CITY TO CITY NYC Blog

Rethinking the Chessboard

Week by week, many pastors pour heart, soul, and tireless work into crafting a compelling Sunday service. But what happens when meeting isn’t an option?

Missional thought leader Alan Hirsch encourages us to take another look at the chessboard of doing church—and figure out how to move new pieces in new ways.

 

Brandon O’Brien:

This is Brandon O’Brien from Redeemer City to City. We’re talking this week with staff and friends of City to City in the US and around the world as we all try to figure out together how to respond wisely and faithfully to the global COVID-19 pandemic. As of March 15th, churches around the world were advised against or legally prohibited from meeting in person. So one question everybody was asking around the world was how can we be the church if we can’t gather together in person on the weekend? This week, people are asking even more questions as it becomes clear that many of these restrictions against gathering might last several weeks or even longer.

In this episode, I’m talking with Alan Hirsch, who is the author or coauthor most recently of the book Reframation with Mark Nelson, Seeing God, People, and Mission Through Reenchanted Frames. But the book of Alan’s that’s probably most relevant for this conversation is The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. In this conversation, Alan helps us see what we can learn about ourselves as a church and as leaders during a crisis that disrupts our rhythms and reorients our priorities. Thanks for listening.

Alan, you and I are talking to each other from the same city, broadly speaking. You’re in Brooklyn, I’m in Manhattan, but this is how we relate to each other right now in the early stages of COVID coronavirus. What’s the term? Social distancing, right?

Alan Hirsch:

Well … distant, but it feels good, doesn’t it? It’s an amazing breakthrough, if you think about it, quite incredible. And might have something to say to the questions that we will explore today, how technology can cover some of the distance. Anyway, but yes, yes, it’s incredible.

Brandon:

Yeah. You and I both know people in New York City and around the world who on Sunday morning, many of them for the first time ever, were meeting entirely remotely. A lot of large churches already do a live stream or something, but those same large churches don’t ever or rarely meet entirely online. And so a lot of people were trying new ways of gathering together for worship this past weekend. And I’ve already seen some conversations about ways that this disruption will help us re-imagine what church ought to look like. And you’ve been thinking about these things for a long time, about what missional community looks like outside of that sort of prevalent model. And so I just wanted to talk to you for a little bit about maybe that and what this has to do, what these new rules about gathering are kind of forcing churches to rethink. I’m interested in the conversation about models of ministry, but I’m even more interested in thinking about what might we want to change permanently in the way, as American Christians, that we think about our faith and church and our mission? This seems like an opportune moment, an inflection point, right? To get some things right or to get some things wrong.

Alan:

So yeah, I do think it’s an inflection point and particularly one in which most people are not expected and are probably pretty ill-prepared to face. If the only tool that you got is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. You know that thing about being captive by one approach to things or… and there’s no question that most churches that, when we refer to church in North America, most churches here have very, very sorely, overly relied on a singular tool of the Sunday expression. Well, let’s say the weekend expression, if you push it. And now that that is excluded from the equation, they literally find themselves in a very tricky situation. In their own minds, how do they name what can happen beyond this in the next three months or whatever it is, it’s probably likely to impact us two to three months. Will the church be the church? Is there still the church after Sunday worship and you know. So that’s, I think, a big question. The other, it’s another parable, but it’s kind of a useful one. I’m told … I’m not the greatest chess player in the world, but I can play chess. I know more or less what each piece on the chess board does. Some dude that knows chess told me one day, sit down, if you really want to learn to play chess, Alan, take your queen out first. Then your opponent will keep the queen. He’s going to cream you for a long, long time. But what you’re going to do is you’re going to learn all what the other elements of the chess table can do on the chess board, and then you put your queen back in. And at that point, you’ve actually learned to become a champion without kind of over relying on a singular function. If you can say that the sermon or the, for highly reformed folk it’s a sermon, but it’s got it in the worship service for most evangelical, broad evangelical churches. That’s their queen, and they have over-relied on it, and now the queen’s taken out. They don’t know what the other pieces on the equation can do. And I think that’s kind of maybe a working parable for us in this scenario.

