In this blog Dr. Robin Johnston discusses generational shifts and COVID’s effect on the church. Dr. Johnston serves as the editor in chief and publisher for the United Pentecostal Church International. In addition he is the director for the Center for the Study of Oneness Pentecostalism and an adjunct professor at Urshan Graduate School of Theology.
With a restriction on gatherings, how do we rethink community?
In some ways the pandemic has caused an existential crisis for pastors. In many ways spiritual life previously revolved around pastors.
How do we rethink [community]? This may mean developing small groups, covenant partners, and find those who will help us to be motivated to grow spiritually.
That’s not to suggest pastors are egocentric, but our model has been that the pastor breaks the spiritual bread. What happens when the pastor doesn’t have the opportunity to minister the Word like in the past? We must look for alternative ways to make that happen.
We need to return to community of some kind because for most of us in most areas of our lives, we need the reinforcement of community. How do we rethink it? This may mean developing small groups, covenant partners, and find those who will help us to be motivated to grow spiritually. Generally people’s hearts are in the right place, but people get busy. If going to church is not possible, how do we create a community that sustains itself and looks out for people the way community is designed to work?We need models of spiritual growth coming from outside the pulpit. This may reemphasize the importance of small groups and finding new ways to invent church community. Click To Tweet
The Apostolic church was born in adversity. We find ourselves in adversity once again. (Some churches still can’t meet/sing due to restrictions by state government). If COVID-19 had hit in the 1950s with a generation who knew what it meant to survive the Great Depression and WWII, they may have handled this pandemic completely different than we are today. That generation had fortitude and grit. How could we develop this grit factor?
I’ve long been fascinated with the way Christianity developed in North Africa. In the early centuries, Christianity was central, but by the sixth century, Islam swept across and pushed Christianity out of the majority of the continent. The easy answer is Muslim leaders conquered by the edge of the sword and used violence to coerce converts. That is not necessarily the right answer. Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
The issue may be the depth of our belief—whether our Christian faith is core to our identity or just another thing we do.
Adversity has helped the church at times, but in other instances adversity has detracted. When I look at North Africa, I believe the problem was that the church got pushed to the periphery. Muslim proponents did not kill every Christian; they marginalized them—pushed them to the edges of society, hurting their businesses and their influence. People converted to get ahead in the world. Other factors certainly came into play, but cultural pressure was certainly a factor. The desire for social acceptance and personal success often sways people in surprising ways.
My grandmother stood on a flatbed truck and had street services while critics threw rotten eggs and tomatoes. How did that grit disappear? What is the danger we face today? The issue may be the depth of our belief—whether our Christian faith is core to our identity or just another thing we do. That is an uncomfortable answer, but one thing to consider is if our Christian faith is primary to our identity.
Again, COVID-19 has revealed that faith in some cases is not the center of our identity but a part of our identity.
Even before COVID-19, we saw church attendance changing. For some families and individuals, dwindling attendance is the result of a changing personal commitment. How much of that is generational?
When churches became large enough to have specialized events that were not for everybody, it changed church cultural expectations. Let’s say a church starts a young marrieds’ group night; not everyone is going to come. In some ways we’re saying not everyone takes part in every part of the church.
I think churches have to ask themselves the hard question: are we in mission drift? Are we doing things only we can do?
With spiritual growth, it’s one thing to know philosophically you should be growing spiritually, but another thing to join along with other people and talk transparently about spiritual growth.
Are they important to who we are, or could the community—the Elks Club, the Lions Club—do the same kinds of things we’re doing?
We must clearly define what we do. Bill Hull, in his book The Disciple-Making Pastor, proposed certain ministries of the church are “Velcro ministries.” If the church has a softball team, people who have no interest in joining the church might play on the team. The hope is these people will stick around long enough to develop a hunger for church. Is the leadership, however, intentional about moving people from the Velcro ministry into the actual ministry of the church and into spiritual maturity?
As a pastor trying to teach people how to give, I could teach from the Bible, I could model it personally, but when people observed other members giving, it taught in ways a pastor couldn’t teach. I remember a new convert being really proud of giving $239 for the year to the church. This person had no benchmark and thought his contribution was huge. However, as the new convert got the sense of what others were giving, this person gained perspective and understanding that helped him grow in this area.
In a similar way, we need models of spiritual growth coming from outside the pulpit. This may reemphasize the importance of small groups and finding new ways to invent church community.
Pastors have to be careful the church doesn’t see them as professionals, pushing church members to spiritual growth because that’s what the pastor is paid to do. This can do the opposite of encouraging spiritual growth and makes it difficult for pastors. Having the group aspect can encourage organic spiritual growth because modeling and encouraging growth is not coming from the pastor alone.
Church work days are an interesting phenomenon. As a church gets large enough to hire out work around the church, there’s a temptation to outsource it. But we lose an aspect of emotionally and socially reinforcing to the church body how important the building is. Similarly with spiritual growth, it’s one thing to know philosophically you should be growing spiritually, but another thing to join along with other people and talk transparently about spiritual growth.
(For additional theology interviews, click here.)
Resources and Links by Dr. Johnston
Handbook on the Book of Acts (Also available in Spanish)
Howard A. Goss: A Pentecostal Life
Spiritual Disciplines: Essential Practices of the Christian Life
The Art of Pastoring: Essays in Honor of Timothy A. Dugas
Small Group Resources
For small group resources, click here.