[Jesus] appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. … Then [the apostles] gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:3b, 6-8)
Here in the opening verses of Acts the Apostles are talking about a kingdom. So is Jesus. But their conceptions of that kingdom differ quite substantially.
The apostles were looking for a return to normal. “Normal” being the ancient monarchy of Israel in the days of David when Israel’s borders were defined, the Temple was central to life and worship, and the peace and prosperity of the king’s sovereign rule was blessed by God.
The prophets had promised that a restoration of that kingdom would come. And now Jesus had risen from the dead—the clearest proof yet that He was the Messiah who would bring that kingdom. Surely the day had arrived! “So, are you going to go ahead and restore that kingdom now then, Jesus?” they ask.
In reply, Jesus more or less says: “that’s none of your business.” Then He goes right back to talking about the Holy Spirit and how they’d be His witnesses to the ends of the earth.
In fact, Jesus was talking about the Kingdom too. But not a kingdom of empire like the disciples had known in the likes of Rome or even that they pictured with the restored “normalcy” of David’s kingdom. Empires seek to dominate and control through their armies from a central position of power (Rome/Caesar). But the Kingdom Jesus is talking about is of a fundamentally different sort.
Jesus’ Kingdom is much more a kingdom of influence. A decentralized kingdom. A kingdom that does not assert its will by forceful domination or control, but that invites and offers opportunities to enter voluntarily into its membership (through witnesses rather than armies). “All roads lead to Rome” within an empire, but Jesus’ Kingdom has no central location or physical mailing address—its paths wind through many countries, oceans, and technological platforms and its throne room is both everywhere present and yet nowhere manifest.
That’s partly why even when we’ve been cut off from our “central location” of a church building—we’re still able to be church. Jesus remains on His throne even without His people gathering in little church-building-castles across the land. Jesus continues to invite us to walk more deeply with Him, even though we can no longer walk with one another (at least not closer than 2 meters or 6 feet). Jesus continues to empower and send us out to influence the world too, because we’re not a Christian army—we’re something much more subversive: we’re witnesses to the Good News of the Gospel in word and in deed.
So, I believe there are opportunities inherent in the present moment of decentralization and scattering (especially for churches that still aren’t gathering, like the one I’m writing from in Ontario) that might just be worth taking some time to stop and see—perhaps even to leverage as we seek ways of being faithful agents of the King and His Kingdom into the future.
STOPPING TO OBSERVE THE CHURCH
Centralized things that have survived have become more Decentralized.
Worship, church programs and ministries moved out of the central church building and (where they continued at all) into the tens and hundreds of homes of church members instead (usually via various internet-based platforms).
Central leadership gatherings of office bearers and others fell off their schedules and agenda templates. Meetings happened more or less frequently or on different days (depending on who needed to use the church’s one Zoom account on any given day). Agendas were adjusted on the fly to meet current needs.
More tangibly: the fence around the Lord’s Supper table in many of our CRC churches got a bit more fuzzy as many churches leaned a little harder into the priesthood of all believers: inviting church members to prepare, serve, and partake of the elements in their homes. Over the internet, you can never quite be sure who is and who isn’t partaking. We can no longer trust the fence erected verbally and monitored visually in the central worship space. Online, we have to trust the members scattered about in their homes (and the Lord who reveals Himself at dinner tables in the breaking of the bread: Lk. 23:30-31). Trust has moved to the margins. It’s decentralized.
Of course, the most centralized expression of our church structure has ceased altogether (synod), and many classes either moved online or didn’t meet at all. Centralized things have struggled in this time.
Decentralized things have fared better or even flourished.
While many ministry programs have stopped, many of the small groups in our church have kept going without anyone telling them to or giving them a plan of how to adjust. They already had all the authority, expertise, and resources needed to figure it out themselves. And they did. They are decentralized expressions of church life.
In our church, we’ve also seen our church care districts fare better than our leadership meetings. Again: elders and deacons already had discretion over caring for their districts. No central leadership body had to have a meeting or a plan to tell them what to do: they just started reaching out.
Giving via offerings also bears mentioning here (for those still able to do so financially right now): giving via electronic means like the Bridge App, PAR, or e-transfers have flourished where they existed already, while forms of giving like cash or cheque that relied more heavily on a centralized worship service and giving venue like the offering bag/plate in that service, have struggled to catch up (“Do I mail it in or just hold on to it?”). Research sponsored by WayBase, the EFC, and others in Canada on the impact of this pandemic on Christian charities have backed that notion up (see the section on Financials).