Brandon:

How have you seen people responding to that over the weekend and in the circles that you kind of keep track of? They’re not allowed to meet in person so they’re going online. And what have you seen that either seems to be working or not working.

Alan:

The conversations I’ve been having, and they have been there, have been more with leaders who already are interested in what constitutes movements. Now, this has been my shtick, as you know, Brandon, you know this idea of the church’s movement and my best articulation of that has been in a book called The Forgotten Ways, which actually asks this very question, right? So in The Forgotten Ways, I was trying to answer the question: how does the early church grow from around about 25,000 in year 100 —it’s a low figure, but let’s say as low as 25,000 in Year 100—to upwards to 20 million 200 years later? But they don’t have all the things that we think we need. They’re illegal; they don’t have a 501(c)(3); they don’t have church buildings, and when they did, they were… It was for a while and then houses that were gutted and made into meeting halls, so they were smaller. And then when persecution came, they were confiscated or destroyed. They didn’t have the Bible; they didn’t have clergy. All this stuff we think you need to get the church going and they, and yet they grow it like that, which is exponential at 40% per decade. Pretty incredible. China was even more interesting. So I look at those two contexts. And China has the church for 2000 years—very well established, highly institutional church and historians. The time in Mao Tse Tung when the Catholics were the biggest church in China, but they were all basically the European influence.

Alan:

And Mao Tse Tung of course bans the church, castle, missionaries, closes down

seminaries, co-ops the buildings, kills the clergy and leaders, sends people to prison and then persecutes the rest of them. And the Chinese church under those conditions, complete deinstitutionalization, and I use that word very technically, actually grew from 2 million in 1950 to our best estimates now 120 million plus, not a hundred years later. Now that’s quite incredible and counter-intuitive to the way we normally think about church. And what’s going on there? And I think there’s something we can learn about those situations but also in our situation we find ourselves now. What is the more latent, much more kind of primal, primordial, if you will, way of being church that actually was birthed in those conditions and that indeed could this situation for the Western church now precipitate at least some serious thinking about movements and how we might actually become that very, very viable, very dynamic, transformative form church?

Alan:

Well that’s the challenge. Can we do that? Or will we just go back to default? When it’s all over, we’ll go back and try and recover and lick our wounds for a while and it’s back to business as usual. Or will some of us at least think, well, this situation has proved our vulnerability, our paradigm or a mental model, how can we maximize our chances of not just surviving but thriving in such conditions should they happen again? I hope that many do go on that journey.

Brandon:

Well, it occurs to me that if the queen is the weekend service in American church right now, we’ve sort of lost the whole back row of pieces. People aren’t even allowed to be in the same room to the extent and I know you wouldn’t advocate for let’s take this opportunity to move all of our discipleship and evangelism online forever.

Alan:

No.

Brandon:

So what do you, maybe best case scenario, in addition to just the reliance on the weekend service, when this has passed, in however much time that takes, and people are gathering again in any numbers, maybe best case scenario, what do you hope that churches take away from this experience of being forced to think differently about what constitutes church?

Alan:

Well, I think, again slowly go on the journey, staying with our chess board to learn what the other chess pieces can do in the meantime.

Brandon:

Yeah.

Alan:

Because by over relying on a singular form and function of ecclesia and actually it’s not even the most important. I mean one of the, this is interesting, this would have been 10, 15 years ago back in Australia, the sort of the Anglican church in Sydney was being sued by someone, I don’t know what it was for, but they lost a lot of money. And we played with the idea with them at the time and said, if, let’s say you lost all your buildings… Now, they weren’t going to do that but play with us. If you lost all your buildings and you had no more buildings to gather in would the Anglican church still exist in Sydney? What would it look like? How would you maintain it? How would you grow it into maturity … if you didn’t have buildings? It’s just a very good challenge. And I would argue that actually that’s a challenge I’m going to put on American leaders at this point now. Act as if this is going to be more true over a longer period, and what if? Can we prepare? Can we have different alternatives?

