So many dimensions of life in this pandemic feel unprecedented.
Even though we are 6 months in, we still ride a roller coaster of unpredictability where church leaders must pivot over and over again with ebb and flow of the virus. It seems like we burn more calories fighting for equilibrium than getting out front of it all.
Do we return to fully open worship services?
Do we continue to livestream?
Do we pull back with the rise and fall of new daily cases?
Can we ever return to the way things were before?
What if there was someone we could turn to who'd been here before?
This is not the first time that the church was “shut down” by forces beyond her control. In fact, the first shut down was recorded in the first century—in Acts 8.
By the time we get to the end of Acts 7 this young church numbered in the thousands. They had organizational structures. (Acts 6) They had systems for feeding widows and for caring for the poor. They had rhythms and favorite places for gathering together—Solomon’s portico, house to house, and I am certain they met outdoors on hillsides and elsewhere.
This work of God was gaining momentum and processes of sustainability. Until persecution shut it all down.
Luke tells us that the persecution grew so intense that everyone except for the Apostles left Jerusalem and scattered throughout the region. No more worship services. No more teaching led by the Apostles. No more house church gatherings. No more public presence. Everything was shut down.
My proposition is that the book of Acts is actually organized around moments of uncharted territory. Moments when the people and leadership of the church were forced to come together and seek the creative wisdom of the Spirit to show them a way forward. Moments that forged their--and our--DNA. Nearly every page shows them at a new fork in the road without a roadmap. (A while back I wrote a book about how their story birthed our DNA as a revolutionary people. Click Here for More.)
Let's ask an awkward question.
Could we still be the church, the Body of Christ, on mission in the world, without the weekend worship-teaching gathering that means so much to so many?
Could that young vulnerable church continue what Jesus started without the presence and teaching of the Apostles? Could they remain viable without the ability to gather? Could they extend the movement of the Gospel when they could no longer do what they had started?
Navigating the unknown with so much at stake is no small task. In moments like this for them and now for us there is no way forward that is tried and true. No way forward without risk.
Stepping into that destabilizing moment for the first century church is nearly impossible for us, we know the end of their story. It is hard to remember that this was all knew, they had no history to build on. But, maybe the fact that they found their way forward and the movement of God exploded can give us hope.
What can we do?
What leadership-specific lessons jump out from the story in Acts 8?
1.) Put Mission ahead of Methods
When everyone scattered they lost everything that was central to their life together in Jerusalem. However, shutting down the programs and rhythms of life they had formed didn’t shift their mission one iota. As people scattered they simply found new ways to continue what Jesus started.
The leadership lesson: Leaders keep mission in the center and hold methods loosely. Methods (or programs) are always a means toward an end, never an end in themselves. So, during this Covid crisis, our normal programs or familiar rhythms may be changing, but our mission is intact.
2.) Empower People to Drive the Ministry
The Apostles remained in Jerusalem, in their “pandemic bubble” if you will, while all the people scattered across the eastern end of the Mediterranean. However, the ministry continued to explode. Why?
The people of God became the army of God as they carried out the work of ministry. Men and women still young in their faith became church planters, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. The ministry was released from the control of a few and entrusted to the hands of the many. Whether in Samaria or Antioch or Ethiopia the the story was the same.
The leadership lesson: It is tempting to hold onto the reins of control. We get seduced into thinking we are indispensable. The truth is, our greatest impact will come by empowering others.
3.) Surrender Program-Based Identity
If meeting together as a large group in Jerusalem were an essential component of our identity as the body of Christ, the mission of the church would have shipwrecked against the rocks of that early persecution. Their identity—that fundamental core of who they were and what they were about—was different from the programs they had built.
One thing that this Covid epidemic has exposed is that we have so equated what it means to be the church with our familiar programs, that when those programs are shut down we feel lost. But that’s not true. Our mission, our mandate, our nature as the people of Christ is untouched. The demands of our context and this moment in time are actually invitations to greater creativity than we have ever known.
This shut down accelerated the growth of the first century church. Shut down did the same to the church under communist ruled China. And, there is no reason our contemporary restrictions can’t fuel radical expansion of the movement of God right now.
The leadership lesson: We have to let go of that sense of identity and significance we gained from the familiar programs that filled our calendar pre-pandemic.
Therefore, as a leader::
Focus on mission.
Surrender any program-based notions of identity or significance.
And, invite the Spirit of God to release levels of creativity beyond anything you have ever known.
Drop me a note with your email address through the comment or "let's chat" feature below. And I will send you a FREE COPY of the chapter from DNA of a Revolution where I go deeper into the story and power of Acts 8.