John McGinley, New Wine’s Head of Church Planting Development, Development Enabler for the Archbishops’ College of Evangelists and Associate Vicar at Holy Trinity Leicester, explores how we can gather people around prayer, experimentation and training during this unique season.
There have been many helpful analyses of the processes required to respond well to the effects of the Covid Pandemic. The framework used by those working in disaster emergency response are the three phases of Response, Recovery, and Reconstruction. It feels like many churches have done the response and recovery reasonably well as we have scrambled to learn the skills of online technology and pastored people and taken opportunities to serve our communities. While we are excited about the very real possibility of a vaccine being available soon, as leaders we are now tired and the government strategy to limit the spread of the virus gives us a good indication that we will be living with a significant level of restriction for at least the next few months. This seems to blur the phases, as we are still not in the reconstruction phase where we could be more confident about the structures of church ministry and the steps to church plant that might be needed next. This long-term uncertainty can result in us feeling disempowered and paralysed, unable to move forward. So, I began to ask the question, ‘What can we do during this season?’. I came to five practices that I think any church can explore during this time that will strengthen their life in God and prepare them to plant in whatever way God calls them to. They resonate with the need for leadership that leads with a flexibility and adaptability and which depends deeply upon God and one another.
Calling is the context of a healthy relationship with God. Throughout the Biblical narrative of God’s relationship with his people he is always calling them to a purpose. One of the dangers of this lockdown period is a loss of the sense of our calling. Because it is difficult to actively make progress to any church planting goal we have set we are in danger of losing this dynamic of calling. Everything has changed but nothing has changed – the Covid pandemic has changed everything but the church is still commissioned to preach the Gospel and make disciples and plant churches. Each church has specific call to contextualise this call in their place and with the people around them, and when this is communicated it unites people in their common call. It is this aspect of the vision that will need bringing back into focus during the coming months. How can we do that? Through preaching and written communication reminding people of the mission of God that we are part of. Remind people of the call and desire to plant in a certain community and track back over the way God has led you to this dream. It doesn’t require a detailed picture of the future or a strategic plan, this is more about dreaming with God and continuing to inspire and unite God’s people in an outward and forward direction.
Press into Prayer
If this season is one of pruning or ‘Winter’ in which the work God is doing is beneath the surface to prepare for the new life that is coming, prayer is the practice that connects most clearly with this. I love the story of James Fraser, a missionary to the Lisu people in the Himalayan region of China. Because of heavy snow he could not visit small groups of new Christians in mountain villages and so for the winter period he simply prayed for them. When the snow melted he returned expecting to find that they had given up on their faith. Instead he discovered vibrant church communities that had grown during that period. We will not know the results of our prayers during this time but we can be sure that God hears them and uses them in the work of his kingdom coming. This is a time to dig deeper into God so that in the future we can go further when we have the freedom to. As Oswald Chambers wrote, ‘Prayer does not fit us for the greater work, prayer is the greater work’. This call to prayer can be expressed individually or corporately and it doesn’t have to be a big programme, just the encouragement and opportunity for people to gather to pray. Make commitments with one another about how regularly you will pray together and how you will pray when you’re apart. Watch online videos from the place you’re planning to plant, or show pictures or go for socially distanced prayer walks.
It can feel that the Covid restrictions limits our opportunity for community building and I think there is a sense of tiredness with time spent online. But when we invite people to gather around the vision God has given you and for the purpose of prayer then you can be sure the Holy Spirit will be stirring a desire in some to gather with others who share the same heart. Imagine coming out of this lockdown period with a fired-up group of people who have prayed together regularly for six months who long for the opportunity to start to work on the ground in place God has called you to plant. Even if that is only a handful of people you will have made great progress towards launching your plant.
Experiment and plan
President Eisenhower said, ‘In preparing for battle I have always found plans are useless but planning is indispensable’. This isn’t a time for making long term strategic plans but there is space for developing our thinking and testing ideas. The key questions to ask are around ‘what God is teaching us?’ and ‘where is God at work?’ and ‘how does this inform our future planting plans?’. One way of exploring this is through experimentation. An experiment is small, low cost and for a limited time and it can have a sense of play and imagination about it. The aim is to learn and see if our thoughts about this being a fruitful area of ministry are correct. The principle of fractals is such a helpful concept. I don’t know if you have ever looked at a fern plant and seen that the fern structure of the whole plant is repeated in the branch structure and then in each individual leaf. It is an illustration that if you learn something through a small experiment it can often teach you about a much larger aspect of the community or culture you’re planting into or a ministry that God is wanting to grow.
Innovation online has great potential during this time. What could you do on social media to begin to connect with people in your planting community. Join social groupings, set up Facebook and Instagram accounts for your church plant and start engaging through them with people. During the Covid restrictions a friend of mine, Andy, has been pioneering a new church plant. He found an old roulette wheel in a local pub and asked if he could borrow it. He then set up ‘roulette prayer’ on Facebook live where twice a week he prays for the local area using the roulette wheel where he has attributed roads and local groups to different numbers and wherever the number lands he prays for them. True Holy Spirit inspired, crazy evangelism and people love it. You can run Alpha online. You could consider taking the online capability we have built and using it to explore multi-site by offering to set up a feed in a church building that hasn’t been able to open and inviting people to come and watch the feed from your church with a local team creating community locally. What resources could you develop – write songs, produce films, write poetry all of which can be posted online. Let’s experiment in a way that it doesn’t matter if we fail but it creates a sense of movement and possibility that God will definitely join in with.
Invest in Training
Sports teams in the closed season and armed forces in peace-time periods do two things – rest and train. We must not ignore the need for rest – ensuring we have a quality of rest is vital and that will often involve us choosing to do something lifegiving rather than just more time sitting at home – a friend of mine has learned to make stained glass windows. But alongside this we can invest in training so that when restrictions are lifted we step out of this time fit and prepared for action. What we train in matters. Linking it to the vision or plans or prayer we have talked about will help people have a sense of purpose and value in the training rather than it simply being another activity. And connecting it with the way you are seeking to build community will reinforce those relationships. I felt prompted to invite 15 young adults who I see as potential pioneers to join me online for fortnightly sessions at 7.00am and they all said yes! We are following the leadership principles of Nehemiah’s life and having some training and accountability in missional living, and believing God will birth something new during this time. We are also running the national CCX church planting course online on Thursday evenings over 10 weeks with five church planting teams.
The choices we make today determine who we become in the future. Let’s use this time productively because we know that our heavenly Father is always at work, for our good and our call is to discern what he is doing and join in. So why not take some time to Refresh the Vision for planting, and then see how you can gather people around prayer, experimentation and training.