There’s no question the pandemic has dramatically affected church planting efforts. The Send Institute works closely with church planting organizations, and over the last year, we’ve seen newly launched churches revert back to pre-launch phases, teams indefinitely push out their timeline, and in some cases, church plants totally dissolve. The pandemic has made highly unstable ministry even more unstable. And yet, I want to reiterate here what I’ve written elsewhere: I think there’s no harder and no better time in our lifetime to start a church than now. I’m not just saying that. That’s really been the experience of the church planting team that I serve in Chicagoland.
For the last few years, my family and I have been doing life together with a small group of people. In early 2020, we were all yearning and looking to do more through our relationships for the sake of God’s Kingdom here in Chicago. By the time of the Spring lockdowns, we discerned God was calling us to plant a church of missional communities called The Prodigal Network. Our first official team gathering was June 14, 2020 on Zoom. In fact, since then, we’ve had more Zoom gatherings than we’ve had in-person. But in our first six months, what started with just the eight of us has now multiplied into two full missional communities of more than a dozen each. And every day our people are learning to be more like Jesus and to engage their community as missionaries with the gospel of the Kingdom.
Although I work with church planting organizations and networks on a daily basis, what I’d like to share with you are four pitfalls that our local church planting team has been trying to navigate amid the pandemic.
Daydreaming about planting in a non-pandemic situation.
It’s tempting to dwell on the things we can’t do because of the pandemic. Our team has been mindful to keep things moving forward and to avoid attitudes such as, “It’s too bad we can’t gather in person” or, “Once the pandemic is over then we’ll….” Instead, we’re always asking what it is we can do that’s unique to this time. One of our missional communities is currently focused on helping a few families learn how to do holistic discipleship and evangelism. We’re also launching a three-month leadership development and relational mentorship pathway that’ll give intense discipleship to the few dozen people that have joined the team.
Neglecting how the pandemic is affecting mental and emotional health.
The pandemic has had a mild to severe effect on people, especially those who have had to battle COVID or have lost loved ones. Our leadership team meets weekly and we’re mindful to do “check-ins” to see how everyone is doing. We’re blessed to have George Xiong, a professional mental health counselor, as a part of our team. He’s been instrumental in keeping this conversation in front of our leadership and in front of the rest of our church planting team. Focusing on mental and emotional health has also been a way to provide meaningful community and evangelism to our not-yet Christian friends and neighbors.
Underplaying or overplaying the national social, political, and cultural tensions.
So much that happened in 2020 has carried over into the start of this new year. There’s a temptation either to completely ignore or be totally overwhelmed by what’s happening with racial tensions, political upheaval, and the social issues that surround the pandemic. Our team has been mindful to thoughtfully and swiftly seize moments to mourn with those who mourn and to help those who are struggling in our community process these things. Ultimately, engaging culture with the gospel through missional living is our call. But prayerful discernment is needed so that: 1) we don’t just knee-jerk react to what’s happening in the culture, and 2) we don’t become enveloped and driven by it rather than by God’s Word to us.
Giving up too soon because you aren’t meeting the metrics of church growth theory.
Lastly, having planted churches before, I know that we’re not under normal circumstances to measure ourselves by the usual metrics. In fact, what we once deemed as normal metrics (church size, regular attendance, number of conversions, size of budget, etc.) were already being reimagined prior to the pandemic because we’re coming to realize church growth methods are seeing diminishing results. If you’re planting in the pandemic and hold yourself to the usual metrics, you’ll quickly become discouraged and disillusioned. Pre-pandemic methods applied to a pandemic situation will not yield pre-pandemic results. But the pandemic situation is teaching us post-pandemic methods that I believe can bring a Kingdom harvest like nothing we’ve seen before—but only if we persist in hearing, trusting, and obeying what God is telling us to do right now.
I really believe that those of us who have been called to plant churches amid the pandemic are embarking on an almost purely apostolic endeavor, and like Paul who was a master builder, we should focus on building a sturdy framework for others to build on post-pandemic. That mindset may even change not just our methods but also our model of church. But most importantly, our jobs are to make sure the foundation and the framework we’re building has Christ as its cornerstone. That takes the same amount of intensity and passion that it would in a non-pandemic situation—if not more.
What we’re discovering with The Prodigal Network in Chicagoland is consistent with what I’m seeing all across North America in church planting: courage and faithfulness to do new work for the benefit of the future church. That is truly apostolic. If while in the pandemic we’re diligent in equipping and mobilizing God’s people to love and evangelize their communities, on the other side of the pandemic we’ll see vibrant missional communities that will be part and parcel to the future of the church in North America.