One of my hopes for The Payneful Truth is that it will be an opportunity for the very thing I discussed in last week’s edition: for us to speak the truth in love with one another, for mutual instruction and encouragement.
So far so good! Thanks for the many emails and comments that have done just this. And in the coming weeks, I’ll be touching on some of the specific questions you’ve asked, including these two:
Does this view of overlapping ‘zones’ of speech in the Christian community also help us think about Christian speech to outsiders? Do we also have ‘preaching-teaching’ style evangelism and ‘one-another’ evangelism?
Small groups are a good opportunity for ‘one-another speech’ but what about the main Sunday gathering? Shouldn’t it also be a place where we encourage and exhort each other? If so, how?
Stay tuned for more on both of these questions. But in the meantime …
Neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son
As a number of Payneful Truth readers have pointed out, last week’s post on the importance of ‘one-another edifying speech’ takes on a particular relevance in the era of COVID19.
In fact (as some others also reminded me), the final paragraphs of The Trellis and the Vine rather spookily made this connection. The following words were written in 2009, not long after the swine flu epidemic:
Try this mental experiment. Imagine that a swine flu 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 12 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 doorknocking the entire suburb, let alone follow up the contacts that were made?
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 per cent of your congregation is married, that would be all or most of the married adults 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 doorknocking 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. There would be just personal discipling, and training your people, in turn, to be disciple-makers.
Now here’s the question: after 12 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?
(Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine, pp. 165-167).
Now, I am neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son (Amos 7:14); nor do I know anything about viral outbreak management, flattening the curve, or any of the other subjects about which people on Facebook suddenly seem to be experts; nor is this little parable meant to prescribe what should be done in 2020.
But it does seem to me that the current circumstances will provide a stress-test for the quality of the ‘one-another’ culture in our churches. When our normal opportunities for public preaching and teaching ministries are curtailed (as is already happening in many places), the degree to which we have taught, equipped and encouraged our congregations to speak the word to one another will become apparent.
No doubt many of us will find ourselves underprepared. However (and this was the point of the ‘swine flu thought experiment’), sometimes being forced to think outside our standard modes of operating can be helpful. As stressful and difficult as the current situation is for many pastors and congregations, the changed circumstances also provide fresh opportunities—not only for giving comfort, prayer and hope to those whose secure world has been upended by the pandemic, but for supporting, encouraging and equipping our people to minister the word prayerfully to each other in multiple different ways.
As we figure out how to see gospel ministry continue and grow in the year of COVID19, let’s not only make plans for livestreaming sermons—as important and necessary as that is; let’s also think creatively about how to teach and equip our congregations to “exhort one every day as long as it called ‘today’, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13).
PS. And for this week’s random pic: I am not a prophet’s son, but I am the son of a wonderful Christian mother (Helen Payne). Here we are about four years ago with her first great-grandchild, (and my first grand-daughter) Ruby.