Colin Marshall and Tony Payne aren’t prophets or sons of prophets (so they say). But in their book The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift That Changes Everything (Matthias Media, 2009), they concluded with a mental experiment about a pandemic that sounds eerily close to what we’re currently experiencing:
Imagine that the pandemic swept through your part of the world, and that all public assemblies of more than three people were banned. And let’s say that, due to some catastrophic combination of local circumstances, this ban had to remain in place for 18 months.
How would your congregation of 120 members continue to function—with no regular church gatherings of any kind, and no small home groups (except for groups the size of three)?
If you were the pastor what would you do?
I guess you could send your people regular letters and emails. You could make phone calls, and maybe even do a podcast. [The idea of livestreaming services didn’t cross my mind in 2009!—TP] But how would the regular work of teaching and preaching and pastoring take place? How would you encourage your congregation to persevere in love and good deeds, especially in such trying circumstances? And what about evangelism? How would new people be reached, contacted and followed up? There could be no men’s breakfasts, no coffee mornings, no evangelistic courses or outreach meetings. Nothing.
You could, of course, revert to the ancient practice of visiting your congregation house-to-house, and doorknocking the local area to contact new people. But how, as a pastor, could you possibly meet with and teach all 120 adults in your congregation, let alone their children, let alone door-knock the entire suburb?
No, if it was to be done, you would need help. You would need to start with ten of your most mature Christian men, and meet intensively with them two at a time for the first two months (while keeping in touch with everyone else by phone and email). You would train these ten in how to read the Bible and pray with one or two other people, and with children. Their job would then be twofold: to “pastor” their wives and families through regular Bible reading and prayer, and to each meet with four other men to train and encourage them to do the same. Assuming 80% of your congregation was married, then through these first ten men and those that they subsequently trained, most of the married adults would be involved in regular Bible-based encouragement.
While that was getting going (with you offering phone and email support along the way), you might choose another bunch to train personally—people who could meet with singles, or people who had potential in door-knocking and evangelism, or people who would be good at following up new contacts.
It would mean a lot of personal contact, and a lot of one-to-one meetings to fit in. But remember, there would be no services to run, no committees, no parish council, no seminars, no small groups, no working bees—in fact, 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.
Now here’s the question: after 18 months, when the ban was lifted and you were able to recommence Sunday gatherings and all the rest of the meetings and activities of church life, what would you do differently?
It’s still surreal that we’re living through this once-in-a-century kind of event that has brought the world to a halt. For the church, though, it has brought a host of issues to the fore—from basic tech questions to how to keep your small church going to whether or not we should practice the ordinances to how to continue showing hospitality.
Now that Marshall and Payne’s imaginary scenario is reality, I corresponded with them to ask how this global upheaval is changing ministry practices and what pastors should be doing to serve their flocks.
You believe this will stress-test the quality of the “one-another” culture in our churches. How can church leaders foster that biblical dynamic in this time?
What we argued for in The Trellis and the Vine was a decentralization and multiplication of ministry—ministry that complemented the preaching ministry of the pastor by promoting different forms of vine work (that is, prayerful Word ministry) through every level of a church’s activities, and by as many of the members as possible. That’s what we mean by a “one-another culture”: one where God’s Word is dwelling richly in the one-another teaching, admonishment, and encouragement of the congregation.
Those churches who started down that culture-change project 10 years ago should be well-placed now with a growing team of church members who are trained and already active in speaking God’s Word to one another. And often these sorts people don’t need to be deployed by their pastor, because they already see the needs and opportunities in this pandemic context and are getting on with the job.
All the same, this is obviously a time to push further down that track. We suspect that one practically important way to do that in the coming months will be in gathering our congregation into quite small cells—of just three to six people—who keep up with each other regularly by phone and in online meetings. The people in our congregation who already “get” the one-another concept (because we’ve taught or trained them) will be important in making these kinds of small online groups work well. And we will no doubt need to train more of them in the coming months. (And we shouldn’t forget: perhaps one of the key places where these little cells could and should operate best is in the home. The one-anothering that takes place in our households is always important, and will be even more so during this time.)
Pastors who’ve been too program-centric or even pulpit-centric up to this point will have a problem—because they haven’t been multiplying the number of fellow-workers in the congregation, who have the heart and vision and competence to partner with them in the ministry of the Word (when our normal structures aren’t possible).
In other words, almost overnight, our ministry culture has been radically changed by the inability to gather in person, and this could go two ways: (1) we could maintain people in a fairly passive, program-centric or pastor-centric attitude towards church by only offering them streamed or online versions of our existing church services and programs, or (2) we could grasp the opportunity this new moment offers us—and begin an overdue culture shift to training our people to minister to one another.
Almost overnight, our ministry culture has been radically changed by the inability to gather in person, and this could go two ways.
What words of advice and comfort do you have for a pastor who is discouraged by the quality of the “one-another” culture in his church?
