Disciple-Making in a Time of Covid19

This week, my intention was to write a blog on the way in which modern physics can illuminate decision-making, with an emphasis on political decision-making. Then, in trying to answer a friend’s question about disciple-making, I realized it might be a good idea to talk about disciple-making in a time of Covid19.

Some readers will recall that with my wife I have written a curriculum on disciple-making and a series of blogs that are now a book in process on the subject. [1] Inherent in both these attempts is the principle that disciple-making takes place within and is an activity of the entire church, whether that church is a formal body or a small group of people. Jesus said, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I will be with them” (Matthew 18:20). In Hebrews the author admonishes the church, “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer”(Hebrews 9:25). The example of Jesus, Paul, and the early church encourage us in the belief that meeting together as Christians, and discipling people in groups, is not an optional thing for Christians.

Enter Covid19

The emergence of Covid19, and the responses of our government and governments throughout the world, have made difficult, and in some cases impossible, the work of sharing the Good News of God’s love within local congregations and beyond. The experience of our family is common. Initially, we could not attend church nor could our church hold services at all. We could not engage in our normal business and social life. This lasted for some weeks. Our small group did not meet during the first period of quarantine. In particular, Church committees and ministry teams stopped meeting. Mission trips were cancelled and local mission projects were put on hold. Everything was at a standstill.

At first, many of us thought to ourselves, “This is temporary and will soon pass.” But, that is not what happened. The absolute ban on church services ended in most states and communities by sometime in May or early June 2020, but there were still serious restrictions on groups and their meetings. A sanctuary built for 500 or so people might only hold 100 or so given the restrictions on the size of groups that might meet and social distancing requirements.  Many people, especially older people, no longer attended because of a continuing fear of exposure to the disease. This was true for both churches and small groups. In one older congregation with which I am familiar, the small groups ceased to operate all-together, and are still not meeting in any organized way.

Then, it became obvious that the disease was going to emerge in waves, and the lock downs might appear or reappear at any time. New strains of the disease were reported in newspapers and other media. In some places, churches that had begun worshiping in person stopped doing so for a period of time. Christmas programs were shortened and held online. By the first of this year, most pastors with whom I visited were of the opinion that between 10 and 30 percent of their congregations would never return. In some cases, budgets, were being cut. In a few cases, pastors would admit that they were not sure that their congregation would survive.

Going On-Line

The first response of most congregations to the problem was to go online. Facebook, U-Tube, Vimeo, and other technologies and platforms made this possible. In the beginning, larger congregations had a distinct advantage, many of whom were already recording or streaming their services. Then, smaller congregations began streaming their services. What was most amazing and comforting to me was the speed at which the availability, content, and professionalism of the new online participants increased. In some cases, some smaller congregation worship services seemed more real and more moving than those of larger, more technologically-savvy congregations.

One way in which the church of Jesus Christ may have been permanently changed by Covid19 is that smaller congregations that never broadcast their services in the past will probably continue to do so for shut-ins and others into the future. In at least one case of which I am aware total attendance is up for last year when “on-line” and “in person” attendees are put together. While this congregation has seen some financial pressures and program realignment, it has managed to enter 2021 in sound condition.

Touch by Phone and Mail.

Most pastors early-on recognized the potential of Covid19 to harm their Christian community. In every case of which I am aware, pastors, deacons, elders, small group leaders, and staff members began to call, email, and write shut-ins and others who were physically distant and unable to attend. In some congregations within the first two months every member was called, including inactive members. The purpose of these calls was to re-establish personal connection with the membership of the church. This was an initial positive of Covid19.

Many churches began or continued programs of sending cards to elderly members and others with pastoral needs that could not be met because of Covid19 restrictions. This was especially important in bereavement situations, where funerals were cancelled or delayed due to Covid19. Of course, those congregations which sent cards to visitors were constricted in this form of evangelism by the absence of visitors, a problem that continues to this day.

Media Meetings

Almost immediately, church groups, many of whom met weekly or monthly were faced with the need to find ways of meeting online. When the pandemic began, many church leaders had never heard of “Zoom.” Today, I attend some kind of Bible study or meeting every week on Zoom alone. Zoom is not the only alternative out there for online meetings, there is Google Hangout, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Free Conference, Group Facetime, and other platforms can be used to have such meetings.

Having visited with a number of pastors and executives about “Media Meetings,” I think that there are nearly always three responses:

  1. First, holding  Media Meetings has been a success, even where it was not the perfect way to hold the meeting.
  2. Second, Media Meetings are especially successful where the meeting has a concrete purpose and a decision to be made based upon information that can be sent to attendees in advance.
  3. Third, Media Meetings are not the perfect vehicle for brainstorming, evaluating potential courses of action, personnel matters,, or evaluating the emotional commitment and responses of people to a problem or opportunity.

Just a few weeks into the pandemic, our small group decided that we had had enough isolation and decided to meet by Zoom, which one of our members knew how to use and who sponsored the meeting. It was surprising how well the group adapted to the situation. As far as the content of the Bible Study and the sharing of information and prayer requests was concerned, on the surface we noticed no particular problems. We were excited to experience something new.

Under the surface, there were problems. For one thing, we could no longer eat a meal together. That element dropped out of our meetings all together. In addition, the men and women who were accustomed to a few moments together alone during the meeting to share concerns, ideas, and the like could no longer do so easily. Inviting new people to the study, while possible, did not seem likely. Informal disciple-making within the group was not easy. Part of our small group is sharing with the group opportunities we have shared our faith during the past week. This became very difficult except for those with an online platform through which to do so. As excited as we were to be meeting together in some form, the form was not perfect.

