life, love and mission in the time of pandemic
[Five conclusions from the 2021 Canadian Church Leaders Survey]
Message Canada, reKindle and Church Planting Canada collaborated in a survey of Canadian congregational leaders. The goal was to identify how church leaders responded to the restrictions, challenges, and opportunities in the COVID-19 pandemic. In this season, Canadians dealt with social and travel restrictions, isolation, and disruptions to their regular rhythms and routines. Many Canadians had to adapt to working remotely and shifting to virtual meetings with colleagues and clients.
During the pandemic, between March 2020 and December 2021, approximately one in five workers (16.7%) adopted virtual work from home on a temporary basis as a sanitary protocol strategy at the request of governments. This proportion is highest in the human and community services job categories (NOC 2021). Our research focused on the spiritual lives of leaders. We wanted to learn what was going on in the interior lives of Canadian ministers and how they adapted to following Jesus on mission during this extraordinary season. I have settled on 5 discoveries.
#1. A Season of Pressure and Presence
God is faithfully present in the midst of pandemic pain and pressure. 75% of respondents indicated that they struggled with their mental, emotional, or physical health. Almost 1 in 4 battled with anger and frustration. This takeaway means the vast majority of leaders experienced significant personal pressure. At the same time, God was tangibly present. Half of respondents reported that their spiritual path was either more difficult or had become stagnant as they managed the complexities of leadership in the pandemic era. However, almost 80% of leaders surveyed testified that the Lord had used other believers to lead them into an experience of His love. This speaks not only to the reality of God’s sustaining grace, but also the life-giving power of community. When asked to recount spiritual discoveries during the pandemic, leaders testified that God showed up in the dark days of the pandemic revealing His love, granting His peace, and giving his joy and infusing leaders with hope (79% of all surveyed). More than 1 in 3 of leaders highlighted God’s call on their life as a key learning or discovery during this period.
"75% of respondents indicated that they struggled with their mental, emotional, or physical health."
#2 We Need Issacharites
David’s mighty men included a posse, “from Issachar, men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” 1 Chronicles 12:32. In this pandemic moment what is God doing? How does the gospel speak to the existential questions raised? Is there a word from the Lord that brings hope in the midst of fear? How does Scripture speak to the hoarding at the onset of the pandemic? How does Scripture speak to fear, death, isolation, the fragility of life, and the inability to make plans during shutdowns and travel restrictions? The survey revealed a mixed response to the question: Have you adapted the content of teaching and preaching to the pandemic and its restrictions? 42% indicated a significant shift in the ministry of the Word while 58% registered moderate, little, or no change. However, digging deeper we discover that 62% of leaders did not respond to the question at all. Qualitative responses reveal leaders continuing their book-by-book expositional approach (i.e. no homiletical adaptation), shortening the sermon, or recording how they had to learn to preach to a camera. While some leaders adapted their teaching format, very few leaders indicated they brought the gospel to bear on the moment.
#3 Wanted: Change Agents and Missional Innovators
Dr. John Davidson stated, at a SEND Institute Missiologists Think Tank that the coronavirus presents the opportunity for every church whether 6 months old or 60 years old to relaunch. Most Canadian leaders are not onboard with this. When asked, “From now on, will you do things differently as you follow Jesus on mission?”- only 28% of leaders indicated post-pandemic ministry activity will be significantly different from pre-pandemic ministry. Our God is the GOD of innovation and renewal as Isaiah declares, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (43:19) Following Jesus on mission in this moment requires the people of God to embark on a journey of deep change. Some respondents indicated that they had switched to online platforms to communicate God’s Word in cyberspace. The adoption of a livestream feed, or the use of a new technology is not deep change. Our survey indicated that congregational leaders exhibit low levels of learning agility, and are either unwilling, unable or ill-equipped to lead the way through the white water rafting of deep change.
#4 We Need Elevated Evangelism Mojo
Our survey revealed that Canadian congregations are evangelistically weak. The survey revealed a lack of missional imagination and low levels of evangelistic fruitfulness. This is unsurprising yet sobering, nonetheless. Canadian congregations that have established an evangelism culture are ecclesial rarities and beautiful anomalies. Reportedly, 80% -85% of North American churches have either plateaued or are in decline. Church planting has long been lauded as an ecclesial remedy for evangelism torpor. Wagner stated, “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven." This is still widely quoted to advocate church planting. However, church planting has a dirty little secret. Most church plants experience numerical growth through sheep shuffling and recycling the saints. Established churches and church plants are making marginal redemptive inroads into the lives of those “without hope and without God in the world.”
"The survey revealed a lack of missional imagination and low levels of evangelistic fruitfulness."
The survey unearthed an intriguing disconnect between renewal and missional engagement. 75% of respondents testified to intimacy with Jesus resulting in definitive Holy Spirit empowerment (question 10), however this has not translated into evangelistic sizzle or fruitfulness.
#5 We need to deal with a Discipleship Deficit
There was a modest response to the question: Have you continued to strengthen and/or multiply disciples over the past fifteen months? Only 38% of leaders registered a response. Of those, only 22% indicated that this was a significant priority or focus. This reveals an ongoing challenge for the Church of Jesus. We can run programs and engage in activities; however, we are not investing in the core mandate to apprentice men and women in the way of Jesus and to make disciples who make disciples.
Footnotes  A worker is a person, 15 years of age or older, in the labor force as of February 2021, or approximately 3.1 million workers.  According to the National Occupational Classification 2021 (NOC - 2021), chaplains, evangelists, ministers of religion and auxiliary ministers of religion, pastors, priests, reverends, preachers officiants, clergy, bishops, parish priests, clergymen, chaplains, designated Salvation Army officers, are included in the NOC 2021 job family: 41302 - designated Religious Leaders; in Subgroup 4130 - designated Professional Occupations in Community and Social Services; in Major Group 413 - Professional Occupations in Community and Social Services; in Major Group 41 - Professional Occupations in Law, Education, Government, Social and Community Services; in Major Group 4 - Education, Law, and Social, Community and Government Services. We asked: “What has been your greatest personal challenge during this COVID-19 season?” We invited responses regarding how the pandemic had affected leader’s spiritual journey.  We asked how other people to bring the leader into an experience of God’s love.  Ed Stetzer, “Networking for Comeback Change,” The Exchange Blog, May 1, 2009, accessed October 15, 2013, http://www.edstetzer.com/2009/05/networking-for-comeback-change.html