You start by acknowledging that nearly all of us are! One-another culture is hard to build, and it’s never as strong as we’d like. And the pressures, uncertainties, and pastoral needs of the moment are massive. Some of the most experienced pastors we know are feeling overwhelmed. So the first thing to realize is that you’re not alone. Other pastors are experiencing the same thing. Get in touch with pastoral colleagues, especially those you know who have been doing good work in this area, and help each other think it through and work it out.
One-another culture is hard to build, and it’s never as strong as we’d like. And the pressures, uncertainties, and pastoral needs of the moment are massive.
We published a follow-up book in 2016 called The Vine Project, which mapped out a comprehensive process for changing your church culture in this direction. But now isn’t the time for comprehensive processes or long-term projects—that time will return.
For now, perhaps the best thing is to make a list of five to 10 solid people whom you think you could recruit and quickly equip with resources to start “meeting” with others to engage with God’s Word together and pray—either in the kind of small cells we mentioned above, or one-to-one. In these rather desperate times, people might surprise you with their willingness to step up and help in this way, especially if you give them a clear vision and good resources to help them. This is why I (Tony) have spent the past 30 years with Matthias Media, publishing not just books to sell but also resources to equip all people for this one-another ministry.
What are some ways we can use this strange season to spot people worth investing in as future leaders?
You want to look for Christian maturity, an ability to know and correctly handle the Scriptures, a love for people, a prayerful heart, and a desire to see others grow in Christ. Inevitably, you’ll start by looking at those who have already displayed those sorts of qualities in some measure in ministries they have been doing, including in their own family life. Perhaps you might even have to ask some of them to give up the ministry they have been doing, and work with you on some new forms of ministry that have suddenly become priorities.
You want to look for Christian maturity, an ability to know and correctly handle the Scriptures, a love for people, a prayerful heart, and a desire to see others grow in Christ.
Again, pray for wisdom in picking the right people, and pray that they’ll rise to the occasion and grow in Christ themselves through it.
How can we use this season for fruitful evangelistic connections?
From what we’re hearing, the kinds of “online services” that various churches have been running have led to some great contacts with outsiders. We heard about one church that set up a Zoom “breakout room” for newcomers/visitors as soon as “online church” ended. Those newcomers joined that room, asked great questions, and found good answers.
Another church we heard about said to anyone thinking about visiting church online that if they didn’t have a Bible to read, they could ask for one, and someone would drop one off to their doorstep. And they got a good number of takers.
But we think this new time might be a time when smaller-scale evangelistic opportunities might be particularly worth taking up. Many of our friends will be shaken, uncertain, and afraid. As we talk with them, and care for them, perhaps we could organize a small online gathering of eight to 10, invite our pastor to give a short gospel presentation, and then allow time for questions and interaction.
And of course it’ll be a good time to be sharing gospel resources with others—evangelistic books or videos.
What questions should every pastor be asking right now?
In one sense, as always, every pastor should be asking the same key question: how can I create, resource, and protect as many contexts as possible in which God’s Word is prayerfully ministered to others, both within the congregation and outside it.
In one sense, as always, every pastor should be asking the same key question: how can I create, resource and protect as many contexts as possible in which God’s Word is prayerfully ministered to other.
But in this particular strange time, we think that question will get expressed in other questions like: How can I continue to preach and teach the Word to the congregation when the pulpit is closed? What different forms or platforms could I use to keep at least some good teaching (inadequate and non-ideal as it might be) reaching the congregation? Who are the key people at this point I need to gather and invest in to help pastor and minister to the congregation (in the kinds of ways we thought about above)? And so on.
With all the blessings afforded to us in our virtual age—livestreaming a pastor’s sermon, video conferences for small groups, group text messaging—how can we best steward these resources for discipleship while avoiding pitfalls?
There’s lots of innovation going on, and lots of people sharing their ideas on Facebook groups and various blogs—ideas for how to use technology for ministry.
Maybe put a limit on how much time each week you’ll think about the tech side, and spend good quality time thinking theologically and pastorally about what you are trying to do and the people God has given you as partners in that task. . . . That’s the area where you need to provide leadership.
But be careful not to get too distracted for too long by the tech issues. Maybe put a limit on how much time each week you’ll think about the tech side, and spend good quality time thinking theologically and pastorally about what you are trying to do and the people God has given you as partners in that task (can we suggest you re-read The Trellis and the Vine?). That’s the area where you need to provide leadership. Once you’ve identified and articulated the pastoral goals, the people who know the tech better than you do can make suggestions about using the tech to achieve the goals. Don’t let the pragmatics and technology drive what you do. Just because you can livestream a church service doesn’t mean you should.
We suspect that what will end up proving most useful isn’t so much to try to reproduce Sunday services online (they don’t really translate all that well). Instead, it will be using technology to keep supplying good Bible teaching in different forms, and then encouraging and equipping the congregation to build on that by opening the Bible with each other, for mutual encouragement, exhortation, and prayer. We think that will be more effective as the coming months unfold, and will actually lay a better foundation for multiplying ministry beyond COVID-19.