Alan:

I’m no biologist or son of one. But, I was also told by a biologist once that plants maximize their chance of survival by spread. In other words, it’s why pruning works. While it’s in pruning, the plant doesn’t know, “Oh, this is good for me. I’m being pruned. I can produce fruit.” All it knows is, “Emergency, emergency. We’re under attack.” Right? Then what they will do is they will… It puts all its energy into producing better fruit with more seeds. And because the assumption is that the seeds are the survival of the plant, so under conditions of threat, living systems survive by spreading themselves widely, not just in one singular form, which is vulnerable, but in the seed form, which is, of course, carries the future of the future. And again, that’s a decent metaphor for us at this time too.

Brandon:

Interesting. Yeah. So let me ask you this. I know you’ve given thought to this and some of the reflection comes out in Reframation, which is your newest project or most recent, I would assume you’re probably onto something else too, in your head.

Alan:

Probably shouldn’t, but, yes.

Brandon:

In addition to the weekend gathering or maybe unpacking the weekend gathering, what other things do you feel like we’re over-reliant on? So it’s not just being in the room together, the fact that we need to be in the room together, what else does that tell us about how we’re over emphasizing or over relying on a small number of assets?

Alan:

Again, many churches, in our circles particularly, I think over rely on Sunday sermon as the singular form of how… It tries to do too much, first of all, it’s got to disciple, educate, inform, encourage, pastoral care, everything’s loaded into it, and it doesn’t achieve all those things, it can’t. And I think most ministers, most pastors spend a huge amount of their time in a week, I was told the formula is for every hour, sorry, every five minutes in the pulpit, it’s an hour in the study. Which if you say it’s a 40 minutes sermon, which is on average, that’s a fair few hours in the study. But if you… So that we’re putting all our efforts into sermons, I’d like that. Truthfully, let’s be very honest now, Brandon, and this bears itself after research, most people won’t remember what you said last week. Now, you can test this. I test it with leaders and say, “Do you remember what you said last week?” And most people say, “Yeah, we’re in the middle of a series.” You know, something like this. “What about the week before that?” And I said, “What about the week before?” Well you see at that point you won’t remember. I think really, again, we’ve over relied, we’ve perfectly designed to achieve what we’re currently achieving. And the thing is that most format forms of leadership over rely on the singular tool. And then I think it weakens us in other ways because we don’t know what the other functions of ecclesia are. Is it, oh really, sermons are it? So you ask the question. I think that’s a big one. We over rely. I think at the moment what we do have as an asset, because most churches have some idea of small groups. The problem is that most small groups are really backstops for community, for what the church can’t do on Sunday, you can do during the week.

That’s not, it’s not… what actually happens when you meet together, it’s usually trying to do the same things on midweek that you do on Sundays. So, it’s a mini sermon, it’s Bible study, it’s a bit of prayer and it’s a bit of getting to know each other and all that. And then, off you go. So it tries to repeat the Sunday experience, really, effectively it does. The problem is that these are very, very… So, at least it’s there. We can use this, but that’s not, that’s not a church. And we never have been comfortable in calling these ecclesial churches and yet I think that’s what they are. If not fully churches, they’ve got the potential to be that. And there’s the asset that we have.

What would it mean to actually transform under leadership some of those groups to becoming ecclesial, little expressions of church? We can call them micro churches if you will. Well, in other words, they’re led by people who currently lead them. Can they grow to around 40 before they multiply? Yes. There’s lots that we are learning about that is like the 20 to 40 small enough to care big enough to dare kind of groups but led by people being willing to call these ecclesia. The question is, why I say that is, mostly we don’t want to call them ecclesial expressions of church because well, we’re worried about that. Right? But how then do we understand the New Testament? When you look at what’s going on in the river bank or in houses, that’s where the primary things going on, the New Testament calls them ecclesia.

