Not many weeks ago I officiated my father-in-law’s funeral. One of the focal points of the eulogy was remembering Jim, the highpoints of his life, his influence, and his legacy. I am thankful for our ability to remember – it is a wonderful gift given to us by our Creator. Remembering people and events keeps them alive in our minds. But there is a downside to being able to remember.
Sometimes we are remembered by others for things we would just as soon forget. Nehemiah chapter three contains one such example.
The high priest Eliashib and his fellow priests began rebuilding the Sheep Gate. They dedicated it and installed its doors. After building the wall to the Tower of the Hundred and the Tower of Hananel, they dedicated it. 2 The men of Jericho built next to Eliashib, and next to them Zaccur son of Imri built.3 The sons of Hassenaah built the Fish Gate. They built it with beams and installed its doors, bolts, and bars. 4 Next to them Meremoth son of Uriah, son of Hakkoz, made repairs. Beside them Meshullam son of Berechiah, son of Meshezabel, made repairs. Next to them Zadok son of Baana made repairs. 5 Beside them the Tekoites made repairs, but their nobles did not lift a finger to help their supervisors. (Nehemiah 3:1-5, CSB)
Depending upon the translation you prefer, you’ll find the phrases “next to, beside, or after” mentioned approximately 32 times in this chapter. Large numbers of people repaired the broken wall surrounding Jerusalem. They literally and figuratively worked shoulder to shoulder to complete the much-needed repairs. What an honor to be remembered for proactively working on behalf of others.
And then there was a group of people listed in verse 5 who were immortalized for their lack of effort. They were “paralyzed procrastinators.” History now remembers these leaders as people who would “not lift a finger to help.” These leaders were the Tekoite nobles, and they are forever immortalized for procrastinating and putting off efforts to help their fellow Jews. While they may have had other important responsibilities, they acted like they were paralyzed and refused to work to help their people. This is not something for which I would want to be remembered. How about you?
The COVID-19 Connection
As the effects of COVID-19 were beginning, I started reading a book titled Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. The book chronicles the story of Lewis and Clarke, the pioneering team who searched for the Northwest Passage. The experts of the day were sure the topography of the country was consistent from coast to coast. Lewis and Clarke’s team had supplies and canoes and were assured by the experts of the day they were equipped for success. They were not. After months of hard and difficult exploration, they ran into these pesky little things called the Rocky Mountains (hence the name of the book). The author asked the question, “How do you canoe over mountains?” Here is his response to his own question:
You don’t. If you want to move forward, you change. You adapt…we go from being river rats to mountain climbers. We keep on course with the same goal, but we change absolutely everything required to make it through this uncharted territory. We ditch the canoes, ask for help, find horses, and cross mountains. And when the time comes, we make new boats out of burnt trees. You let go, you learn as you go, and you keep going, no matter what.” (Canoeing the Mountains, p.34)
This “Lewis and Clarke mindset” has become an important part of the church landscape in America this year. The church has innovated during COVID-19 and found new ways to gather during the pandemic. In a sense, the cultural topography of the country changed drastically. The church found itself staring at the Rocky Mountains. Like Lewis and Clarke, many pioneering churches moved groups online and refused to let the pandemic keep them from meeting.
Not all churches and groups have had such a proactive pioneering spirit. Some church leaders will be remembered more for their Tekoite-like paralysis and procrastination than Lewis and Clarke’s proactive pioneering. It’s time for some of us to look for horses and ditch our canoes so we can keep our churches moving forward, starting with our Bible study groups.
In many churches, groups have not met during the spring and summer of 2020. Worship services may have reopened, but not Bible study groups. To be fair, some groups and their members have genuine concerns about coming back together. My son and his girlfriend caught COVID-19 and took over three weeks to recover; I have seen the effects up close. There are many ways for groups to meet. We can innovate and reopen groups in ways we may not have thought about, while following our state and local leader’s guidelines. How much longer will your groups go without meeting for Bible study?
Becoming a Proactive Pioneer
If your Bible study groups have not met by and large for the past few months, may I encourage you to find new ways for them to meet? As a friend in ministry has said, “Discipleship doesn’t take a week off.” People need to study the Bible, and gathering with others is helpful and biblical. Curriculum can be distributed in worship services, at the church office, during porch visits, and at drive-through distributions (I did this for my church on a Saturday afternoon). COVID-19 doesn’t have to become an insurmountable obstacle to Bible study. This is an opportunity to find some horses and burn some canoes.
Here are five ways that proactive, pioneering leaders from all size churches have found horses and kept moving forward in group ministry, no matter what. They have chosen to be remembered as proactive pioneers, not paralyzed procrastinators. They have found new ways for groups to regather and to place Bible study materials into people’s hands and homes. They have done this as they follow their state leader’s guidelines for assembling. You will want to do the same.
- Groups have regathered in larger spaces. Fellowship halls and larger rooms on church campuses have been used so that group members can spread out and practice physical distancing.
- Groups have regathered in open spaces. I have heard of numerous groups meeting outside under trees, in parks, at pavilions, and in driveways and backyards. Three groups at my church are doing this weekly.
- Groups have regathered in smaller numbers. Large pre-COVID classes (25+ members) have discovered they can meet again if they recruit another person or two to serve as co-teachers. These larger “pastor classes” have found out that other people in the group are willing to step up, teach, and shepherd a portion of the group. This makes it easier for those smaller groups to find a place to gather in person.
- Groups have regathered in virtual places. While it is true that many groups have used online tools such as Zoom, many more have not. This is an opportunity to train leaders and members how to use what can be a simple tool once you become familiar with it.
- Groups have regathered on different days. Churches are learning that Sunday School does not have to take place on Sunday! Groups are meeting throughout the week, using the church’s classrooms when few people are on campus.
I have encouraged my church’s group leaders to consider coming back together, but I have also stressed that they are not being told to do so. Many are ready (past ready!) to return to the church campus. But I have also emphasized there is no rush to be back on campus – they have all discovered ways to meet weekly. Some are meeting in person with distancing, others continue to meet online. They all continue using their LifeWay resources. I’m fine whenever and wherever they meet – I just want them to meet.
The Tekoite nobles earned a dubious place in biblical history as men who would not lift a finger to rebuild. I can’t speak for you, but I do not want to be remembered as someone who procrastinated rebuilding my Bible study groups. Like Lewis and Clarke, I will find ways to overcome obstacles and keep moving forward so that every group I’m responsible for as a discipleship pastor continues to meet. I choose to be remembered as a proactive pioneer who followed the rules but found new ways for my people to continue learning and growing together during COVID-19.
Will you search for some horses with me, and burn some canoes while you’re at it?
Ken Braddy is LifeWay’s Director of Sunday School and he serves a church in the Nashville area as its Groups Pastor. His latest book, Breathing Life Into Sunday School, chronicles 12 ways that churches can revitalize Sunday School. The book is available at lifeway.com