on-line meeting platforms. Is this unprecedented? Actually not.
History Can Teach Us
The church has always adapted and adjusted its mission to cultural realities and context, sometimes under derision. The church was given a mandate in Acts 1:8 – But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. It appears that three years later the church was still hunkered down in Jerusalem. After Stephen is stoned and martyred (Acts 7) Acts 8 begins with… On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. The church was forced beyond its Jerusalem base and was distributed to the surrounding regions. You could summarize the Book of Acts as telling the story of the church being spread throughout the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean basin fulfilling the Acts 1:8 mandate.Whether from peril or plague, persecutions or planned missional ventures the church has been distributed throughout the world. Click To Tweet
This happens again and again throughout the history of the church. Whether from peril or plague, persecutions or planned missional ventures the church has been distributed throughout the world. (A recent Fresh Expressions webinar with Dr. Phillip Jenkins details how the church has responded to crisis moments in history – Click Here )
The Reformation Spread like a Virus
Difficulty, opposition, and crisis can often breed innovation and adaptation as the church recaptures its authentic mission. In my own Anglican tradition, the Reformation was such a moment. What happened in the English Reformation was distinct from the Reformation that took shape on the European continent. In England, the church stayed together as the Church of England. It was fragile at times with dissensions, trials, conflict, and even violence but there was an underlying unity as English people weathered the Reformation storm. The church adapted and yielded innovations; the Bible in the English language and The Book of Common Prayer. Morning and Evening Prayer were instituted as a daily rhythm for prayer and scripture reading. The English reformer William Tyndale wrote, If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives a plow to know more of the scriptures than the Pope. Out of this turbulent time came a vision of a biblically literate people. The Reformation was a benign viral moment spreading in the cultural-west.Difficulty, opposition, and crisis can often breed innovation and adaptation as the church recaptures its authentic mission. Click To Tweet
So, we adapt to a new world in each and every moment, whether it be Luther or Calvin, Wesley or Whitfield, Spurgeon, Moody, Tolkien or Lewis. In our memory are the days of Billy Graham and how he adapted the technology and media of his time and the explosion of global travel to hold and broadcast crusades worldwide reaching millions.
In recent years in the decline of the church in the cultural-west, we have been challenged. Many ignore the contextual realities of our day and hunker down in our Sunday-Silos waiting for the church to be made great again, for people to come back to church bringing their kids. The reality is we will not return a posture or position where the church will have a voice like it did in the cultural and political conversations in the landscape of the mid-twentieth century USA. We could compare this to the Jerusalem church and at this moment we are being forced out of our silos for a mission to see the salvation of the world.
An Opportunity For Community
We can learn; now in the day of COVID19, how to be a faith community distributed in our neighborhoods, sharing and living the Gospel life obvious and evident to a world that has been compelled into self-isolation. The church was never supposed to be about buildings, programs, and production. Those things may have served for a time but what we need today and have always needed is authentic community in Christ, knit together connected and joined practicing the proclamation of the Gospel and making Disciples.
From the beginning, this has been the core of the Fresh Expressions mission and the church must embrace and champion this missional moment of COVID-19 and whatever may come next. Let us leverage the assets we have (buildings, technology, staff, etc.) to release the people of God into the mission of God. We are told by Jesus of a plentiful Kingdom harvest (Luke 10:2). If we will open our eyes we will see COVID-19 harvest opportunity.
I grew up as a child in the shadow of the civil rights movement living outside Atlanta, Georgia. I was eight years old when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Later I came to cherish this man and his work to fight injustice. One of the profound truths he expressed in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail was this;
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states, I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham… We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly.
We need to heed these words and capture this reality for ourselves. Read through the Book of Acts and you will discover a connected church, linked together in Christ, caring for one another. People did not sit idly by in Ephesus but showed concern for the Jerusalem church. Though 700 miles apart the saints in Philippi were concerned with the Apostle Paul’s imprisonment in Rome.
A distributed church is simply this: a faith community or gathering of people under the banner of Christ bearing a visible gospel witness amongst their neighbors. People who because of love are engaged, connected and concerned about the wellbeing of all people. The distributed church is a community with compassion, caring for the comprehensive needs (body, soul, mind, and spirit) of individuals, families, and communities. In addition, the distributed church is to build Godly civilization in the marketplace, government, and institutions of society.
Covid-19 exposed us. As a society and even as the church we have been building a Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) relying on our own wits, skills and technological advancements. St. Augustine would call it the City of Man. The church in many places prospered with buildings and resources, professional religious people trained to primarily preach and teach in a paradigm that in the last 50 years has been disappearing.The church in many places prospered with buildings and resources, professional religious people trained to primarily preach and teach in a paradigm that in the last 50 years has been disappearing. Click To Tweet
Consider the five-fold leadership gifts in Ephesians 4:11-12… Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors, and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. We have existed with and leaned on the primary leadership gifts of pastors and teachers functioning in the church and we will always need those. However, for us to be the distributed church it is essential to cultivate the front-line offices of apostles, prophets, and evangelists leading the way. If the church is an army, we need the supportive rolls in supporting the troops but we also need the Special OPs forces in the battle for humanity if we are to witness a Kingdom advance.
Every faith community positions itself as an outpost for the Kingdom of God in this world. As a church planter for a congregation in central Florida, this was how we understood our mission. To be an observable reflection of God’s kingdom in the community. When people looked at us, we hoped they would see a family under the Lordship of Christ; loving God with all we are and loving others as Christ loves us!
The church is not a place to come where you are entertained or given some insights from the Bible. At this moment we cannot simply take what we’ve always done and move it on to a digital platform. That is not adaptation and innovation but simply a migration.At this moment we cannot simply take what we’ve always done and move it on to a digital platform. That is not adaptation and innovation but simply a migration. Click To Tweet
My good friend and fellow Kingdom mischief-maker The Rev. Dr. Michael Beck said it this way, Young folks are learning the value of old school acts of love: phone trees, care packages, or sending a letter by snail mail. Older folks are learning the value of love through digital technology: virtual is real, social media provides connection, church doesn’t need a building. They are learning to be a faith community with all the tools that have been given to us!
To reference St. Augustine again, the church is to be the City of God in the world, a picture of God’s kingdom come and a realm where His will is being done as in heaven, so on earth. From St. Augustine’s The City of God, The earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord. That is the city, the culture, the society we are to build, ultimately a community that glories in the Lord.
The distributed church is not to be an organization but rather a living organism that changes the world on every level as people are redeemed and begin to live a Kingdom life under the rule and reign of Jesus. Redemption not only comes to a human heart but to business and culture, politics and art, schools and hospitals, neighbors and neighborhoods. As we follow the instruction of the Great Commission; As we are going we make disciples, baptizing them, and then… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. People who obey everything Jesus commanded change the world. This is how the church is distributed in the world in every generation.
The Rev. Jon Davis PhD is an Episcopal Priest, church planter, teacher, worship leader. He is on staff with Fresh Expressions as a mission strategist and is launching some Fresh Expression gatherings through the Abbey Mission in a NE suburb of Orlando. firstname.lastname@example.org