I remember thinking, “We better get good at doing online services because we might not be able to have a normal service until June.” Those were the days! As pastors and church leaders, we all thought we would push pause for a few weeks, creatively address some key moments like Easter, Mother’s Day, and graduate commissioning, and restart all of our ministries where we left off. When we needed to get by for a few weeks, a band-aid would do. Now that we know this crisis will be measured in months and years rather than weeks, we need to think bridges, not band-aids.
A Bridge not a Band-Aid
While we will never go back to “normal,” eventually Covid-19 will be little more than a Wikipedia page. Between this time and that time, however long it might be, we are still called to make disciples. We cannot afford to wait to reach our communities or disciple those in our faith families. All the New Testament commands about shepherding, disciplining, leading, equipping—they all still apply. Pushing pause on existing systems and ministries for a few weeks or even a couple of months was understandable. That was probably the best plan for making disciples when our in-person activities were only going to be impacted for a month or two. But now we know—we need a long-term plan.
What Kind of Bridge?
This requires a unique bridge. It’s headed somewhere—back to in-person discipleship as our primary tool—but we have no idea how long the bridge needs to be. We can’t create a plan that will only work through the start of school, or Thanksgiving, or the new year. This bridge must be able to hold its own weight indefinitely. In other words, it needs to work for a long-term socially distanced culture. Like it or not, that’s the culture we have been called to make disciples among for this period of time. Whether by government mandate or personal choice, patterns and habits are different right now and they will be for the foreseeable future.
Jeff Reed (The Church Digital, Stadia Digital Church Planting, and all-around online discipleship guru) introduced me to the term phygital church; not just physical, not just digital, phygital. Before covid, most of us were good at physical and mediocre at digital. During covid, we’ve reduced physical and advanced digital. For this bridge to work, we’ve got to maximize both. We can’t simply take tools designed to work in-person and try to use them in a Zoom meeting. We need to find and/or design tools specifically for online platforms. Need help with that? Jeff and his team at https://thechurch.digital/ are the best.
We’ve all learned, however, that digital isn’t enough. Just as online discipleship and evangelism reaches people who will never walk through our doors, in-person ministry reaches people who will never click on our posts and pages. Right now, there’s so much we can’t do in-person. Instead of focusing on what we can’t do, however, we’ve got to open our eyes to what we can do! We can develop family discipleship resource packets for pick up, have parking lot events that go beyond drive-in worship, host community prayer walks, sidewalk chalk the gospel in high traffic areas—the list is endless. We can do this! Give your staff and volunteer leaders the parameters and release them to be creative in discipleship and evangelism.
Rec-enter Discipleship in the Home
The most difficult adjustments for our church have taken place in preschool, children’s, and student ministry. No VBS + no Sunday School + no AWANAS + no summer camps + student worship = no discipleship. But why? Isn’t the church just supplemental to the family? We believe that, right? This moment has shown us how much we (pastors, student pastors, children’s pastors, and parents) depend on church programs to disciple children. As we build our bridge, it must be a bridge that depends upon and supports discipleship centered in the home.
We have to realize that losing the entire 2020-2021 school year of regular programming for kids and students is a real possibility, and we cannot lose a year of discipleship. We MUST find a way. Consider this: many school systems are going virtual for all or part of the fall semester. That means parents will have access to their children for an extra 8 hours each weekday. How will we help our families capitalize on this once in a childhood discipleship opportunity? Or think about it this way—most of us lost our summer kid’s camps because of Covid-19, but which is really a better discipleship tool: one week at camp during the summer, or 8 extra hours each day with intentional investment and discipleship from a caring Christian parent(s) on a daily basis? Covid-19 has taken something away, but what the enemy intended for evil, God intends for good.
Invest in Your Team
Regardless of the size, salaries, and makeup of your team, they are probably struggling right now. They are struggling with lack of purpose, fleeting motivation, change fatigue, and uncertainty. My team needs me, and your team needs you. They need us to refocus their attention to disciple-making. They need us to help them see the unique opportunity we’ve been given. They need us to use this time to build unity and help them grow into stronger leaders and more devoted followers of Jesus.
How can you use this time to help your team deepen their understanding of Scripture and theology? How can you lead them to a more consistent practice of the spiritual disciplines? How can you guide them to grow in communication, delegation, vision casting, conflict management, and other leadership skills? Whenever the bridge we are building lands on the other side of the Covid-19 crisis, our churches will face new challenges. We can’t predict what those challenges might be, but we know what kind of team will thrive in the current environment and in whatever environment awaits us on the other side: a team filled with devoted followers of Christ and strong leaders.
How is your bridge-building coming along? What ideas have worked well for you and your team? What ideas haven't worked? How will you encourage and invest in your team this week?