What is the future of the post-COVID Christian church in the United States?
For a pair of millennial pastors, it meant leaving what they loved doing in pursuit of discipleship coupled with the sober recognition that existing church structures, even within those where the Gospel was being faithfully proclaimed, were not only woefully inadequate but hampering the Kingdom of God from advancing.
Parker and Jessi Green started feeling what they described as a Holy Spirit restlessness amid full-time ministry in New York City. Despite being well-compensated and "successful" by several measures, something was amiss and the couple could not ignore how God was tugging at their hearts.
For the past four years, the Greens have been active with SALT churches, a network of microchurches they started in the region of Southern California. Earlier this year, they led Saturate OC, a worship on the beach evangelistic outreach.
If you ask Parker, a microchurch is around 10 to 40 people reaching those who do not yet know Jesus, making disciples and, most importantly, who are on mission together. That "being on mission" aspect distinguishes it from previous home-based church movements.
"Doing what Jesus is doing [in realtime], I find, is super helpful," he said, chuckling lightly, in a recent interview with The Christian Post.
Jessi added: "We definitely think that this is the trajectory that the Church is going to move in and it's funny because I think especially because of social media, we're so afraid to almost innovate when it comes to church because we don't want to appear like we're bashing or against the current thing."
"But if you look at church history, what we see right now is how many people would define 'church' is actually pretty new as of the last 100 years. What we see now as almost untouchable when it comes to church and how it's done, most of the world would not define that as church at all."
And distinctly missional microchurches are actually closer to what is seen in the pages of Scripture, they maintained. The "traditional" model that has become the norm for many in the Western world is not as normal as many think.
Parker elaborated, "The order of service in many Christian churches is structured around cohesive family units, and while not inherently wrong, for many millennials and Gen Zers, that family unit is shattered and they have no healthy grid for it."
"And so what you need to do is reestablish the family in a space where it makes sense."
Thus, SALT churches was birthed.
Parker's parents, who are in their 70s and are veterans of the Jesus People movement, lead one of the microchurches. Though they were hippies "who got married and made some mistakes," today they are the most fruitful they have ever been in ministry because anyone under 30 is desperate for mothers and fathers.
Being missional means you need mission and cause, not just community, which becomes septic, the couple stressed.
The Greens had no intention to start a movement of microchurches. They had gone to be trained in church-based ministry schools and had been campus pastors at a church in New York City, a calling they loved, had no issues with, and thought they would do forever.
"We were preaching every Sunday and growing church the traditional way that you do it — regular altar calls," Jessi recalled.
Yet all that began to change when their church did a 21-day season of prayer and fasting, where they asked God to bless the church. During that fast, the Holy Spirit started shaking up their theology about many things, particularly their beliefs about how they were to live life as the church.
"It started to create in us this discontent with the status quo and the Holy Spirit started to provoke us and ask us if what we were doing was really working when it came to reaching the lost, making disciples," Jessi said.
Were they going to stand before God and be able to say that they did what He called them to do? For the Greens, the answer at the time, they concluded, was no. And they could not live with that, saying it even scared them a little bit.
That realization precipitated a new journey with God where they came to understand that they had to change everything. Though it seemed utterly irrational to quit their jobs, give up their salaries, and move across the country, they felt they had no other alternative but to yield and go where God was calling them to go.
The holy discontent that was stirred in Parker came about upon realizing that he could preach up a storm and people would tell him how great he was, but then they would go off and live like pagans for the rest of the week in the thoroughly hedonistic city that is New York.
"After a while, I just didn't care anymore. It was like I was a glorified event planner, checking inputs. Being good at the Christian walk was getting people on a team. We made people really good at church but not at life," he said.
Another key epiphany and turning point for him was reading Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy, which caused him to realize that the Kingdom of God was actually available, that he really could do what Jesus asked him to do. He also realized that while he did love the Lord, he did not respect Him, and so he reoriented his life around how Jesus asked him to live.
"When I started doing that, I realized that the structure I was in was actually many times working against that, especially working against that," he explained.
Many committed Christians who actively attend church are simply doing what the structure has trained them to do, and he could not see how that comported with Acts 2:42-47.
The passage reads: "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
In other words, he couldn't justify the culture in much of the American church as biblical.
"If I wanted to have a biblical church, it starts at least in the home. And then I looked at the problem we are facing, which is fatherlessness, which is creating the madness we're living in right now — people giving over their rights to the government because they don't have dad at home providing for them. All those things compiled together, … it was like ‘oh, the church is the answer,’" Parker said.
"But not in its current form."
In order to do it biblically, he had to rethink the model. The Greens admitted that not only did they have to start something new but they didn't know what they were doing. Yet they were clearly aimed at discipleship and reaching people who do not know Jesus.
"It was hard. Life-on-life discipleship is hard work," he said.
Jessi believes that one of the reasons that church scandals happen as often as they do is that many structures place leaders in a dangerous spot.
"And it's a place that I don't think God ever wants anyone to be," she elaborated.
"Of course you're going to get burnt out. Of course you're going to have affairs. Of course there's going to be secret sin — because it's run more like a Fortune 500 company than it is a family. And when you look at the early disciples, because they were doing life with one another, because the churches were in homes, people knew what people were doing. Everyone likes to preach about Paul calling out Peter (Galatians 2:11-14) but Paul was able to call out Peter because he went to dinner with him and saw how he was behaving.
"We've gone to so many church conferences where pastors are talking about how to overcome loneliness or these different things. Well, maybe destroy the platform that you've put yourself on. You've separated yourself by choice."
