Leading in Crisis

Responding to Crisis

Leading the Church into the Future by Richard Blackaby

This article originally appeared on richardblackaby.com

When a pandemic struck the entire world, state governments decreed the unthinkable: churches couldn’t meet publicly. Many leaders panicked and urged their people to hold on until things returned to normal. Other pastors improvised. They began livestreaming their services. They offered Bible studies using Zoom. They developed ministries to elderly shut-ins and single moms. Some churches launched drive-in services and others dropped off care packages on church members’ doorsteps. No one saw this crisis coming. Yet some leaders adjusted to the new reality, seized new opportunities, and led their churches to thrive.

Tod Bolsinger wrote an interesting book entitled Canoeing the Mountains (aff)In it, he uses the example of Lewis and Clark to glean lessons for the Church. The famous duo set out to discover a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. They were equipped with canoes and paddles. The problem was that they ran into the Rocky Mountains. Their presuppositions had been wrong. Their training and equipment were inadequate. If they intended to accomplish their mission, they’d have to adapt.

Bolsinger makes a strong application to church leaders today. Much of what has made churches successful in the past will not work in the future. Society has changed. People’s view of the Church and its ministers has grown increasingly cynical. In the past, church planters could post a sign advertising their church launch, and people would come out of the woodwork to attend. Most churches never developed a robust approach to community evangelism because enough people came to them. But that model is changing. Churches that fail to develop community ministries will be increasingly marginalized. COVID-19 exposed churches that were still using the tried-and-true method of opening their doors and waiting for people to show up. Some churches have had to catch up and adapt quickly. Others have been waiting out the storm.

I spend half my time working with Christian CEOs from corporate America. I have been on numerous Zoom calls with them as they seek to navigate COVID-19. Doing so has provided a fascinating contrast of how business and church leaders are preparing to lead in the future. Business leaders know they can never return to the way things were. They don’t look back; they look forward. They don’t bemoan lost opportunities; they search for new ones. Church leaders could learn much from this approach.

One significant contrast I’ve noticed is that business leaders are far less tolerant of unfruitful practices. If something isn’t achieving the desired results, they change it. But church leaders often hunker down with the same unfruitful ministries and bemoan the fact that the younger generations don’t love Jesus like the older ones did. Churches tend to hold on to unproductive practices far longer than business leaders do. If it was good enough for Paul and Silas, they argue, why would the church change things now? Too often, church leaders confuse mission with methods. The Church’s mission, as well as its message, ought never to change. The Church has been tasked with making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19). That mission will stand until Christ’s return. But the Church should change and update its methods as often as necessary. Currently, the Church is losing roughly 70% of its youth before they graduate from college. That’s a 70% casualty rate. It often takes only one semester of college for these young people to cast aside 18 years of church discipleship. If businesses were losing people at that alarming rate, they’d make all manner of changes or else they would be out of business! Sadly, many churches are merely castigating today’s youth, the Hollywood-infected culture, Washington, and Wall Street and then grimly trying to carry on with business as usual.

Jesus told a fascinating parable in Luke 19:11-27. He was in Jericho. He had just encountered Zacchaeus, the most notorious sinner in the region, and the tax collector had been gloriously converted (Luke 19:1-10). Rather than widespread celebration at the winning of such a prominent convert, everyone complained that Jesus was going to eat at Zacchaeus’ home (Luke 19:7). Eating at the house of a tax collector, regardless of whether he had repented of his sins, just wasn’t done. Jesus was using methods to build His kingdom that the religious leaders disdained.

So, Jesus did what He often did in such circumstances. He told a story. A king was going to a distant land to receive his kingdom. He left ten minas with ten of his servants and instructed them to “do business till I come” (Luke 19:13). But the man’s citizens hated him and did not want him to rule over them, so they sent a delegation to protest his rule.

When I first read this parable, I was troubled by this aspect of the story. Clearly, the man going to receive his kingdom was Jesus. He was traveling to a distant land, so his return would not be immediate. But what about the part about his citizens not wanting him to rule over them? It recently dawned on me that the same is true today. Modern society does not want God to rule their life nor does it want to follow God’s standards. Yet Jesus has entrusted to the Church ten minas each and told us to grow His kingdom. How are we to do business for our King when the people of the land reject His rule? It won’t be easy, so we will have to be creative!

When the king returned, he asked for an accounting from his servants. The first had taken his ten minas and earned ten more. He received much praise and was placed over ten cities. The second had gained five more minas and was rewarded with five cities. In neither case did the king express concern at the significant risk required to double the investment. The only person to suffer rebuke was the servant who played it safe. I can imagine that if that servant were working during COVID-19, he’d encourage people just to hold on to what they had until life returned to normal. He would hope that they wouldn’t lose too many people once they resumed services. His focus would be on retaining, while the other servants concentrated on gaining.

I believe the future calls for entrepreneurial leadership in both business and the Church. It demands creative, future-oriented, courageous leadership. Outdated methodology must be discarded, and new, more effective means implemented.

Effective leaders know what matters. They hold tightly to the mission and the message, but they hold loosely to the means. They clearly recognize that the means are just the means. They’re not the ends.

COVID-19 has been a wakeup call to leaders everywhere. Some have responded brilliantly. Others have buried their mina in the sand and dourly waited out the storm. Such leadership will not see God’s kingdom expand, and it certainly won’t be rewarded by the King.