Who Needs Normal?
As Christ-Followers, We Must Expect More after COVID-19
By: Jim Shannon
For most of us, it is natural to long for a return to some form of normality following the disruptions of the last few months. Our lives have been turned upside down. Our daily rhythms have been shattered. But this thinking implies that the old “normal” was acceptable. As believers, can we really say this?
The old normal leaves over 3.1 billion people with little to no access to the gospel. Consider the following from the Barna Group1:
- Only 2% of evangelical Christians regularly share their faith;
- Only 18% of American Christians are familiar with the term “Great Commission”;
- Successive generations of American young people identify as less religious than previous generations; and
- 49% of American millennial evangelicals believe evangelism is wrong.
Is this the “normal” to which we long to return? We must expect more!
COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns have opened a door of opportunity for those who long to see the fulfillment of Matthew 24:14—“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” If history is any indication, God is preparing the spiritual soil for a great harvest. The early Church saw explosive growth following successive plagues in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The resulting expansion eclipsed even the work of the Apostle Paul in the 1st century and catapulted the Christian Church from a persecuted minority to the official religion of the Roman Empire. We are already seeing the signs of a new spiritual openness. Stories are pouring in from near and far. Friends and family who previously had no interest in discussing spiritual matters are eager to study the Bible. Others who were unavailable due to severe time constraints are now free to learn more about the claims of Christianity. The global Church is responding in love, with innumerable acts of kindness and service and untold numbers are turning to Jesus.
But, how long will this continue if we are satisfied with drifting back into “normal”?
Here are four key commitments that I believe we must embrace as followers of Jesus in order to join God in what He is doing now and in the coming days2:
1. Commitment #1 – Develop and maintain an extraordinary focus on prayer and fasting
If ever there was a person who could successfully minister to others in his own power, it would have been Jesus. However, He modeled something altogether different for us. He was consistently going off to be alone with the Father. Moreover, when His disciples were unable to cast out a particular demon in a young boy, Jesus told them in Mark 9:29 “…’This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.’” In other words, when you are facing this level of spiritual opposition, your only effective resource is prayer and fasting.
When I used to think of prayer and fasting, I equated it with a daily quiet time. And don’t get me wrong. That is important. But the kind of prayer and fasting I am talking about goes way beyond this. The daily quiet time is only the starting place.
A couple of years ago, some friends and I had been doing door-to-door evangelism in Dallas and we had gotten into the habit of doing two or three prayer walks around a neighborhood or apartment complex before we started knocking on doors. I believed our process was adequate for the task. Why then were the results so unsatisfactory? I asked one of the highly successful church planters in South Asia what they did when entering a new place. He replied, “We don’t enter a new place until we have prayer walked it for six months.” He also described to me all-night prayer sessions with his church leaders and month-long fasts. In fact, in January 2020, several hundred movement leaders from around the world fasted the entire month. They were asking God for two things: 1) That He would raise up indigenous leaders among every remaining unreached people group in the world and 2) that a church planting team would begin working in each of those people groups by the end of 2025.
If we want to change the world, we must humble ourselves and ask the one who can bring it about. In other words, instead of praying for the work, we must begin to look at prayer as an integral part of the work.
2. Commitment #2 – Develop a Biblical view and acceptance of sacrifice and suffering as an ordinary part of the Christian life
We all have a filter through which we evaluate our commitments. How much time will it take? How much will it cost? Will it be difficult? Will I enjoy it? Much of our concern is whether it will create “discomfort” for us or our loved ones. Jesus never gave His disciples any illusions about the fact that true discipleship requires sacrifice. Luke 9:23 tells us: “And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Not the most appealing sales pitch I’ve ever heard.
In Luke 15:18-20a He tells His disciples – “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you…”
As followers of Christ we should expect persecution, hardship, and sacrifice. How then have we fallen into the deception that God’s blessing can be measured by our level of personal safety and material comfort? By doing so we position the voluntary relinquishment of those things as undesirable when everything in Scripture screams otherwise! In a sense we have spiritualized our materialism and by doing so have distorted it into a virtue.
