Today’s Blog is part 2 of a 6-part Blog Series called “Reopening Christianity: 5 Questions Every Pastor Must Answer.” This series is intended to challenge pastors by asking five challenging questions that will help spur their churches to become greater collective expressions of Jesus Christ. Miss prior blogs or want to read the next ones in this series? Go to this link here. Parts 2-6 go live January 11-15, 2021.
Question 1: Am I moving forward or going backward?
Our first challenging question that every pastor must answer as we reopen Christianity is “Am I moving forward or going backward?”
The early days of the pandemic were filled with emotions. For the first time, our church doors were closed for worship for an extended period of time. It was sad. Imagining and then not being able to have the big Easter celebration that we had already planned for was extremely difficult.
On top of this, overnight we were forced to lead through a global pandemic. Not one Seminary class prepared us for this. Frantically, and rightly so, we made change after change, plan after plan. Plans we felt good about and had prayed, talked, and strategized about on Monday were already considered worthless by the time we woke up on Tuesday.
I can’t tell you how many times in the early days of the pandemic in 2020 I heard the phrase, “When will we go back to normal? When will things go back to the way it was? When will church return to what it was?” I can’t tell you how many times in the early days that I felt or thought those questions.
But in May and June, after reality had set in, I began actually getting excited thinking about unchartered territory for the church and its future. I began thinking more about our churches moving forward than going backward. That lead to me writing my most popular blog of 2020 entitled “10 Bold Predictions About the Future Church in America” that at its core was meant to help pastors think about the future of the church.
For some reason, likely our comfort with the predictability of the past, it’s easy to crave what was. But what was, especially when it comes to our churches, was at best a mediocre, broken-down version of Jesus.
Why do we want to go back to the way it was?
As Christians, we have been a shadow at best of who Christ has called us to be. The fastest growing religion in our country for the past few decades now is the “Nones.” This isn’t the Catholic nuns, but the “N-O-N-E-S,” choosing “none” for religious affiliation or “no religion.” Even with this sobering statistic, most Americans still mark themselves as “Christian.” The majority of those that mark Christian only nominally adhere to Him at best. From the outside, there has been little to no distinguishable difference between a Christian and a non-Christian.
The book Discipleshift records these sobering statistics:[i]
- Divorce rates among Christians are about the same as non-Christians.
- Christian men regularly view pornography as often as non-Christian men.
- Christians are more than twice as likely to have racist attitudes as non-Christians.
- Only about 6% of evangelical Christians tithe, meaning give 10% of their income.
- Domestic violence, drug, and alcohol abuse, and most other problems are as prevalent among Christians as among non-Christians.
Is that what we want to go back to?
Even with potentially the greatest economy in the history of the world, depression, anxiety, and mental health issues have all been skyrocketing.
These are pre-pandemic statistics that predictably are all on the rise:
- UC-San Diego says 3 out of 4 Americans were lonely.[ii]
- The average American, Evite says, hadn’t made a new friend in the last five years.[iii]
- CareerBuilder says that 78% of people were living paycheck to paycheck.[iv]
- Gallup says that 70% of people were unhappy in their careers.[v]
The resources we so richly have in America cannot be the god of our spiritual lives. The only God worthy of our spiritual souls is the author of all of those resources in the first place.
All of this research leads me to this conclusion: Many of us would prefer the predictability of the past over the uncertainty of the future, even if the past wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
We aren’t the first group of people that just wanted to go back to the way it was and we won’t be the last.
There was a time in the Old Testament when God’s people themselves struggled to understand their present and future. They were still pining and thinking about the past. In the book of Exodus, the first 14 chapters describe how God miraculously rescues the Israelites out of Egypt. The Israelites see God move through mighty plagues, the Passover Angel, and even the parting of the Red Sea. They have a front row seat to seeing miracle after miracle of God.
And yet by the time we get to the end of Exodus 15, we see the people of God, who are not even thirty days removed from the slavery they had experienced in Egypt, complaining. They complain about what they nostalgically miss in Egypt. They are ready to go back into slavery to regain what they had in the past. In their flawed memory of the past, they look to their time in Egypt through rose-colored glasses.
What shocks me is how far off their nostalgia led them. They describe their past situation like they were living like kings. They even claimed to sit around pots of meat and eat all that they wanted, even though the reality is they were enslaved and deeply oppressed for more than four centuries. As this systemic oppression increased, the Pharaoh of their day had issued a decree that killed their baby boys. They were also forced as slaves to produce a larger quota even though the king had taken their supplies. They were suffering greatly.
