In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
…After the above excerpt, Lewis moves on to what he saw as the “real point.” … He points out that all of science agrees that the end of life on this earth is inevitable. It’s only a matter of “when” not “if.”
If the threat of an atomic bomb serves as a reminder for us, then it can be a good thing. “We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities,” he writes.
Once we are awakened to the frailty of life, Lewis says we see at once that whether or not an atomic bomb destroys civilization is not the most important question. Something was always going to destroy us and civilization.
The most important question becomes: Is this all there is?
If we are going to die (and we will), if civilization as we know it will be ended (and it will), Lewis argues, then we should be most concerned about what, if anything, lies beyond the natural world?
And as we live life differently—both from how we did previously in limiting our interactions and in how others do now through selflessness—we will have the opportunity to speak of Christ to those who are waking up to the realities of this life.
Now that banning gatherings is becoming commonplace, the faith community will be temporarily forced to morph into something new (or maybe something old, read on).
During this time and afterward some churches will thrive, but others may struggle. Having coached churches for 30 years, trained hundreds of church leaders and earned two doctorates in the field, here is my forecast with survival options for those churches at risk.
Churches that will suffer the most:
Churches with aging buildings and no savings
During the 20th century having an impressive building was a way to make a church’s presence known. Many churches borrowed their way into debt to restore, renovate and expand older facilities. When downturns in attendance occur (and they always do) such churches may not have the flexibility made available by sizable savings.
They are vulnerable because they do not have contingency plans for an attendance downturn. If a roof needs repair, a boiler replaced, etc. a church may find itself no longer inhabitable after a quarantine.
Impressive facades, of course, weren’t the way the church became known in the New Testament. Paul reminded the church that they should not be known for their physical attire, but instead he encouraged them to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12, NIV).
Survival options: Look for ways to cut overhead by selling, leasing or giving away facilities that drain budgets. Research the correct amount of savings a church like yours should have and create a savings plan. Also, begin to build your church’s reputation upon compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. These are the best avenues to make a church visible in a community.
Churches that have overbuilt
A church building craze exploded in the ‘70s and ‘80s and led to many sanctuaries that are outsized for their current congregation. Even a megachurch (a church of over 1000 attendees) may still have hundreds, if not thousands of attendees. But the cost of oversized facilities and their upkeep may mean that that even these churches have little resources available for unexpected expenses or low offerings.
This problem arose in part because of a popular 20th century adage (not supported by research) that, “If you build it, they will come.” And so, the size of the expansion was customarily based on the size of the congregation at the time of building.
For example, a church in the 1990s may have been running 400 people in an early service and 600 people in a second service with a facility that seated 800. An architect might suggest combining the two services (not a good idea, because it decreases options in times and styles) and combine into one service in a new 1,600 seat sanctuary. “After all,” the church leaders reasoned, “400 plus 600 equals 1,000. And, a new sanctuary of 1,600 would give us room to grow.” But, when the service times and styles were merged in a large cavernous sanctuary, the church began to run only 700 people. A lack of options in times and styles started the church on a downward trajectory.
Survival options: Look at ways to right-size sanctuaries. Converting part of the sanctuary into classrooms, welcome centers and prayer spaces can create intimacy in the once larger space. And look for ways to monetize facilities.
My co-author Mark DeYmaz in his book, The Coming Revolution in Church Economics: Why Tithes & Offerings Are No Longer Enough and What You Can Do About It, outlines dozens of ways churches can lease out portions of their facilities, create local business hubs, develop shared working spaces, etc. to increase income from aging buildings.
Multisite churches, who own their own sites
A trend in the 20th century was for growing churches to purchase older church buildings, theaters and community buildings in which to hold satellite worship services. Many times denominations did this to encourage growing churches to take on the expenses of a closed church. But, because of the reasons cited above (e.g. the cost of maintaining the facilities) when combined with attendance drops, liabilities were rapidly created.
