“Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do…”
1 Chronicles 12:32 ESV
Consider three scenarios: P, Q and R .
(1) Pandemic & Pandemonium.
It’s Christmas 2020. Efforts to find a vaccine remain futile. The virus continues to wreak havoc worldwide, with widespread new waves of outbreaks. Global recession sets in, impacting many livelihoods across the board. All industries dependent on physical interactions find themselves on an extinction trajectory – they get drastically scaled down or attempt to shift to virtual platforms if possible. Governments struggle to contain the impact and maintain a war-time posture – with little bandwidth to think of anything else. There are signs of Global Famine, as major food shortages afflict various nations.
At the national level, fears of virus community spread remain very real. Singapore faces an unemployment rate worse than the 1998 recession. Experts project prolonged sluggish economic activity.
Human physical gatherings are limited to a small group size. There are no more live major conferences or large church gatherings. Work from home is the new normal. Virtual communications become the norm. Travel is only permitted for essential business.
(2) Quasi-Recovery & Quandary.
It’s Christmas 2020. The world has been partially successful in containing the virus – it’s neither here nor there. Some countries have effectively eliminated the epidemic, but remained on heightened alert. Other countries or regions – especially those with weak health care systems – continue to suffer the effects of pandemic. These countries or regions are for the most part ‘quarantined’ from the rest of the world – and yet they are also in great need. People from the afflicted communities are subjected to discrimination in other places.
The countries that have contained the virus are moving cautiously to revive their economies, and increase trade and travel with other ‘recovered’ countries. But everything is done with an abundance of caution, as new outbreaks here and there force nations to think twice about accelerating recovery efforts.
At the national level, Singapore is fortunate to be among the ‘recovered’ countries. But many surrounding countries are still struggling to contain the virus. What’s more, the recession has come, and many are unemployed or have suffered substantial income reduction. Travel is severely curtailed and only permitted to specific countries where the virus is contained.
(3) Reset & Renewal.
It is Christmas 2020. A vaccine has been found with active steps being taken to provide wide-spread immunization. Humanity experiences renewed optimism and confidence. The much-feared prolonged recession turns out to have a manageable impact so far, and there are already some signs of recovery. Governments quickly move to restore ‘normalcy’ with limited restrictions in place.
At the national level, the virus is eliminated or else contained within the community. Some people have lost their jobs or have suffered income reduction, but the fallout is lower than feared. Government is carefully steering the nation through the crisis, and public trust in the government is high. People may travel freely, subject to some restrictions. Companies and families make long-term plans – for conferences, investments, and travel.
Society is actively discussing and re-envisioning the future look of the nation. “Never again” is the vow. Not least on the agenda is the structure of society and the employment and welfare of Migrant Workers. Furthermore, there is much impetus to work towards a more sustainable economy, and redress some of the deleterious effects of industry on the environment.
We don’t yet know which scenario will pan out. But it is probable that the less optimistic scenarios will become reality.
Across all scenarios, there is no “going back to normal”. A yearning to revert to “the way things were” pre-Covid19 will render us unable to respond to the long-term changes in the way society will function. We’d be playing catch-up, which means that our ability to provide pastoral care and to disciple our members will be seriously hampered. Our ability to engage the world for the kingdom will also be diminished. We must not keep our heads in the sand.
Ok, so what do we do now?
We hope you are not looking to us to give answers. You’d be looking to the wrong people. However, we can offer some thoughts on how your church or organization can be more future-ready and future-faithful.
By ready, we don’t mean having an answer to everything like a troubleshooting manual or examination marking key. Rather it’s about having a community that is resilient against challenges and having the capacity to adapt to changes.
By faithful, we don’t just mean that the church maintains a confident belief that God will see her through. Rather it’s about maintaining the character of a church that is devoted to Christ and is true to that character in its words and deeds – i.e. reflecting her Lord – even when the circumstances have become different and harder.
What’s it going to take? There are people in the Church who are skilled in doing ‘scenario planning’, and we’d be happy to recommend them. For now, may we suggest four lines of action:
1. Build Capacity to think and plan long-term – to be future-ready and future-faithful. Thinking and making big changes while running ongoing ministry activities is like trying to upgrade your car while driving it. Experts on crisis leader speak of the need to “pause, assess, anticipate and then act” . You just can’t do them well if you are mired in current crisis fire-fighting mode. There will be pastoral cases to respond to, meetings to conduct, sermons to write (and to video), acts of service to organize, and all the prayer time that goes with that. But you’ve got to schedule time to reflect on and plan for the future.
