The past 60 years have been unprecedented for cultural, political and even ecclesiastical stability to the point of being predictable, if not boring. But there were assumptions over those same years about church life that became less and less applicable as time went on.
The church was the center of the community at one time, but now it is not. Church attendance was expected and robust but has now declined precipitously as options for travel, sports and leisure activity present themselves. The cultural milieu changed before our very eyes and many of us did not see it or even care to acknowledge it.
As a result, in many congregations the pastor became the agent of change for the sake of the mission. Industries were created and schools were developed, and movements formed to develop and embolden the pastor to establish “appropriate” missional strategic shifts. “Change Agent for the sake of Mission” would be his unwritten job description until March 2020 and the introduction of COVID-19 to the world.
For a dramatic shift to occur, for congregations to look at their communities through the lens and the force of Scripture, it would take a traumatic event of global impact. A trauma not unlike one 2,000 years ago.
I think Bible editors have misnamed the Great Commission as though Jesus said, “Oh, one more thing before I go.” A quick survey of the Gospels reveals that at least six times, not including Matthew 28, Jesus sent His disciples. He Himself went. He prayed for His disciples not only that they would go, but He prayed for them because of what would happen when they did go. (They would be persecuted, and the gospel would be proclaimed, resulting in the footprint of faith increasing in places His people never thought the gospel would go.) He would promise to send them the Comforter as they went because this would be a divine calling out of a divine strategy. Going with the Gospel is a ubiquitous command for His church and second nature to our confession.
In Acts 1 Jesus says, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Did the church go? Not until Acts chapter 8. Until then, going was, perhaps, inconvenient. They were content staying in the place where they were most comfortable—Jerusalem. In spite of all the previous encouragement, demonstrations, commands and prayers of Jesus, the church remained in Jerusalem. They liked the status quo, not unlike our recent past. It was not until Stephen was martyred and “Saul approved of his execution” (Acts 8:1) that the church was scattered. It was terrible stuff that was happening, including death. But now, going was expedient.
That is exactly what happened in Acts 8:4 and more. “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” Things were changing in a way they never expected. They were sent and they went with and delivered a fabulous message in places and in ways they never dreamt they would! They were in foreign territory, preaching good news.
These days the church is going to places of which they never dreamt also. There are people watching online that the church could not previously reach. Because of the new and vibrant online presence, worship services and Bible studies are being attended by people from a few blocks away to a few nations away. Vacation Bible schools are being resourced and supported locally, and having global impact. Reports include more people listening to Law-Gospel sermons by fabulous preachers from both small and large congregations than ever attended a worship service in person. Families that have not been in church for years have been attending together at home.
What some might sarcastically call a virtual church presence is actually accompanied by a message that is not virtual, but rather so real that it offers real life, real hope, real peace, real promise and real forgiveness.
]For the moment, the world to which we go, no matter how, is not stagnant or boring. As difficult and challenging as this is, this may be the moment of God’s strategy in our inconvenience.
By Rev. Steve Misch
Mission and Ministry Facilitator, Area A