Are we living in a watershed time? If we are, how should we respond as Christians in a world that is quickly becoming unrecognisable to us? Gary Mulquiney, a ministry coach and pastoral supervisor, explores the resources that are available to Christian leaders to help navigate this COVID-19 season that looks to be ushering in a new normal that will have profound impacts on how we worship, connect and work.
Are we living in a watershed moment?
A watershed is a place where waters gather. It can also mean a ridge or mountain line, like the Blue Mountains near Sydney, from where waters start to gather. When it rains, water flows to one side of the ridge or the other, to Bathurst or Sydney. So, it is a turning point, geographically speaking but it can be a moment or season in time from which things turn a different direction. This can affect cultures, countries and organisations or people. In this article I am thinking of churches, ministries and people.
“Are we in such a watershed moment when things in the future are different to the way they have been? We are in my view, but not because of COVID-19.”
COVID-19 is just the latest and most severe in a long line of disruptions since the 1960s. The global pandemic is a health and finance disruption, but it has the effect of accelerating and making more severe other disruptions we have had. This is because it can break national budgets and all the plans a government has. Our Government expects it will be 2060 until the COVID-19 debt is repaid – 3 generations of Australians would be paying for it.
The Church is a master of disruption and a master disrupter
The Church has always disrupted itself when it needs to. Or perhaps I should say, God has disrupted us when we needed it! He is the Disrupter of all Disruptors. In the Old Testament God disrupted Abram’s life and sent him in a radically new direction. God used a famine in Joseph’s time (Genesis 37f) which resulted in God’s people changing countries. It happened again in Moses’ time. More disruptions came with Joshua and Judges. The Philistines disrupted the Israelites and God used Saul to disrupt them.
In the New Testament – God disrupted Israel by sending Jesus to Galilee of the Gentiles, instead of Jerusalem. He also chose 12 new leaders, none of whom were from Jerusalem. God let Paul disrupt the early Church and then disrupted him on the Road to Damascus. He disrupted the Church at the time of Stephen’s death and his people were again scattered to other countries. God also disrupted sin and Satan under Jesus – a fantastic thing. In doing so he disrupted his own people and finally Jerusalem letting it fall under the Roman general Titus. There is a very long line of disruptions in our history.
“The Church has also taken many forms over time, with new models disrupting the old.”
From small family groups to house churches, from city and state to country size churches. To be German was to be Lutheran, Scottish Presbyterian and English, the Church of England. Then we chose a less nationalist approach and went to Denominations. Then came independent churches and networks and home churches again. What will be next? Who can say but COVID-19’s disruption asks us to explore possible futures. Perhaps it will be a combination of face to face and online. Much depends on the length of time before a vaccine is found.
Many disruptions in our lifetime: 1960s – 2020
Since the 1960s the Churches have been disrupted by society. Denominations have been shedding members and the Church has gone from the centre of society to its margins. There are new personal, social, gender, sexual and spiritual values in society now. A new globalism, plurality and relativism have merged which is often anti-Christian. The current public health crisis restricts church attendances and ministry and drives us online. On top of this there are now social justice riots in the streets and increased international tensions.
In response to this disruption since 1960, some churches have taken secular identities and let the world in, losing their Christian distinctiveness. Other churches have turned inwards and pulled up their drawbridges against the evil outside, seeking an oasis of safety, peace and purity because the barbarians are at the gates.
However, we should not fear such disruptions nor fear being called upon by God to learn to disrupt the world again- with new manifestations of goodness, grace and renewal.
“Could God be disrupting us even now, leading us to a new place through this disruptive chaos, so as to re-equip us to bless the world with new life and power?”
I think so, and it could be as radical a change as the Council of Jerusalem was in approximately 50 AD which removed distinctions between Jews and Gentiles.
God may be using our long line of disruptions to disrupt both Church and society to bring both to a new place of re-engagement. If so, then we are at an important watershed time and a threshold moment.
Stephen: From disruption to realignment
In approximately 30 AD Jesus gave the church its mandate – to bring the Kingdom of God to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the world. Yet at Stephen’s death (approx 35 AD) the Church remains in Jerusalem. Then a disruptive persecution followed Stephen’s death and the Church was driven out of Jerusalem to other countries. One of a number of places it settled was at Syrian Antioch, a Gentile city, a predominantly Greek and pagan city. The church consisted of some Greek influenced Christians from Jerusalem and converted pagans. It was not founded by any of the Twelve but God soon provided the Thirteenth – someone called Saul who understood the secular world very well indeed. Antioch became a new kind of church, via the fires of crisis and disruption. The result was a renewed and realigned Church which understood, personal needs and transformation happened on mission for Jesus.
As for the Hebrew Church in Jerusalem, it stayed there until just before the city and temple were destroyed in 70 AD. The Jewish people were then expelled and it became a Gentile city. What a massive disruption. If we are in our disruptive time it would pay us to prepare and this article suggests a way of doing that – by embracing the disruption as Antioch did.
Disruptions can be thresholds of opportunity
“Thresholds call everything into question, and require us to walk through the doorway of unknowing, and open us in the end to more than we thought possible.”