Survival options: Lease or rent sites for offsite services. And look for opportunities to sell, lease or give away facilities you own. This promotes longterm flexibility when demographics, styles and finances change.
Churches that rely on the onsite Sunday morning offering
With the proliferation of online giving tools, most churches have embraced online giving. However, some have not and this creates hurdles for supporters. Even churches that have misgivings about online tithing, offerings and pledges will rethink their strategy when the church is dispersed.
Survival options: Create and promote an online giving option. Many denominations have a preferred online giving tool to use. Then educate your congregation about why disciplined giving and online avenues can help a church to thrive.
Churches that put on a Sunday spectacle.
Some churches spend an inordinate amount of time and money on the lighting, sound, musicians, broadcasting and staff associated with putting on an elaborate Sunday morning experience.
These Sunday morning expenditures will now be seen as optional, as churches are forced to focus more on smaller groups as a way for people to be connected and discipled. And, congregants may discover that smaller groups which are flexible and meet in neighborhoods are more enjoyable and convenient.
Survival options. Many of today’s young pastors have created youthful churches that are moving away from Sunday performance and toward more organic expressions of church. I provide a look at 12 categories of organic churches in my book, Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations. Most of these emerging congregations prefer less staging, softer music, audience participation and smaller auditoriums (capacity around 200).
Churches that will survive:
House churches, pub churches, café churches and online churches.
These entrepreneurial smaller churches are often dismissed by leaders of more established congregations. Typically they meet in rented or free facilities. Their low overhead allows them as small churches to more easily survive fiscal cycles brought on by a quarantine.
Churches that have spent their money on staff, rather than spent their money on facilities.
The trend in the 20th century was to expand facilities and stretch staff. This created overworked leaders. Then, when emergencies arose small staffs were not able to handle the extra workload. But if a church spends its money creating a team of experienced and talented staff, these entrepreneurs can create innovative online options.
Churches with bi- or co-vocational leaders.
My colleague, Dr. Jay Moon, describes bi-vocational pastors as those who work two jobs until the church can support them. He describes co-vocational pastors as those who work two jobs, never expecting the church to support them full time.
In other words, the latter have a clear calling to leadership in the marketplace and to leadership in the church. Because the co-vocational pastor does not envision a time where she or he will be in full-time employment of the church, they may be able to make longterm decisions without personal financial needs clouding their judgment.
Still, both can be an advantage during times when churches are unable to physically meet. A bi- or co-vocational pastor will become less of a drain on the church finances. And a pastor who is involved in marketplace leadership will better keep her or his pulse on needs in the community.
Churches that are young, having been recently planted by a mother church.
Planting a church is an arduous endeavor that requires creativity and entrepreneurship. It takes tenacity, good theology and a balance between ministry and family. The very balance needed in a good church planter can help him or her maintain equilibrium during attendance swings brought on by viral quarantines. And, did I mention that many church planters are bi- or co-vocational? That’s another strength.
Good news—most churches will survive.
My 30 years coaching leaders has led me to believe that God empowers his people to survive and thrive in difficult times. The Bible is overflowing with people that God empowered to overcome adversity. Church history further attests to this.
Christians have a grit whereby they come together and work for the long-term existence of the community of faith. It may mean that the facilities, staffing and priorities may change during and after a quarantine, but the Holy Spirit and God‘s will for his church will not change.
A Scripture reminder is Paul’s admonishment that “We pray that you’ll live well for the Master, making him proud of you as you work hard in his orchard. As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us” (Colossians 1:10-14, MSG).
What every church can do to increase survivability
Focus on making learners, as Jesus commissioned us in Matthew 28:18-20. Your goal should be to help congregants “learn” during this time, not necessarily congregate.
Focus on small groups as the primary venue for discipleship. Research indicates that most people stick with a church when they are involved in a small group which meets regularly for Bible study, prayer and service. The Methodist movement was founded and grew because of such small groups. And Jesus exemplified this when he chose 12 learners who he apprenticed to become his 12 apostles.