The Greens’ home is an open-door environment. People are over at their house daily and eat out of their fridge. Some people lived with them during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"You have to choose to put yourself in discomfort. Everything in cultural Christianity is 'you're the great preacher, you're the lead pastor, everyone needs to serve you.' And that's the exact opposite of what Jesus models. He says, 'No, be the greatest servant,’" she said.
"We preach that, but we don't model it for people and we wonder why we have the [scandalous] situations we have."
The largest hurdle for those wishing to switch from a legacy or megachurch model to a microchurch model is that they have to die to themselves and ask the Holy Spirit to transform their mind, she continued.
"And that's because the old wineskin is hard to shake because it feels so good. It appeases your flesh in a way that I don't think most people realize how much they are being satisfied by what feels good. Preaching to a crowd? It feels good. Having steady income? It feels good. And it's not that any of these things are bad, but if your motivation is your flesh and not by the Spirit, you're not going to produce the fruit of the Spirit."
The couple constantly prayed that God would renew their minds and help them to think differently for the first year.
Parker interjected: "If a moth is a narcissist, then the church is a lamp over your porch."
Asked if they believe God is sovereignly using the coronavirus pandemic to shake the Body of Christ out of its preference for a particular church structure, the Greens said it is even broader.
On a micro level, many Americans do not know how to be alone with Jesus, they don't have spiritual disciplines built in their lives. Forced to be alone amid ongoing lockdowns and church closures, many realized that they didn't have the foundation they thought they did, that it was built on shifting sand. But genuine disciples can thrive amid uncertain times, they believe, and those who seek Him will be made into a genuine disciple of Jesus. All COVID did was open the proverbial curtain at how ineffective some structures were, a reality that will get checked in over the next 10-15 years, they said.
"But right now God's grace is giving us time to train and show people not only how to stand on their own but teach pastors and His shepherds that He loves how to transition their space where they are mobile, they're agile, where they're growing, they're winning the war in culture, not just winning battles on Sunday," Parker said.
"I think God wants to win the war and He wants the people He has … I think He's just giving people a window of time to decide, a cycle of second lockdowns, more time to decide. So I think He's being extremely gracious, especially in the coastal states where we have more left-leaning governors. We're on foreign territory. We're missionaries."
Jessi urged people to exhibit flexibility and not get too wedded to any particular way of doing ministry.
"As soon as you think you have it dialed-in on how God's doing something and it's going to be that way forever, you're done," she said.
They've prayed and sensed the Holy Spirit say to them that "the Lion [of Judah] wants out of the cage."
"Jesus is real. He is the King. He created the universe, and I think sometimes we've forgotten how big God is, how creative He is. We love to preach about God being the Creator of the universe and yet we neglect that He is always innovating," she said.
"Jesus came to seek and save the lost and He will not stop innovating until we are seeking and saving the lost. And I believe right now where He is using microchurches to seek and save the lost, He's getting us outside of our boxes. People who really love Jesus and are pressed into the secret place that we're going to stay innovating. So right now it's microchurches but it could literally be anything within the next year or next 10 years."
They said they keep hearing this every time they pray: "to stay on our front foot."
Several SALT microchurches came about through Saturate OC, a summer initiative. A lot of the legacy churches did not know what to do with all these new believers. But they just started connecting them with disciples.
"God loves multiplication. He talks about it multiple times in the Scripture and we have to start innovating when it comes to multiplication," Jessi said.
But the rub is that multiplication is hard to control, she continued.
"And as Christians we love [the] little idol of control, which stems from witchcraft and the word I keep hearing over America specifically is that God is exposing every dark and hidden thing. And the Church is like 'yes, God! Expose it in the world.' He's like 'no, no, I'm going to start in my house and I'm going to expose every dark and hidden thing,' every idol that we've prostrated in our churches, it needs to come down because the house of God is meant to be holy. Before He’s going to expose the witchcraft, expose all the darkness, expose all the things that are happening with politics in the nation, He is going to start first with His people.
"There's a deep house-cleaning that is happening. I think the next two years is going to be shocking and hard for the Church because I think a lot of the people that we've elevated, the establishments that we've elevated, I think we're going to be in awe when things are revealed, that they might not be what they've seemed. But I believe that it will be the sweetness [of the Lord] that will allow us to come back and to actually put Jesus as the head of His Church. It's His kindness that is allowing the shaking to happen."
Parker added: "I think this is going to be the [spiritual] revolution that wins this war."
"I think we've been looking to politicians, that we need to vote correctly and biblically, and systems of growing the church."
He added that what he thinks is going to happen in the West, especially in North America, is they're going to see the Church move toward Christ and be in love with Jesus again instead of being in love with the stuff that comes with Him, instead of the gifts that are on the table at the wedding. And the Bride of Christ is going to be obsessed with Jesus again.
"And that purification that she goes through, this crucible … because we've been acting kind of whorey this last 100 years or so — a lot of people in it for the money, a lot of people in it for the fame, Instagram and Facebook and all the rest of it — it adds another layer of the narcissism we've been talking about," Parker said.
"What we've done is that we've preached to people that they are the center of the story and that's secular humanism. And now the chickens have come home to roost. People are voting like secular humanists and people don't care if babies’ skulls are crushed in the birth canal. They’re secular humanists — all that matters is their lives and their dreams."
He stressed, "What we'll see is the Bride looking at Jesus and she'll be so spotless and without wrinkle and so with her shield of faith she'll be a mirror to the world so they can see their own condition. And until God's house is clean, it will be like a foggy mirror and it won't work because we're the same as them."
He and Jessi also believe many streams of the Church will unite and that great things are in store.
"If He's taking things away that maybe seem good or comfortable but they're not fruitful but just yield to the process," Jessi emphasized.
"Because on the other side of this great shaking that is happening is the very life [in the Kingdom] you say that you want."