Pastors must 'speak pagan' more in coronavirus era of online outreach: ministry expert

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As part of their online worship services during COVID-19 shutdowns, churches need to “speak pagan more” in order to better reach the mainstream culture, says a ministry expert.

During a Zoom webinar titled “The Future of Church Mission and Leadership” that was held last Friday, Joshua Laxton of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College talked about needed shifts in church ministries due to coronavirus shutdowns.

Laxton believes congregations need to recognize that social media, especially in a time when so many churches have online-only worship, is “a platform to engage people far from Jesus.”

“We have to shift from being monolingual, only being able to speak Christianese, to being bilingual, being able to talk gentile,” he said.

“We do a good job speaking Christianese, we do a great job speaking to the church. But can we speak pagan? That’s the question.”

Laxton, who also serves as assistant director of Lausanne North America, provided The Christian Post with examples of what he meant by speaking pagan, which included “using theological words without explanation.”

“I heard a preacher this past Sunday say ‘God decides who will be saved.’ That is a very loaded statement and he just went on and moved right on,” Laxton replied to CP.

“If you think about someone who is far from Jesus or even who is a very young believer, when you make that theological statement, I think it’s probably best if you try to explain it.”

Laxton also said that a good way to be bilingual as he was explaining it was for preachers to use movies, TV shows, songs, and personal stories “to illustrate a point.”

“Don’t try to impress your audience with five dollar words that they have to ask for you to define. Make sure to speak to everyone, not just the believer,” he added.

He also recommended making a sermon “more personally applicable rather than commentary like,” and to balance outreach for “the seasoned saint” as well as “the seeker.”  

The webinar also featured Daniel Yang, director of the Send Institute, which focuses on church planting in North America, who spoke about how he believes the pandemic shutdowns have given all churches “to have a do-over, a relaunch” and it is “more than just about how to use technology to improve our situation.”

Yang and Laxton identified various shifts in how to do ministry and outreach in the United States as a result of the coronavirus.

They examined these shifts through the categories of “personal,” “small group,” “church,” “community,” and “culture,” with the experts noting that each category “feeds into” the others.

Yang advised pastors and others to “use the spring to develop family worship content,” recommending the book Becoming a Missional Family by P.C. Mathew.

On whether the church will permanently change as a result of the COVID-19 shutdowns, Laxton said “yes and no,” doubting the claims of some that it will spell the end of megachurches and “the consumer church.”

“I think the consumer church is alive and well,” he said. “We have been consuming more content over the last two months than probably ever, just because of all the content, all the format, all the digital and online access.

“It will not be the end of the megachurch. If the Spanish flu did not wipe out large gatherings, then COVID-19 probably will not either.”

Laxton speculated that churches may face “tumultuous times” when it comes to the debate over when they can reopen as restrictions on mass gatherings are eased.

“Churches that decide to reopen and some of their members aren’t going to like it are going to go to other churches that decide to be safer and then vice versa,” he said.

Laxton also believes that congregations needed to shift from being “a church with small groups to a church of small groups,” wherein small Bible study groups have a stronger presence.  

Yang agreed with this shift on small groups, advising churches to “take your handful of leaders that you have right now and do missional engagement projects with your small group leaders.”

“Don’t just release them right away to start doing breakout Bible studies,” he continued. “Take some months to really engage with them in the community so they can touch, they can feel, they can experience.

“Take this opportunity when you don’t have large ministries happening right now, take some of those energies, and have experience with your small group leaders, so that they know how it feels like to be leading outside of the home.”

The hour-long webinar was moved to Zoom reportedly because of the high demand of registered viewers, who posted questions and comments throughout the presentation.

Last month, ABWE International streamed a two-hour episode of The Missions Podcast which focused on how overseas missions would likely be impacted by COVID-19 shutdowns.

Among the possible impacts, one was a concern over a drop in giving to overseas missions and possibly a major loss in “short term missions,” or mission trips that last only a week or so.

Darren Carlson, president of Training Leaders International, said at the time that a 20 percent to 30 percent drop in giving to mission agencies was likely, but it would not hit until “early next year.”

“If people don’t have jobs, then they’re not going to give,” explained Carlson in the April podcast. “If you are a mission agency that’s primarily a high skill worker, high tech, you might survive. But if you’re a pure labor worker, service worker donors, your mission agency is in trouble.”   

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