David Drake – Narrative Coaching
The word ‘threshold’ comes from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”. It is helpful because it brings us the word ‘liminality’. This enables us to see disruption as a process, a time of transition to be approached with faith and confidence in God. If God is allowing, using or even designing our disruptions, then Jesus will be journeying with us through it.
Personal, organisational or even worldwide disruptions can bring us to new personal and social identities, purposes, confidence and power – if we embrace them with Jesus. Much like the results of the persecution because of Stephen and the resulting new identity, power and purpose of the church at Antioch.
In a liminal or threshold transition there are three stages – a stage of disruption and chaos, then one of confusion, fear and uncertainty as we enter further in, and finally a transformation stage where the person or organisation has a new sense of identity, purpose and confidence.
Applied to our Church, we have left the identity of the Church of the 1950s and gone through the confusion and chaos of the 1960s and on. We have a new identity, no longer safe and secure at the centre of society. People left the Church and others did not want to join it anymore. The third stage, through these fires of affliction, is one discovering God’s redemptive purposes again, along with a new understanding of self, of God’s and His ways and purposes and plans for us and a new hope and power.
The new identity often bears little resemblance to the old. Think of the people of God undergoing the Exile to Babylon. God disrupted them, and they left their former place at the centre, as well as their former identity and role and the familiar places of city, temple and priesthood. Then they were transplanted to a foreign city with all of the attendant fears and uncertainties. Their new role was to pray blessings on pagan Babylon. It was,
“to seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Jeremiah 29:7 (NIV)
The sadness of that story is that most chose to stay in Babylon when the 70 years of exile ended. Choosing to stay then, results in sadness. Are we at another threshold time? A social, administrative and ministry disruption of the Church leading to a new identity and purpose and power? I suspect we are, but not because of COVID-19. This global pandemic just intensifies all the other disruptions we have had since 1960.
A short Church history: From the margins, to the centre, and back to the margins
From Jesus day onwards we lived on the margins of society. Then Emperor Constantine moved us to the centre in 313 AD. We remained there for a long time – for 1700 years, until the 1960s. By then the 17th century philosophical and scientific movement known as The Enlightenment took over the role of the Church and became the new Centre, calling itself Modernism. Loving science relegated faith to the personal and private realm. This gathered steam and burst forth into the whole of Western society in the 1960s – as Postmodernism. The Church had no answer. It was pushed to the margins of society again, the place of its origins and of renewal. Pluralism, relativism, and globalism has reigned ever since – until now, when Globalism is retreating.
What should we do?
I suggest we embrace the disruption and confusion, the fear and uncertainty whilst holding Jesus hand and let him lead us through. Other words for disruption are ‘death and resurrection’. And this has always been God’s way of renewal, right from the beginning.
Consider Abram and Sarai -they were called to a new role and a new future, far beyond what they could imagine. To gain the new future, they had to die to their own hopes, plans, dreams and ways of doing things. Their disruption was a death and a resurrection time for them, full of fears and uncertainty. It was fearful and risky to leave, but much riskier to stay. That this level of disruption, a 10 out of 10 sized one, is usual for people of faith can be seen in Genesis 22, when God again challenges them to die to the hopes and dreams they had for Isaac. Yet, this disruption unto death and renewal is newer and older than Abraham’s. Newer, in that Paul practices it…“ I die daily…” (1 Corinthians 15:31 NIV). And older, as in the Creation Week of Genesis 1.1f.
It is most interesting and instructive to see God has constructed his world on a disruptive principle – to teach us that whatever disrupts us, he disrupts and makes it result in renewal and life. With the Sun, Moon and stars being made on the fourth day, we can see the light and darkness in the first 3 days is spiritual, not natural. After all, it takes the spiritual darkness to overcome the spiritual light of the first three days. Nothing else could. But consider this, instead of God creating a 24 hour day full of light, he only created, for example, a 12 hour day; the other 12 was a disruption by darkness of his spiritual light – repeated for the first three days so we would get the message.
“By this we can see that God grafted spiritual darkness into his purposes, thus showing his power and control over it.”
We see then, that God let spiritual darkness disrupt his light on Day One. In other words, God lets the darkness and death of Genesis 1:1 overcome his light at the end of the day. God shows us His ways – the resurrection of light and then its death and then its resurrection again the next morning. This light and darkness, this daily death and resurrection of his works are then fixed into the physical Creation from Day Four onwards. This reminds us life is a wrestle and tussle between these two forces (Ephesians 6.10f), and that light is more powerful.
We do not need to fear any disruption. Jesus has got it covered already. We may be tempted to run away and hide, to do anything but to consciously engage with Jesus in our own death to self, ministry vision and hopes. Who would choose this, it is just not natural. But…we are spiritual, and must go through the death and resurrection process so we can experience renewal and be of use to Jesus in saving the world.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds”.
John 12.24 (NIV)
Dr Gary Mulquiney is a Pastoral supervisor and ministry coach. He holds a Doctorate from Fuller Seminary in Organisational Leadership and is a Member of The Institute of Coaching at McLean, Harvard Medical School Affiliate.
Gary equips pastors, clergy, chaplains and leaders to increase their spiritual, physical, emotional and mental capacity to thrive in ministry health and influence.
Mob: 040 9999 824
Pastoral supervisor and ministry coach.
I help people to increase skills so you can grow yourself, your ministry and your influence over a lifetime.