Principle-Centered Ministry — Guiding Principles for Challenging Times

By Phil Maynard and Eddie Pipkin

There have been plenty of headlines in the past couple of weeks about “getting back to normal” – and let’s face it, even preaching in the presence of a screaming baby would be a great change of pace right now, wouldn’t it?  But is a return to the same old way of doing things a sufficient goal where discipleship is concerned?   Was the old normal really that great?  The church is facing an unprecedented disruption, not just an interruption, so while we are rethinking everything we do, let’s don’t waste a chance to clarify our guiding principles for promoting discipleship.  And today’s guiding principle (tied to the core value of hospitality) is this: People are more engaged in the life and ministry of a congregation when they are in an authentic relationship with a friend in the church.

It is not likely that things will ever go back to the good old days!  The challenge before us is how to do effective ministry in this new and evolving context.  This will require some significant changes to how ministry is accomplished.  The old models have been struggling for a while.  In the church, for example, congregations in almost every denomination had been in decline for decades.  Research shows clearly that the primary role of the church in making disciples has been falling far short of the goal of transformed lives.  We have been spending the balance of our revenues on facilities and salaries with little to show in terms of community impact.  The good news, however – born out in interesting ways because of the disruptions of the pandemic – is that our congregations have already shown that they can adapt to new things, often with enthusiasm.

The significant elements of what it means to be in effective ministry are still valid.  These are what we are referring to as the core values and guiding principles of discipleship.  In 2,000 years of war, plague, social upheaval, and technological advancement, these values and principles have not changed.  The challenge is how we adapt them to the here and now.

This week’s example, made agonizingly relevant by our current social isolation is the guiding discipleship principle (growing from the core value of effective hospitality and practiced by Jesus) that people are more engaged in the life and ministry of a congregation when they are in an authentic relationship with a friend in the church.  In the old normal, congregations facilitated the development of these essential friendships by providing opportunities to connect through worship interactions (such as the ubiquitous “greeting time” or “passing of the peace”), small groups, pot-luck dinners, special event gatherings, service groups, organized neighborhood social gatherings, and more.

In our temporarily revised way of being, the challenge is how to accomplish the same principle in a new way.  Many small groups have gone virtual, worship is done by livestream, and conversations are facilitated via Zoom calls.  The question each congregation must wrestle with is how we might leverage these tools to fulfill the guiding principle.

Some use the language of technical change and adaptive change.

Technical change relates to something we can fix.  (We replicate the old approach as closely as possible by applying technological solutions.)

Adaptive change leads us to new approaches. (We rethink the entire process itself.)

Worship provides an excellent example of the difference between technical change and adaptive change in this time of institutional disruption.  Technical change means we use cameras and video distribution platforms to create a version of “normal worship.”  We recreate that familiar service as faithfully as possible – it’s just on screen instead of in person.  Adaptive change means we rethink the worship experience altogether, embracing new avenues to share the fundamentals of worship, perhaps doing things in ways that are deeper and more meaningful than our old habits.  (If you’ve surfed many online worship options from local churches, which we highly encourage you to do if you have the time, you’ll see many examples of technical change and a limited number of instances of adaptive change.  But those examples of adaptive change may make you think differently about music, preaching, liturgy, prayer, Scripture, or witness.)

Churches that will come out of this disruption stronger are the churches that are asking the adaptive questions. Churches that are focusing on the principles rather than the programs or former processes will be healthier and more energized.  It is a steep learning curve for many, but it’s worth the effort.  It will be a Kingdom win.

Applying this principle-guided thinking to this week’s topic, it’s obvious that the old model for connecting people in faith-based friendships is currently non-operative.  That model has been derailed right at the time that people are desperately in need of friendships, support, and meaningful connection!  So, in the spirit of adaptive change, how do we help people establish those connections and friendships despite the disruption to the normal routine?  And in embracing that opportunity to rethink the guiding principle, how do we discover new ways of doing discipleship and being in ministry?

Here are some ideas to kickstart this process for you and your church:

  • State the principle boldly and often. Say the principle in worship, in blogs, in your social media feeds and in leadership conversations: “Spiritual friendships are important! You should be nurturing the ones you have and making new ones.” Make sure people know it is an expectation of discipleship. Make it witty, fun, and frequent. Hold them accountable to the principle.
  • Distribute some community heat maps. No, we’re not talking weather here. A heat map – which you have seen many versions of during the coronavirus crisis – is a graphic representation of where something is located. In this case, communicate to your congregation members where other congregation members and regular visitors live in relation to them. This doesn’t have to be fancy, but the point is to communicate who lives nearby. This can be a catalyst for people reaching out to form friendships.
  • Encourage virtual interest gatherings. Use the teleconferencing technology to get people together who have common interests. Host nights for Harry Potter fans, Star Wars fans, John Wesley nerds, model train aficionados, local history buffs, amateur chefs, or NASCAR fans.  The way to do this is to have someone with a strong topical affinity agree host the gathering.  Once these connections are made, they can naturally lead to stronger, long-lasting bonds.
  • Encourage safely socially distanced interest gatherings, neighborhood gatherings, prayer gatherings, or any kind of safely socially distanced gathering you can think of. It’s a version of the previous point, but one which takes things a step further by getting people together in their own lawn chairs, safely distanced in someone’s yard.  You can do this with safety rules and any unifying theme (including small group worship), and many people are desperate for this kind of human connection.  It’s an idea that works well with heat maps!
  • Distribute directories and encourage their use. What a great time to be sure everyone has an updated church directory in online form or print form (or both).  Make a point of telling people to look through that directory and contact people they haven’t contacted in a while.  Take the discipleship principle a step further and dare them to contact someone they don’t actually know or know only a little bit.  Use this time to make a new friend or learn more about a “church acquaintance.”
  • Make a game of it. You can gamify many of these concepts.  You can take a group of cross-stitch enthusiasts and have one person start a project and then pass it on to the next person in the group.  Same thing with puzzles!  We’ve seen a lot of fun activity with videos.  We’ve also seen versions of the old yard ornament fund raiser without the fund raising part, just a happy flock of encouragement flamingos planted in someone’s yard that they can then pay forward.  Make a contest out of the directory challenge: who can make the most new friends from the directory next week?  Award prizes.  Take pictures.  Have fun.
  • Make service uniquely relevant. Certainly, we’ve seen churches asking members if they have needs that require assistance, but flip the script and ask members if they have skills and talents they’d like to offer up to anyone who can use them.  This will open an entirely new category of connections, expanding people’s conception of what service can look like.
  • Challenge people to make use of their social media. It’s the new directory, after all.  Encourage people to direct message one another, to share stories about your church, to reach out to less familiar faces, to invite people who need a word of encouragement to reach out to them.
  • Build a family album. Tell stories about your members and friends.  Here’s a great way to leverage technology.  Have people share their own stories and post them where people can learn more about one another.  Ask “getting to know you” and “icebreaker” questions in an online forum, so that people can see the results for one another.  Encourage people with overlapping details to get in touch with one another. Give people a way to process the big coronavirus questions with their Christian friends.

What are the ways you are helping people maintain their old connections and develop new connections in this unusual time? What are some other non-negotiable guiding principles of discipleship you’d like to see us take a deep dive on in the coming weeks?  How are you living into your own guiding principles in adaptive ways?