Not only were they misremembering the past, but they were so blinded by the past that they couldn’t see God’s miracles in their present. God was still miraculously providing for them. Every single day, He was providing manna and quail from heaven to eat and giving them water from rocks.
Unfortunately, their flawed view of the past led to a misplaced hope in their future as well. Their hope should have been in the Promised Land described as “flowing with milk and honey.” Instead, their hope was to return to the “pots of meat” which never even existed for them.
How could they displace the God of salvation for the nostalgia of their slavery?
It’s a real question in the book of Exodus, but they did it, and they did it extravagantly.
In reality, it’s what we do, too. It’s why many of us cling to the past.
As pastors, as comfortable as the past may have been to you, if the situation and statistics that I described to you are somewhat true in your context, I must plead with you, “Do not go back to the way things were.”
I realize that in the midst of the pandemic a lot of our methods were changed. And that’s okay. A church that is married to its methods in a constantly changing world will soon be divorced from any real meaning or impact in the future.
While our God never changes, our methods must adapt.
Pastor, I do know that there are single great expressions of individual Christians, and even churches, that have existed pre-pandemic, even amongst the sobering statistics. There have been some lights that have shone brightly, but collectively, we have to do a better job. There may be some ministries and methods that you have done in the past that you will also do in the future. There may be things of your past that you repurpose in a new way in the future.
But rather than giving you best practices for how to adapt your methods, the first baseline question you need to ask for your church is this, “Am I going to lead my church forward or am I going to simply go back to what was?”
I love what Moses said when He was interceding on behalf of these unfaithful Israelites:
15 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
If we are hoping to move forward on our own strength, it’s worthless. Our point in moving forward is not to glorify our name or to have a better church than anyone else, but rather to point people to the very Good News of Jesus and to remind them that even in the uncertain wilderness, there is a Promised Land for all of us, too. But none of it even matters if God Himself is not with us. It’s important for us to repent and let go of the times we have tried to tread forward on our own strength and invite God into our moving forward. Here’s how God responds:
Here’s the great news about our God: Whenever we cry out to Him for His presence, He always responds with grace. He did this with the Israelites and He’ll do it with us.
I have heard from many pastors that they didn’t sign up for all of this. You didn’t know you’d have to lead God’s church through a global pandemic. I get it. But pastor, you did actually sign up to lead God’s church in difficult times. Don’t listen to the lies of the enemy. Here’s specific lies he’s been shouting at pastors that I’m sure you’ve heard. God called you, He anointed you, and He still has His Spirit living inside of you. He never promises you that today won’t have trouble, but He does promise you that in the midst of the trouble, He’ll be right there with you to guide you, love you, and care for you.
Today is the day to call out to Him, and declare that you will faithfully move your church forward.
Just as He provided a second chance to the Israelites to move forward with His presence, so, too, does he provide all of our churches with a second chance to follow Him today!
Pastor, are you moving forward or going backward?
Question Number 2 comes out tomorrow, January 12th, 2021.
While these blogs are written specifically for pastors and church leaders, we have an eBook Reopening Christianity and small group resources available for individuals at your church right here. Many small groups and churches have found this to be a powerful small group or church-wide study. To inquire about using this as a sermon series and for bulk rates on the ebook, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] Putman, Jim, et al. DiscipleShift. Zondervan, 2013, p. Multiple.
[ii] Fikes, Bradley J. “3 out of 4 Americans are lonely, UCSD study says.” https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/business/biotech/sd-me-wisdom-reduces-loneliness-20181218-story.html. 18 Dec 2018. Web. 6 November 2020.
[iii] Renner, Bob. “Survey: Average American Hasn’t Made a Friend—In 5 Years!” https://www.studyfinds.org/survey-average-american-hasnt-made-new-friend-in-5-years/. 9 October 2019. Web. 6 November 2020.
[iv] ‘Living Paycheck to Paycheck is a Way of Life for Majority of U.S. Workers, According to New CareerBuilder Survey.” http://press.careerbuilder.com/2017-08-24-Living-Paycheck-to-Paycheck-is-a-Way-of-Life-for-Majority-of-U-S-Workers-According-to-New-CareerBuilder-Survey. 2017 Aug 24. Web. 6 November 2020.
[v] Taylor, Victoria. “Unhappy in America: Nearly 70% of U.S. Employees are miserable at work, study finds.” https://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/majority-u-s-workers-not-engaged-job-gallup-poll-article-1.2094990. 28 January 2015. Web. 6 November 2020.