STOPPING TO OBSERVE WHAT'S GOING ON IN SOCIETY MORE BROADLY
Social/Physical Distancing is an inherently decentralizing intervention. And it’s one of the key strategies to mitigate a viral threat like COVID-19. Thus, at the height of this intervention: centralized gatherings of groups of any size are banned. No gathering for school, work, shopping, or social things, but the key example here is this: no more central gatherings for worship or ministries—we’re scattered (decentralized) to our homes. And even after “re-opening” the doors of churches, there’s good reason to believe restrictions will clamp down to close those doors again, and maybe again, and maybe again.
The Internet, like all digital media, is an inherently decentralized medium, allowing information like our faces and voices in the form of video to move anywhere from anywhere. And it’s one of the key mediums, if not the key medium to keep us all connected, or networked, in the face of interventions like Social Distancing. Check out this April 6 article from the Washington Post on the structure, founding, and resiliency of the internet if you’d like an interesting refresher on what the internet fundamentally is as a medium and how it has adjusted to these times of COVID-19.
The increased adoption of internet-based communication platforms during this pandemic only accelerates the trend of increasing digital media use that was already present. Just ask Alexa, Siri, your watch or any other smart (internet-connected) device that’s become a part of your life in the past fifteen years. It might just take you to the internet’s Wikipedia page that would tell you that internet usage has increased from around 394 million users in the year 2000, to around 4.5 billion users today—you no longer need to go to your central library to look up facts like that. The internet, and the decentralization that it enables and creates, is here to stay.
LEVERAGING THE DECENTRALIZATION OF THE MOMENT
In the CRC, we’re in a pretty good spot to navigate these decentralized waters, I think. As I’ve served ecumenically on behalf of our denomination, I’ve realized that we’re pretty well dead in the middle of the theological and governance spectrums relative to the larger Christian Church.
We have a hybrid governance structure (drawing on centralized elements of hierarchy through our Classis and Synod structures while maintaining decentralized elements of congregationalism with authority resting in the local Council). And because authority rests at the local level—we don’t need to wait on synodical or denominational proclamation to act in contextually nuanced ways. We may not be the most tech savvy, nimble, or flashy bunch, but we’re also not so structurally centralized and rigid that we become paralyzed.
We have plenty in our theological toolbox that helps us remain flexible to the changing circumstances in this time as well. I already mentioned the notion of the Priesthood of All Believers. But we also have notions of the church invisible (and without churches gathering, there’s much more to be said about that than the church visible these days) and the church as organism, not only as institution.
In a broad sense, each of these could be placed on the spectrum of centralized vs. decentralized to help us understand what tool in the toolbox fits for navigating the task at hand (or at least which describes the actions we’ve taken and why and how those actions remained intuitively Reformed for us). The notion of God as a Sovereign God helps us too, I think: we may trust that He preserves His invisible church and empowers and uses the priesthood of all believers to minister to one another and to the world as the church as organism even still in these days—it’s not all up to us as leaders, staff, clergy, and office bearers.
We also have Faith Formation Ministries (FFM), which is uniquely set up for such a time as this, I think. It is an arm within our denomination that has been utilizing (whether intentionally or not) a number of principles of decentralization already.
Here’s what I mean: FFM’s offerings are no longer primarily the centralized, one-size-fits-all programing materials and curriculum dictated from on high (and even one of the still-solid remnants of that day—Dwell—has itself become decentralized and moved online!).
A good chunk of FFM’s materials are available via toolkits—curated clearinghouses of local-church-created resources with an invitation to take, use, innovate, and share based on your own context and needs. It’s collaborative—utilizing the denominational network of churches to meet the faith formation needs of that network (of course, they draw on a few other networks through their tailored curation too).
To help navigate this plethora of resources and narrow it down to a few that might fit for our context and help us discern useful implementation strategies, FFM has placed local coaches, catalysts, and champions in our local areas to come along side us.
There have also been some significant trends and responses to them that FFM has helped us to identify. They’ve been telling us that centralized discipleship programing has been on the decline in churches around the denomination and beyond it. They’ve been inviting us to consider more decentralized methods of forming faith such as strategies to create intergenerational spaces and connections, mentoring, storytelling, and equipping families to form faith in the home.
Each of these principles can translate pretty seamlessly into forms of church that are decentralized to families and small groups as we’re scattered away from institutional settings and into more familial ones.
When we must stay home: there are plenty of helps for learning how to do worship, faith formation, and mission at home. When we can perhaps gather as small groups, there are plenty of principles and resources for learning how to connect together for worship, faith formation, and mission in small groups (again, see the FFM website for plenty of user-friendly 10-Ways tools, handbooks like Everyday Family Faith, etc.).
These are good things to lean into now. Because the trends I’m seeing suggest decentralization has accelerated, that it’s already been shaping us, and that it will continue to for years to come. And that’s alright, because Jesus’ kingdom is a decentralized kingdom.