Yes, Christ was compassionate. But he was also bold.
At a time when society will accept almost any restriction of freedom as long as we’re told that it “keeps us safe,” it’s understandable that a naturally bold personality type may have some problems. We also cause some issues these days, if I’m honest, especially for pastoral staff.
A friend from church, Jeff, invited me to join a small impromptu group of men who would meet on Thursday afternoons to pray for our pastoral staff in June. We’re all relatively bold men who gravitate towards action and, at that time, we had all grown restless with what had started as “15 days to flatten the curve” and had turned into, “your church is now a Youtube channel.” To its credit, our church was meeting in person once a week for an outdoor, socially distanced service, but all other church activities were still suspended indefinitely.
Each of us knew of several church members who were suffering severe spiritual, mental and emotional struggles and it was clear that church life being choked into submission was having major spiritual consequences. There didn’t seem to be any efforts or even intentions to get back to normal.
Our pastor had formed an advisory board of church member physicians and nurses, most of whom seemed to believe that we should pretty much cancel life until they found a cure for death because this was the compassionate decision and Jesus was compassionate, remember? This didn’t make sense to us–still doesn’t–so our little prayer group prayed hard both for more bold leadership from our lead pastor. And because we’re the kind of dudes we are, for better or for worse, we weren’t content just praying. We decided to have a conversation with our lead pastor, which went ok, I guess. He’s a great guy and received our concerns with humble, measured calm as he always does.
I’m writing this in mid-September, and we’re still at a fraction of capacity in the worship center. Everyone walks around in masks and nowhere near back to normal regarding Sunday School or small group ministry. I know that thousands of churches across the country would love to be in our position. On the boldness spectrum with John McArthur on one end and Andy Stanley at the other, our pastor is right in the middle, so I can’t complain.
Another friend of mine, Joe, is so bold he makes me look sheepish in comparison. Joe refers to folks like us as “lions.” Joe was having similar problems with his pastor, who he could not convince to get everything moving again. Joe had been leading a small student group for a year, which, like everyone else on God’s green earth, had been meeting on Zoom since March and their dwindling participation proved that the kids sick of it. A virtual connection is not connection.
But God smacked Joe in the face with a freeing realization when he picked up his phone to call his pastor to try and talk him into opening up the church for small groups again: he didn’t need the church (little “c”). His group is the church (big “C.”). So instead, he asked his pastor, “what would you say if I told you that our group is going to start meeting again, for those who are comfortable with it. We’ll Zoom in those who aren’t comfortable but the rest of us will meet, informally and unsanctioned by the church, here at my house on my screened porch?” His pastor replied, “can I come?”
I try to empathize with the number of pressure pastors are under to make the right decisions with no modern precedents from which to pull. I think most pastors believe in better-safe-than-sorry policies and probably have half or more of their congregation’s support in their “measured, compassionate” approaches, not just to public health issues, but on social issues as well. Many of us want our pastors to be more Voddie Bacham when maybe they’re closer to Matt Chandler.
This is why bold folks like Joe, Jeff and me can be a real thorn in the side to pastoral staff and, at times, we wonder why we even try. Jeff, who was a deacon at our church, ended up joining another church. I even started to question whether I’m a good fit for my church. But then I had that conversation with Joe that set us both at peace. We decided that if we genuinely were among those whom Joe calls “lions,” why in the world would we allow ourselves to get frustrated while waiting for our pastors to make decisions? Why would we allow ourselves to become more frustrated if their choices weren’t as bold as we thought they should be? Why wouldn’t we go out and do it ourselves?
Yes, the church may be squeezing out its lions, but maybe that’s a good thing.
Depending on your perspective, you could call this a conflict of interest or just a focus of interest since I wrote, directed and currently promoting Small Group the Movie, but I would argue that one of the best things we can do is to recommit ourselves to small groups, community groups, life groups, connect groups, whatever hip name your church’s communication consultants have recommended you call it.
Whether our churches are organizing and facilitating it or not, whether they’re recommending it or not, one thing I can agree with Andy Stanley on is that we need believers gathered in living rooms across the country supporting each other, praying with each other, and studying the Word more than at any time in our lives. In several states, it’s the only way you’re legally even allowed to have church.
Maybe the lockdowns, masks and social distancing are effective in slowing viral transmission. Still, they’re also disastrously bad for human connection and the lack thereof is causing an epidemic of brokenness. Barna says that as many as one-third of church members have disconnected with their churches. Online attendance is plummeting. Depression and suicide rates are rising. People need Jesus; we need to live by the Spirit; and, we need each other. These needs were also Jesus’ two commands in his summation of the law–love God & love each other. The small group setting is the perfect place to pursue both in an intentional, semi-organized yet organic manner, connecting with God through study of the Word and prayer and connecting with fellow believers in supportive conversations.
So, all you lions out there who are sick of roaring into the air about the lack of boldness in your church or society as a whole, I have great news for you: God is calling you to do something outside those walls, maybe even in your living room. Rally up a group and use it to love God and love your neighbor.
Matt Chastain is a filmmaker and writer/director of the upcoming movie, Small Group available now.