So much has changed. And rapidly. Most of us have been required to make unprecedented adjustments in our work, travel, worship, finances, and social arrangements. With COVID-19’s march across the globe, the unified call has been to temporarily withdraw from the lives to which we’re all accustomed.
It was only a few years ago that Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option caused a splash in the Western church by calling for a strategic withdrawal to rebuild a deep, devoted counterculture within the church that would be able to weather the growing storm of secular hostility. Dreher’s argument was that we should “stop trying to meet the world on its own terms and focus on building up fidelity in distinct community.” In this way, a backward step that gains formational distance in the lives of God’s people might serve as the missional equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope—a tactic used to conserve energy for the long haul when needing to outlast an aggressive and unrelenting opponent.
During COVID-19, Western society has shifted almost overnight from an emphasis on individualism (live as you please and be true to yourself) to collectivism (follow these rules and do your part for society). Though certainly not the kind of withdrawal church planters would’ve ever asked for, I wonder how this forced withdrawal from our comforts and rhythms—and from one another—might be strategically stewarded?
There are times when a backward step is necessary to disrupt unhealthy practices and regain perspective for the next move forward.
Could it be that this time of distancing has accomplished for us the necessary strategic withdrawal that many of us were hesitant to take? Could it be that the very real pressure and stretching we are all experiencing is merely the Divine Hand drawing the slingshot back, in order to propel us further into his redemptive plan than any of us could have ever strategized or imagined?
We don’t know how long this season will last or how painful it will be. But like all other trials, let’s make sure we don’t waste it. Here’s three ways church planters can steward it well.
1. Gain Perspective
There are times when a backward step is necessary to disrupt unhealthy practices and regain perspective for the next move forward. As Mark Sayers points out in one of his excellent books, such distance from the prevailing culture “allows us to recognize the cultural myths and blind spots” we have bought into, perhaps more than we ever realized before.
What if we used some of this extra space to reevaluate the integrity of our discipleship and the kind of fruit our approach to mission has been producing? What if we committed with new energy to creating rhythms and communities in our church plants that are sustainable not only in seasons of predictability and prosperity, but also in seasons of scarcity and uncertainty?
2. Go Deep
Perhaps the Benedict Option has come to us in the most unexpected of ways, but it nonetheless presents church planters with a magnificent opportunity. We now have to examine ourselves and hit reset on some of the ways we approach making disciples, strengthening families, and living on mission.
Wouldn’t it be like God to bring the greatest renewal the church of this generation has ever seen through the greatest trial we have ever faced?
With new space comes opportunity for new depth. What if we trained our people to spend this time in such a way that we emerged from it with unprecedented biblical literacy? What if our increased solitude was used for increased intimacy in prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit? What if this change of pace was a gift to us church planters and pastors, slowing us down in the right ways to deepen our patience and increase our ministry longevity?
3. Prepare for Re-entry
Colin Marshall and Tony Payne concluded their 2009 discipleship book The Trellis and the Vine, with hauntingly prophetic words:
Imagine that [a] pandemic swept through your part of the world, and that all public assemblies of more than three people were banned by the government for reasons of public health and safety. And let’s say that due to some catastrophic combination of local circumstances, this ban had to remain in place for 18 months . . . there would be no services to run . . . no group activities or events of any kind to organize, administer, drum up support for, or attend. Just personal teaching and discipling and training your people in turn to be disciple makers. Here’s the interesting question: after 18 months, when the ban was lifted and you were able to recommence Sunday gatherings and all the rest of the meetings of church life, what would you do differently?
At some point, this crisis is going to end. The question for all of us is, Do we really want to go back to the way things were? Perhaps during this season, God is giving church-planting pastors an opportunity to examine the previous ways in which we allocated energy and resources—and whether we were prioritizing the right things.
Our plans may have changed for the moment, but that may be one of the best things to happen to us, to bring us in step with God’s plan, which has not changed. Wouldn’t it be like God to bring the greatest renewal the church of this generation has ever seen through the greatest trial we have ever faced? May God use this crisis to bring us to the end of ourselves. And there, in the place of confessed weakness, meet us with revitalizing power.