Virtues and Limitations of Virtual Church

As can be easily seen from the foregoing, there are both strengths and limitations in the notion of a “virtual church.” Most congregations have been able to “muddle through” Covid19 restrictions by adapting to the crisis and taking advantage of some of the opportunities that technology affords. This is a good thing.

The success many have had in adapting can, however, mask the limitations on “Virtual Community.”  My dictionary defines “Virtual” as “being such in power, force, or effect, though not expressly such”. As to computer generated virtual worlds, the same dictionary defines virtual as “a reality temporarily simulated or extended by a computer device.” From these definitions, we can see two characteristics of “Virtual Community” that should be concerning to all of us:

  1. Virtual Community is not “real”. It is virtual. Virtual community is a simulation or imitation, a temporarily created reality dependent upon the ability and willingness of those who control the technology to continue.
  2. Virtual Community should be temporary. Once again, virtual community does not exist without the creation of the virtual reality by those who control the technology. It is not a good substitute for people meeting together in the flesh and sharing their lives in deep and personal ways.

While technology has created the ability to continue the power and efficacy of Christian communities for a time, and in some cases for a long time, Christian leaders should not rely solely on virtual community for the extended future. There is no substitute for actual, in-person, human community. There is no substitute in disciple-making to one-on-one or small group disciple-making connections.

In the long run, no church can be and become all that God wants it to be unless it reaches out physically and personally to those who are without a local Christian community within which people grow in Christ-likeness. In the long run, those congregations that take Acts 2:42-47 seriously, and create the kind of growing, vibrant, spirit-filled community that Acts portrays, are those that will prosper during and beyond the current epidemic. [2]

Going Forward

Not long ago, I visited with a pastor about the challenges Covid19 poses for congregations. We were both aware of the many problems Covid19 has posed for pastors and leaders. As I write, there is no obvious end in sight for the dislocations of Covid19. The need for some kind of virtual church will continue for some time—in some form probably forever.

At the same time, my experience has been that those congregation with a strong small group program already in existence have fared better under COvid19 than those without a vibrant small group community. This would argue for congregations to continue and expand their disciple-making programs to the maximum extent possible, despite the current crisis and to respond to any opportunity to create and nurture small disciple-making groups within the local congregation.

Here are a few suggestions based upon my experience and the experience of those I have consulted:

  1. Make Forming Disciple-making Groups a Priority! Every pastor should make disciple-making a priority. This was true before Covid19. In multi-staff congregations there should be at least one staff member whose primary or sole duty is the formation and support of small groups. The focus of the pastor or single individual on disciple-making groups should not inhibit church leaders from making disciple-making and group formation “the business of everyone.” The Great Commission was for all disciples of Jesus, and all disciples of Jesus need to participate in this endeavor. Covid19 does not change the business of the church; it only changes our methods.
  2. Commit to Supporting and Growing your Program. In this environment, small, disciple-making groups usually need some kind of technology and help in making it work for their group. New groups will need access to technology as well as curriculum. Do not be satisfied with the status quo, be committed to growth by whatever means are possible for your congregation.
  3. Understand and Support Existing Groups. In one of my former congregations we realized we did not have a clear idea of how many small disciple-making groups we had! This church had a variety of Bible study, prayer, ministry, mission, reunion, monthly fellowship, and other smaller discipling groups. We were amazed at the number of people we had the ability to touch weekly. You may be surprised as well. Having identified these groups, find ways to encourage and expand their activities despite Covid19. For larger churches this is an opportunity to have all staff members and leaders grow in their capacity to take advantage of disciple-making opportunities.
  4. Identify and Train Leaders. A growing church has to grow new leaders. In the current environment, many new leaders may be younger members who were not previously in leadership but whose age and careers make them comfortable in virtual groups and “tech savvy” concerning their operation. In fact, Covid19 presents an opportunity to recruit a new generation and type of church leader. These group leaders should be asked to make a list of potential members, including people inside and outside of an existing congregation. Having recruited leaders, it is the business of pastors, staff, elders, and existing leaders to train and equip them for success.
  5. Give People Technology Options. Leadership should not try to make disciple-making groups a “one-size fits all” process. This is certainly true of the technology used by the group. For example, for one-on-one disciple-making, Phone calls, Facetime, Skype and the like may be just fine. Larger groups will need different and more complex technology. Having said this, churches and groups of churches that are able to should consider investing in their own platform designed or adapted for their needs.
  6. Curriculum and Management. As to curriculum, consider making your congregation’s basic small disciple-making group program an extension of the pastor’s text and sermon for the week. This requires that each pastor evaluate carefully where he or she wishes to take the congregation spiritually in the next period of time. It has the advantage of creating unity and cohesion among many people in a time when achieving such is hard. As to existing groups, offer them options, but allow them to decide for themselves what they will study and how they will meet.
  7. Make Your Program a “Hybrid” Program. As mentioned earlier, our group went from meeting in person weekly, to meeting online, to meeting both online and personally. When the initial Covid19 restrictions were lifted in our area, we began meeting in person, but some folks were either unwilling or unable to attend in person. My wife and I were among the latter for a good length of time, and occasionally even now. We have continued to allow members to meet virtually, not just because of Covid19 but also to accommodate people as the travel and conduct their professional lives in the face of Covid19.

Conclusion

I hope that this little blog is helpful to pastors and church leaders who are faced with the continuing restrictions Covid19 imposes on church activities. The basic message is simple: We cannot use Covid19 as an excuse to put the Great Commission on hold. Second, modern technology gives us some tools past generations lacked with which to meet the crisis. Finally, however competent we become at the art of virtual community, it will not be a substitute for in-person Christian community.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] G. Christopher and Kathy T. Scruggs, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo, 2017).

[2] They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47). Every church should make this the center and goal of their church life—and this means creating and maintaining smaller, disciple-making groups.

 

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