An organizational leader typically has a planning horizon that stretches into the months and years. The same goes for a community leader. If this means dropping some of the stuff that you’re already doing, let it be so. You may need to get others to share your burdens, settle more of your admin work, or to bounce ideas off with. But for the sake of the call and of the community, make that space.
And while you’re at it, make space for others to also think further down the road.
2. Create Conversations. Your team may be looking to you to give directions and to make decisions. But you’re going to need them all to be aligned in spirit and purpose – and that doesn’t happen by edict.
The church thrives on the collective wisdom of all its members, and we are assured that the Spirit gives insight generously. For that to happen, your team must talk and listen to one another. So many problems and issues can be resolved when people just pick up the phone and talk. Yes, even in a high-tech world, you’ve got to talk.
It takes deliberate practice to create conversations that allow for a divergence of opinion where others are free to speak up and offer their thoughts; Subsequently, to steer the conversation towards convergence – i.e. a collective decision on the way forward. It may seem frustrating to not get the answers straightaway, but trust the process.
Here are some possible conversation topics relevant to COVID-19:
a. Consider the three scenarios P, Q and R. What may each of these mean for our church or organization? What needs to be done differently? What are the main opportunities for witness?
b. How is this crisis going to be a challenge for our people ? How might it be a blessing? How have we been listening to them all? Have any groups been left out?
c. For the foreseeable future, “where” will be the primary place for discipling people? “Who” are involved? And how may we re-direct our resources for this task?
d. What’s stopping us from harnessing digital technology for discipleship and missions? What can we do about it? What’s the consequence of us not embracing digital tech? What must we be careful not to lose if we were to do so?
e. What shall we do with our rituals / sacraments (Baptism, Communion, Marriage, Funerals)? What faithful forms may they take? What other regular practices now need to be more invested with spiritual significance – viz. with the presence of Christ?
f. What’s the future of global missions work? What doors have had to close for us? What new doors have been opened, where God is at work?
May we add that honest conversations are founded on strong relationships with trust.
3. Co-Create, Not Remake: Share ideas & collaborate with other ministries and local churches. God has placed similar ideas in many hearts across His church, and all seek His kingdom. Share then – freely and without restraint, reach across the traditional boundaries, reach out to join arms with the wider church to show God’s love to all. Let us then collaborate not compete, consolidate not duplicate, multiply rather than divide. Together, we can be one Body with Christ as the head.
4. Finally, Maintain your Aim. The circumstances are going to keep changing, few things will pan out as planned. But always be clear about your mission and your purpose. We mean the fullness of the calling that God has for His church.
We have good news of a kingdom that is not of this world. We have good news of a Lord who has conquered sin and death, who stands above any government or philosophy or human solution; who is the way the truth and the life. We also have a cross-shaped weight of glory to bear – the special means by which we would testify to our Lord and Saviour.
And each of us has a unique role, a vocation to fulfill – our special marching orders. For a local church – it could well be the neighbourhood that your church premises are in, and where most of your members live.
Those steeped in organizational development speak would recognize all this as relating to Mission, Vision and Values. This can be refracted through the lens of scripture to simply refer to the character and commission of the Kingdom of God.
And here’s the secret and the promise… the clearer you are about it, the easier it will be to discern what is to be done and to make decisions, even when the situation is unclear. It may even set you up for substantial adaptation – who says that church had to always be ‘structured in this way’? Whatever it takes to fulfill the call…
Even though this is the last point, you can see that it’s actually of first importance. We reckon that one must devote lots of time in prayer and the word to maintain such clarity. It’s the key to everything else.
The motto of Singapore Youth for Christ is to be “Geared to the Times, Anchored to the Rock” .
We pray that will describe the Church come Christmas 2020. We may then find that this overturning of “normal” will reveal fresh potent ways of revealing God’s way of redemption and transformation.
#FutureReady #FutureFaithful #FutureChurch #SpiritofIssachar
This post was written with inputs from EeLing Ng and Han-Teck Goh.
A collaborative effort.
The title is taken from a song album released in 2003 – I listened to it time and time again as a young adult. Terry Virgo and others have written books and articles with the same name. Seems to be a perennial theme for the 21st Century.