So how come we can’t use the word for a small group of people simply because they don’t have the sacraments or someone to actually administer the sacraments? And I think this is where our understanding of the church and its scalability and its genius of giving agency to all of God’s people and using the things in the common life, which is our homes, our pubs, common spaces as the natural place for church to take place. Man, if we could find our way to that everything changes because then the church gets out the building. And it’s unstoppable at that point. So can you do that? Can some of us at least invest in ways forward? Not everyone wants to go there but there are ten percent in your community right now that are willing to experiment with you in what this looks like.

What would this need to take this community, this little cell group and morph it into being a little mini church? That then, the mother church organizers notice just like a parent would, without controlling but grows it up to maturity. Now that’s the challenge. I think.

Brandon:

Yeah. I was thinking, as you were describing, a couple of things and one is that I’ve seen a couple of people on social media, other places saying like, this is a really great opportunity for the church to be the church. Right? Which is a great thing to say, but depending on what you mean by church in that sentence, it is more or less clear, what’s being asked of somebody. Right? So if what they mean is this is a great time for us to gather together and hear a word and sing a song and et cetera, it’s not a great time for that because people are not gathering in large groups, et cetera.

But if it’s something different to be very radically local and small and on mission where you are, wherever that is. Right now, our movement is not limited. We’re allowed to go outside. There’s no curfew or nothing like that, but our kids can’t go to school and I’m not going to the office and our churches aren’t holding services. And so our community is suddenly, kind of radically, restricted to the floor of our apartment building where we know all of our neighbors across the street and down the hall or across the hall and down the hall. I’m wondering what you might advise us, what would it mean for us to be the church if this is a great time for the church to be the church? What would that mean for my family cooped up in our apartment, in the way we engage our neighbors or the way we think about our community that’s now been really massively disrupted by cancellations and other things? And what would you say now before we can learn the lessons after this is all over? Right now, what might it look like for us?

Alan:

Actually, I’m a newbie, as you know, to New York City, probably now a little over a year and whatever. I’ve always loved the city, of course, as many people do. I do know cities, I mean, I’ve always lived in urban, highly urbanized areas. Came from downtown LA before. But here’s the thing, coming as a missionary, and I can be someone of, I think fresh eyes, but I’m used to now, I think like a missionary, right? That’s how I see things. I’ve trained myself to do this in time and God has trained me.

Alan:

When I look at, say, Manhattan, right? It’s true of the rest of the other boroughs but maybe less so, because man it’s just so high scale. It’s just up, high rise. If I look at it and I think, and if I look as a missionary and say each of those little towers is a village and like what would it… And they’re filled with the lonely people, oh my goodness, this city is lonely, man.

I feel it at a very kind of instinctive level. There’s a lot of single people. Lot of older folk who kind of seem to be widowed. I think there’s a lot of very highly divorced, very professional people. Everyone’s working too hard, but there’s a lot of really lonely people in this city. And I just think if we can begin to look at our apartments as really our village that we’re called to. To whom have I been sent?

Well, I think you start with where God has sent you. If you’re living in a certain place, then you have to express that sentness, that missionary identity, as much as you can in using your home. I’ve seen this, where people have opened their home in very short, very, very… in this city. Our friends, Ryan and Laura Hairston, who head up Forge, which is all about incarnational presence. I mean, you’ve met them too. They’re so hospitable in what they do. And he’s a Texan, so you get these two Texans coming in and he, so he smokes meat. I tell you what, all the guys, particularly in his entire apartment, he’s got to know them through smoked meat. They all come down in groves and bring beer and they sit around and he’s opened, no kidding, in one year he’s literally opened up a whole community that people didn’t know each other.

