Covid-19 hasn’t caused problems in the Church, says Rick Hill, it’s just exposed the cracks that were already there. But asking questions about the way we do things is a great opportunity for growth
A church leader recently said to me: “Covid hasn’t changed the reality, it’s highlighted the reality.”
Think about that for a moment. In the UK, physical church attendance has been in decline for decades. In many traditional churches, the fringe was already large and some regular churchgoers already carried a nominal faith. These things weren’t suddenly caused by Covid-19, but the pandemic may have made them more obvious or urgent.
But what has the last 18 months exposed to us in the areas of spiritual formation and discipleship? Here’s five things I think we all need to be thining about as we look to the future:
1. The need to resource beyond the room
Not everyone we seek to disciple is in front of us at the same time. Some are choosing not to come back to physical church – some may not have ever been before. There is a need to engage beyond the room, but there’s also a need to resource beyond the moment.
The pulls of the world around us are too strong for our faith to rely on a diet of five minutes in the morning or an hour of church once a week. We need to help people engage with God beyond our gatherings. People may know what the Bible says, but can they read it for themselves? People may know God’s voice is central, but have we trained them how to hear it?
Jesus offered rest and removed burdens. As we move forward, we may need to do the same
Most mornings, I shovel porridge into the mouth of our young son. Without me literally putting the spoon to his lips, he wouldn’t receive the food he needs. But it can’t go on like this forever, so to help him mature we’re now teaching him to feed himself.
Are we offering spoon-fed spirituality or helping people feed themselves? As we teach on Sunday, can we offer follow-up devotionals? As we encourage people to invest in spiritual practices, could we prioritise some as a church for a short season to help form habits?
2. The need to change our pace
We have been forced to consider what really shapes people spiritually. At times, unsustainable activism has caused apathy. Our posture should shift from enlisting church members to help run our activities to ensuring our activities help them follow Jesus in their daily life.
Compared to the endless rules and regulations of other rabbis, Jesus’ yoke was freeing. He invited those who felt weary from carrying the ill-fitting weights of religious activity to lay them down and follow him instead. Jesus offered rest and removed burdens. As we move forward, we may need to lay some things down, while ensuring that what we pick up really contributes to spiritual formation.
3. The need for companions over content
In 2020, we rushed to get content online. But now, the need is to develop connection and community. We’ve had lots of opportunities to download content and engage in front-led gatherings, but how can we develop active participation in authentic Christian community?
The development of small groups across a church family could help that. People are less interested in perfection and polish, and more drawn in by those who act as companions. As well as inviting people on Sunday, we could invite them to our tables. To grow disciples, let’s be good companions who walk with others and press beyond the surface.
4. The need to equip every disciple
We have underestimated the laity for too long. Our forms of ministry have often excluded them rather than involved them. But how can we raise disciples and release them to lead?
The way we have thought about discipleship has been controlled, centralised and gathered, but we need to develop more dispersed, scattered and released models of formation.
Uber is the world’s largest taxi firm, yet they don’t own any cars. Airbnb is larger than any hotel chain, yet doesn’t own any real estate. Amazon is the world’s largest retailer, yet doesn’t have any shops.
If we assume spiritual formation only happens in classroom settings or controlled environments, we miss a potential movement of disciple-makers. Jesus ministry wasn’t confined to religious locations but happened on stony beaches, ordinary homes and busy streets.
So, let’s take seriously the culture-shaping influence that marketplace leaders have on those they manage, and train them in gospel principles. Let’s equip parents to effectively disciple their kids. Let’s equip younger disciples to make wise choices as they engage with culture. Let’s not just run Alpha on church premises, but resource others to use it in their home or workplace.
5. The nature of a stronger strain of discipleship
I’ll end with something more positive and hopeful. Because, while there is no doubt there has been a shaking in the storm and scorching in the heat, I believe that recent challenges and cultural pressures are actually creating the very conditions necessary to develop robust and resilient disciples.
I’ve realised that there are many disciples who haven’t disappeared - in fact, the exact opposite has been taking place. Rather than withering away, there has been a strengthening.
People are less interested in perfection and polish, and more drawn in by those who act as companions
Is a stronger type of discipleship emerging among some people and in some places? Just like the story Jesus told about the seed and four different types of soil in Matthew 13 - while it’s inevitable some remain in shallow soil and others get choked by the weeds, some seeds grow and flourish into crops and actually multiply 30, 60 and 100 times what was sown.
I see a generation of resilient disciples emerging from this pandemic with a real and robust faith. Perhaps because following Jesus in a post-Christian culture takes courage, or perhaps because the Church has woken up to the need for intentionality in our discipleship. Or perhaps because wisdom and maturity has grown in those who have pressed on through the darkness in faith.
Whatever the cause, I see a stronger strain of discipleship emerging, where the seeds that grow and flourish can actually have a disproportionately great impact for the gospel. And I am cheering it on!