Focus on prayer and serving the needs of others. During a difficult time Christ does not want us to make foolish decisions about our health. But he does want us to think of others as more important than ourselves. This means considering ways we can help others during this period and therefore let Christ’s light shine through us. Philippians 2:1-4 (MSG) sums this up fittingly:
If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
…Last Sunday, March 15, was tied for the highest usage day in YouVersion’s history (tied with Easter last year).
The top five verses shared that day all had some relation to how people approach the current situation.
Hebrews 13:16 — Don’t neglect to do what is good and to share, for God is pleased with such sacrifices.
Psalm 91 — The one who lives under the protection of the Most High dwells in the shadow of the Almighty. (v. 1)
2 Chronicles 7:14 — [A]nd my people, who bear my name, humble themselves, pray and seek my face, and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land.
2 Timothy 1:7 — For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.
Philippians 4:6-7 — Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
By Shilo Brooks, Scientific American Magazine, 3/14/20.
… The Wright brothers’ success at solving an engineering problem that captivated the human imagination for millennia was not a fluke. Flight is far too complex an undertaking merely to chance upon. To see what made the Wright Brothers successful and what we can learn from them today, we must consider what made them different. What qualities of character, curiosity and temperament did the Wrights possess that enabled them to conquer the air when specialists couldn’t? And what kind of problem was the problem of flight such that unique minds like theirs were required to solve it?
Thirty-one years after their famous first flight, Orville Wright reflected on what made the Wright brothers different. A journalist told him in an interview that he and his brother embodied the American dream. They were two humble boys with “no money, no influence, and no other special advantages” who had risen to the heights of fame and fortune. “But it isn’t true,” Orville replied, “to say we had no special advantages. We did have unusual advantages in childhood, without which I doubt we could have accomplished much…. The greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity. If my father had not been the kind who encouraged his children to pursue intellectual interests without any thought of profit, our early curiosity about flying would have been nipped too early to bear fruit.”
The Wrights’ father, Milton, was a Protestant bishop with a zeal for books and inquiry of all sorts. His wife Susan was a mechanical whiz who studied math, science and literature in college, and who often built toys for the Wright children. The bookshelves in their home were filled with novels, poetry, ancient history, scientific treatises and encyclopedias. They encouraged their children to read widely and to take responsibility for their own education. When the Wright brothers were asked about their early interest in flight, they always said they got interested in it “for fun,” and that they wanted to use their profits to fund future scientific explorations.
In his late 20s Wilbur Wright began reading books on the anatomy of birds and animal locomotion. These investigations would eventually lead the Wrights to develop their innovative three-axis control system, which mimicked the torsional movement of bird wings. Wilbur soon wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution to request pamphlets published by Samuel Langley and Octave Chanute on aerodynamics. “I am an enthusiast, but not a crank,” he said, “in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine.”
Shortly after the brothers began conducting their experiments in North Carolina, they discovered that the tables of air pressure data provided by Smithsonian scientists were “unreliable” and riddled with errors. They promptly set about building their own wind tunnel to acquire accurate measurements. “We did that work just for the fun we got out of learning new truths,” Orville said in retrospect. They also built their own motor with the aid of their chief bicycle shop assistant when no engine manufacturers responded to their inquiries about building one small enough to fit the flyer…
The Wrights’ insatiable curiosity and love of truth enabled them to bring to bear on the multifaceted problem of flight the full range of their capacities as human beings in ways that others could not. They began to see that it was, as Wilbur put it, “the complexity of the flying problem that makes it so difficult.” It was a problem that “could not be solved by stumbling upon a secret, but by the patient accumulation of information upon a hundred different points some of which an investigator would naturally think it unnecessary to go into deeply.”
Entrepreneurs are said to have egos. That’s a fair assessment — I don’t know a single founder who doesn’t have a need to be seen, to leave a mark on the world. But the entrepreneurs I know need something far more important than that: respect. They want people to understand how valuable their time is. The problem is that many of them fail to extend that same respect when it comes to their team members’ time.