They all met at Ryan and Laura’s place. Remarkable. By using very basic things and safely, you can do that safely. When people learn, wash your hands and all that stuff that can be done. But I think there is the metaphor, at least one of them, Brandon, I think is this notion that you probably, if you just looked around you, you could probably find that you really are in a mission field already and using whatever’s in your hand, you can begin to kind of be faithful in that.

Another way actually, just in thinking about mission, find out what sucks in your neighborhood, find out who agrees with you that it sucks and do something about it. It’s a reasonable way of going about it. So ask people what they think sucks.

Brandon:

That’s great.

Alan:

And then I agree with it and just organize it. I think you might actually find things begin to happen.

Brandon:

That’s missiological language that all of us can understand, I think. I appreciate that-

Alan:

Psychology.

Brandon:

That’s great. Yeah, and I wonder too with worship again, for right now I see a lot of pastors spending a lot of energy on really trying to replicate what you just described as the sort of primary focus on the service, but definitely within the service on the sermon and figuring out how to get that out via broadcast to a congregation that’s distributed. I wonder what you might advise for people who did that on Sunday and they’re trying to figure out what to do this coming Sunday. Where might you advise them to put their energy as pastors of churches that are now distributed and they can’t meet, but they’re still trying to think about how to get that meeting experience out there in the world for people who can’t gather.

Alan:

Well, I think the idea of just an online presence is probably in the long run counterproductive. I can see a few weeks of just doing and then people sitting at home and what we’re doing now. But I think we should be gathering as much as we can and safely. I think we should be people not… We should be very, very wise and, but I think we’ve also got to demonstrate another way of being human. And this gives us an opportunity to be kind and open and generous and not fearful. So I wondered whether one thing is I think they should be thinking about is again, this time you use small groups, smaller groups, sustainable forms now. And I think that as we’re leaders we should invest in other leaders, just identify some and begin to invest in them to see how this can actually develop into really a mini ecclesia.

I think it’s got to function fully with all the capacities of ecclesia that Jesus has given it. So how can we, how can we do that? How can we best achieve that? If this challenge for us is simply resolved by better technology and we keep doing exactly the same things, trying to expect fundamentally different results, and that’s the definition of organization insanity. When you go back to default, you’re still vulnerable, and then the next one comes along. And this is not a big threat. This one is, 2%, it’s terrible, but it’s a 2% death toll.

And if we’d really just think about it, that’s not a… Let’s keep it proportionate to the threat. Wait till something like the swine, sorry, not the… The Spanish Flu of 1918 came out. That was devastating and you talk about 30, 40% of the world’s population, that’s when we really experience this, because everything collapses at that point. I just think it will strengthen the other muscles. Learn the other chess pieces, what they can do. Pawn can actually be quite a useful tool, not just there to throw them in the front line. They can actually be quite useful and they can take out a queen if you know what you’re doing.

Brandon:

Right. Looking at our chessboard again and thinking through investing in other leaders, I would guess that if you have a large church that suddenly distributed that you may think, you may feel as a pastor like you have six or eight leaders that you can rely on and who have an ability to teach or can lead a small group successfully, et cetera. But now suddenly you’ve got people in 50 places. What can they do to maybe look at, to reassess the pieces they have on the board? And think about who might they leverage that they would never have thought a week ago would be an asset and now they have to rely on them.

Alan:

Actually I think these people, this is New York for goodness’ sake. I mean there’s a lot of good leaders out there. When most churches run there, most people, the best they can do is maybe, I mean if you’re in the suburbs or somewhere, you can help with the car park or you know, most people got nothing to do in the church. I mean that’s the other thing is we have not developed leadership. So yes, no wonder we are in moments like this. And I would say use this as a kind of way of highlighting the fact that you need to identify and develop leaders in your midst. And I think the key to any mental growth is what we call an L 50 leader, it’s a person who can lead 50 others. That’s the absolutely key to viable missional impact over time. So we tend to think of the leaders as the high level and in America it’s like leaders of tens of thousands.