If we would join God in what He is doing, we must cast off our “comfort filters” and be willing to embrace sacrifice and suffering.
3. Commitment #3 – Make obedience a priority
Jesus was big on obedience, wasn’t He? Not only did He practice it, but He expected it from those who would be His followers. In John 14:15 He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Seems pretty clear doesn’t it? James tells us in James 4:17 “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” I think we all understand and believe this. But if that’s the case, why does the church in America look so much like the world? For many of us, the pursuit of religion has become merely an intellectual pursuit. In this mindset, the accumulation of spiritual knowledge becomes an end in itself. We go to church, we hear a sermon, we get convicted, and by the end of lunch we have forgotten what the sermon was about. We have a vague understanding of the major doctrines of the faith but do they impact the way we live?
I will give you an example from my own life. I remember when I first read Luke 10 with a real effort to understand exactly what it meant. You know the story—Jesus sent His disciples out into the villages that He was intending to visit. He told them to go out two-by-two, take no money, no extra clothing or shoes, etc. etc. I remember scratching my head and wondering, “Why did He tell them to do it that way? It seems like a pretty flimsy plan.” I finally decided that He must have been teaching them dependence. “Oh, I get it. He wants us to be dependent on Him and on the power of the Holy Spirit.” I went away feeling good that God had revealed a new truth to me. I filed it away in my mind and didn’t do anything differently.
Now, compare that with a former Hindu friend of mine in South Asia who, as a new believer, read the same passage. What did he do? He gathered up some fellow new believers, they prayed about it, and felt the Lord was speaking to them. No one had yet taught them how to share their faith so they bought some evangelistic tracts in the local language, borrowed some bicycles, and set out—taking no money, no extra clothes, no extra shoes.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Nothing. We rode 90 kilometers, one-way. We went hungry a couple of nights, slept in the open a couple of nights, and handed out all of our tracts.”
“Did anyone come to Christ?”
“So what did you do?”
“We did it again.”
They did it five times. That was nearly twenty years ago. If you ride with him now up that same road, there are over 700 churches that he has helped plant. Do you see the difference? My idea of obedience was theoretical, intellectual. His was literal.
Obedience is not optional if our desire is to finish the task.
4. Commitment #4 – Be intentional about evangelism and discipleship
The United States Marines have a saying—“Every Marine a rifleman.” What they mean by this is that no matter what other specialized role you may fill, first and foremost you are a rifleman. A similar statement can be made about followers of Christ—“Every disciple a disciple-maker.” In effect, this is simply a restatement of the long-held Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. We tend to give it lip service when it suits us but then choose to delegate to the “professionals” when it becomes inconvenient. In this paradigm, our commitment to evangelism can be met by simply inviting people to church to be evangelized by the specialists who have been trained (and paid) for this sort of thing. But the Apostle Paul, in 2 Cor. 5:17-20, informs the Corinthian congregation,
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”
If this isn’t clear enough, listen to these chilling words from Christ Himself. In Matthew 12:30 He says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” He seems to be saying, “If you won’t be part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
Therefore, if we want to join God in what He is doing, we must reclaim our identity as His ambassadors and become highly intentional about evangelism and discipleship.
So, I ask you, what do you think would happen if we, collectively, were to embrace these four principles?
1) Develop and maintain an extraordinary focus on prayer and fasting.
2) Develop a Biblical view and acceptance of sacrifice and suffering as an ordinary part of the Christian life.
3) Make obedience a priority.
4) Be intentional about evangelism and discipleship.
God is doing an astonishing work in our own generation—even more so in recent days. And He is using those who have committed to live according to a radical pattern of obedience. Will you be prepared to make the necessary adjustments to join Him or are you more committed to getting back to normal?
If the former, we want to give you opportunities to live according to this radical pattern of obedience. Three of these opportunities are new initiatives from e3 Partners, including Virtual Trips, Live Second Groups and Bible Stories of Hope. Scroll down to learn more about each one.
1(The Barna Group is a US-based company, widely considered to be the leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture.)
2(These are based upon observations of successful movement leaders who are shepherding large, multiplying movements of disciples and churches—many in some of the most unreached parts of the world.)