As noted in a previous Forbes article, respect is the third most important thing employees look for when seeking a new job. While that may not be top of mind for you, it certainly is for others. Eighty percent of employees surveyed in a study cited in the Memphis Business Journal said that “lack of respect is a serious problem in the workplace” — and that it was getting worse. Another study found that 63% of those who don’t feel respected intend to leave their present job within two years.
You may think you don’t “waste” anyone’s time. Intentional or not, here are some common ways we’ve all done it:
The survey, conducted Feb. 4 to 19, 2019, asked respondents to name the first person who comes to mind when they think about Catholicism, Buddhism, evangelical Protestantism, Islam, Judaism and atheism.
For three of the religions, Americans are most likely to name a figure from long ago: for Buddhism, Buddha; for Islam, the Prophet Muhammad; and for Judaism, Jesus. For the two Christian groups asked about, people are most likely to name a modern religious leader – for evangelical Protestantism, Billy Graham; and for Catholicism, the pope…
Asked about evangelical Protestantism, nearly half of Americans (46%) say “no one” or “don’t know” or do not answer the question. An additional 21% name Billy Graham, 5% each name Jesus and Martin Luther, and 9% name other religious leaders…
About half of respondents asked about Judaism name a person who appears in religious scripture, including Jesus (21%), Moses (13%) and Abraham (8%). And 7% name either a well-known historical figure, such as Anne Frank or Albert Einstein, or a celebrity such as Jerry Seinfeld. An additional 5% name someone they are personally acquainted with, and 4% say God.
Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: About this time last year at two of my client churches, the lectionary required that I speak on the Book of Job. Subsequently, I preached a sermon titled, “Why bad things happen to good people.” My friend and colleague, Dr. Ken Schenck, delves into this topic deeper, but clearly, in his post today. For an introduction to the differences between God’s permissive will and God‘s directive will, take a look at his article.
by Ken Schenck, The Common Denominator, 3/22/20.
…Here is a good illustration of growing precision within the pages of the Old Testament. “God has no grandchildren”–our eternal fate is a matter of our individual relationship to God, not that of our parents. It goes the other way as well–our eternal judgment is not a matter of our parents either.
There are still consequences to sin in this life, of course. If a mother takes drugs while pregnant, God may not intervene to protect the unborn child from the consequences. The child of an alcoholic parent may still have to deal with the psychological consequences of growing up in that environment.
The book of Job brings out the complexity of the situation. Job suffers even though he has not sinned. He never finds out why in the pages of the book. God comes to him at the end and basically tells him that understanding the situation is above his pay grade. Here is the final answer to the problem of suffering. God is in control. God is good and knows what is happening. We will never fully understand. We must simply have faith that “the judge of all the earth will do what is right” (Gen. 18:25).
Of course we know that Satan has made a wager with God from Job 1-2. Job never finds this out. In my Wesleyan theology, this is a good example of the fact that much of the suffering that happens in the world is a matter of God’s permissive will rather than his directive will. That is to say, God does not directly order everything that happens.
God is sovereign. Nothing happens without God’s permission. God is in control. God signs off on everything. But God gives some degree of freedom to the creation. God gives some degree of freedom to humanity and to the natural order. God knows what will happen, but he does not dictate everything that will happen.
There is of course a competing view, the idea that “everything happens for a reason.” There is the Calvinist view that God specifically directs everything that happens. In my view, this makes God the author of evil. It makes the statement that God is love meaningless.
… In all this I remember that death is not so powerful in the face of Christ. Death has no victory over us! In my own journey with the problem of evil and suffering, a key conclusion has been that I give too much credit to death and suffering, as if they are a big deal.
God is a big deal. I am only a big deal because God loves me. My death is only a big deal because I am one of the sparrows God watches over.
So I will take precautions. I will be vigilant. I will heed the advice of experts. I will pray for my leaders. I will pray for others.
But in the end, “The LORD is with me. I will not be afraid what a mortal [or a virus] might do to me.”