It’s kind of like that. That’s what we think a real leader is when actually in the Bible it’s much closer to the ground. It’s a leader of a house church, which is 50 people. I think we need to train more at that level and that’s bootcamp training, on the job coaching. It’s not sending to seminary for three years to learn about the eschatological prognostications of the Hittite people and who the hell cares? Right? I think it’s just, it’s discipleship based learning and teaching people the basic skills of what it means to be a church.

I think develop your strengths there, begin to identify and create disciples and out of disciples you’re creating leaders. I think that you’ve got to bolster that and then you can go places with that should another thing like this take place. Or if you use the energy of this to fundamentally reframe how you go forward and I think that’s what we’ve got to do. I hope that many of us do. We say, okay, this was a learning for us. Let’s not just go back to default mode as if this didn’t happen. Let’s learn and let’s begin to kind of develop dimensions of us of what we do now. That kind of means that we won’t be caught off guard should something like this happen again. And the fact is that you can then see the beginnings of a movement through what we do.

Brandon:

That’s great. And it does strike me that what you’re describing, investing in people who can lead small groups, not small groups as a program, but smaller groups of people, offer pastoral care to smaller groups of people, et cetera. That’s the kind of thing that with the energy and time you might have been spending running other programs right now that feels like something you could start doing even before we’ve learned all the lessons we might learn through this.

Alan:

Absolutely, that’s it.

Brandon:

You can begin that the way we’re having this conversation and may find more possibilities during this uncertain season.

Alan:

I think as leaders, if we, we’re speaking to leaders now, and we said, it’s your responsibility, our responsibility as leaders to define what is real. Now Max de Pree said that, that’s brilliant, I think. Define what is real. And so I think that the battle is won at the level, first and foremost, of imagination. I think if you can’t think it, you can’t do it. That’s Einstein. If you can’t think it, you can’t do it. Can’t imagine it, you can’t do it. So I think the battle is first and foremost in re-imagining who we are, what our functions are and there’s tons of good literature now on this. In the last 20 years or so, the whole missional church movement, hands are raised, this is a very deep level. Not all of it, but much of it is very deep and very thoughtful, missiological. Learning what we learned in the two thirds world and applying it in the Western context and missions to the Western world, which is a new ministry.

So I think I would use this as an opportunity to reconfigure the paradigm and to reset the template and not simply go on. Just go back to what you did before and expect fundamentally different results. So yeah, never waste a good crisis. Winston Churchill said that. So this is a good one.

Brandon:

For sure.

Alan:

It’s not going to kill us, but it should make us smarter. If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. Right?

Brandon:

Right. Well, you’re across town now, but you’re heading out of town soon. Sad to see you go because we just got you back.

Alan:

Yes, I did. Two weeks and I’m going to go back mainly for family reasons and back to [crosstalk 00:33:03].

Brandon:

I’m disappointed but…

Alan:

I’ll be back to my meeting in May.

Brandon:

Good. Well, I look forward to more of this and hopefully in person the next time. Is there anything you want to leave people with? Anything we didn’t say that you want to say before we go off?

Alan:

Yeah. No, don’t waste it, man. Don’t waste the crisis and be brave and be strong. You’re already dead. You died in Christ. You’re a dead man walking. Nothing can kill you. Off you go. Just be that kind of person, I think. Don’t be cowering in the corner.

Brandon:

Yeah.

Alan:

Be wise. Be innocent as doves… no, innocent as doves?

Brandon:

Yeah. Wise as serpents.

Alan:

Wise as serpents. That’s an interesting little bit, but that’s quite interesting, isn’t it?

Brandon:

Yep. Yeah. Great. Well, thank you for the time. I appreciate it.

Alan: A pleasure.

Brandon: Yep. Thanks.

Alan: Good stuff.

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