Colin Marshall and Tony Payne aren’t prophets or sons of prophets (so they say). But in their book The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift That Changes Everything (Matthias Media, 2009), they concluded with a mental experiment about a pandemic that sounds eerily close to what we’re currently experiencing:
Imagine that the pandemic swept through your part of the world, and that all public assemblies of more than three people were banned. And let’s say that, due to some catastrophic combination of local circumstances, this ban had to remain in place for 18 months.
How would your congregation of 120 members continue to function—with no regular church gatherings of any kind, and no small home groups (except for groups the size of three)?
If you were the pastor what would you do?
I guess you could send your people regular letters and emails. You could make phone calls, and maybe even do a podcast. [The idea of livestreaming services didn’t cross my mind in 2009!—TP] But how would the regular work of teaching and preaching and pastoring take place? How would you encourage your congregation to persevere in love and good deeds, especially in such trying circumstances? And what about evangelism? How would new people be reached, contacted and followed up? There could be no men’s breakfasts, no coffee mornings, no evangelistic courses or outreach meetings. Nothing.
You could, of course, revert to the ancient practice of visiting your congregation house-to-house, and doorknocking the local area to contact new people. But how, as a pastor, could you possibly meet with and teach all 120 adults in your congregation, let alone their children, let alone door-knock the entire suburb?
No, if it was to be done, you would need help. You would need to start with ten of your most mature Christian men, and meet intensively with them two at a time for the first two months (while keeping in touch with everyone else by phone and email). You would train these ten in how to read the Bible and pray with one or two other people, and with children. Their job would then be twofold: to “pastor” their wives and families through regular Bible reading and prayer, and to each meet with four other men to train and encourage them to do the same. Assuming 80% of your congregation was married, then through these first ten men and those that they subsequently trained, most of the married adults would be involved in regular Bible-based encouragement.
While that was getting going (with you offering phone and email support along the way), you might choose another bunch to train personally—people who could meet with singles, or people who had potential in door-knocking and evangelism, or people who would be good at following up new contacts.
It would mean a lot of personal contact, and a lot of one-to-one meetings to fit in. But remember, there would be no services to run, no committees, no parish council, no seminars, no small groups, no working bees—in fact, no group activities or events of any kind to organize, administer, drum up support for, or attend. Just personal teaching and discipling, and training your people in turn to be disciple-makers.
Now here’s the question: after 18 months, when the ban was lifted and you were able to recommence Sunday gatherings and all the rest of the meetings and activities of church life, what would you do differently?
It’s still surreal that we’re living through this once-in-a-century kind of event that has brought the world to a halt. For the church, though, it has brought a host of issues to the fore—from basic tech questions to how to keep your small church going to whether or not we should practice the ordinances to how to continue showing hospitality.
Now that Marshall and Payne’s imaginary scenario is reality, I corresponded with them to ask how this global upheaval is changing ministry practices and what pastors should be doing to serve their flocks.
You believe this will stress-test the quality of the “one-another” culture in our churches. How can church leaders foster that biblical dynamic in this time?
What we argued for in The Trellis and the Vine was a decentralization and multiplication of ministry—ministry that complemented the preaching ministry of the pastor by promoting different forms of vine work (that is, prayerful Word ministry) through every level of a church’s activities, and by as many of the members as possible. That’s what we mean by a “one-another culture”: one where God’s Word is dwelling richly in the one-another teaching, admonishment, and encouragement of the congregation.
Those churches who started down that culture-change project 10 years ago should be well-placed now with a growing team of church members who are trained and already active in speaking God’s Word to one another. And often these sorts people don’t need to be deployed by their pastor, because they already see the needs and opportunities in this pandemic context and are getting on with the job.
All the same, this is obviously a time to push further down that track. We suspect that one practically important way to do that in the coming months will be in gathering our congregation into quite small cells—of just three to six people—who keep up with each other regularly by phone and in online meetings. The people in our congregation who already “get” the one-another concept (because we’ve taught or trained them) will be important in making these kinds of small online groups work well. And we will no doubt need to train more of them in the coming months. (And we shouldn’t forget: perhaps one of the key places where these little cells could and should operate best is in the home. The one-anothering that takes place in our households is always important, and will be even more so during this time.)
Pastors who’ve been too program-centric or even pulpit-centric up to this point will have a problem—because they haven’t been multiplying the number of fellow-workers in the congregation, who have the heart and vision and competence to partner with them in the ministry of the Word (when our normal structures aren’t possible).
In other words, almost overnight, our ministry culture has been radically changed by the inability to gather in person, and this could go two ways: (1) we could maintain people in a fairly passive, program-centric or pastor-centric attitude towards church by only offering them streamed or online versions of our existing church services and programs, or (2) we could grasp the opportunity this new moment offers us—and begin an overdue culture shift to training our people to minister to one another.