Do NOT Ask Your Pastor This Question!

Pastor Aaron Winter of Hearts of Fire International does the teaching -- and trusts the discipling, encouragement and prayer to peer groups.

Andrew Mahon

April 19, 2021

“I’d like to talk with the senior pastor.”  

That’s the default for a lot of churches. Everything goes through the leader, the “Sage on the Stage,” as author of Online Jesus Angela Craig calls it as she got a look at Altar Live for the first time.

If we are innovative thinkers, we can open our minds to how church can look different. Instead of one-way communication from the pastor, we are asking church members to engage in conversation, instead of depending on the Sage on the Stage. You can change your speaking style to ask questions. Think more of a bible study, think early church, dinner table, speaking of what Jesus has done in our lives and applying that to everyday life. 

Angela Craig
Mission Igniter

Not every spiritual conversation has to be mediated by the lead pastor. Ideally, spiritually mature rank-and-file members assume the responsibility -- and the opportunity -- to be the church. As humble disciples, we can disciple others, reach out to our community, and pray with those in need of comfort and encouragement. 

Small church consultant Karl Vaters urges that boomers, in particular, hear the call in this moment not to demand the recovery of their preferred, 'old normal' way of doing church, but rather to be in the vanguard of using this moment to reach the next generation.

Stop demanding that the pastor, the worship leader and the young people (if your church has any) do church your way, and start asking how you can help the next generation serve Jesus with even greater passion and wisdom than previous generations.

Karl Vaters

Online church is no exception to the Sage on the Stage syndrome. In fact, when watching a livestream, we see only one (or a few) people with our eyeballs -- the worship band, the lectors, the pastors -- on the screen. We don’t make eye contact and wave at the people we virtually ‘sit next to’ online. 

Yes, there is online chat, and that is a blessing when it is used. In my experience, most churches assign some leaders and volunteers to be active in the chat to help draw people in, to ask how everyone is doing, to solicit some energetic response to the worship and message, and to foster a sense of belonging and community. In truth, it is mostly the leaders/volunteers who do the chatting, with maybe -- maybe! -- 5-10% of viewers engaging. 

John Davidson, Director of Discovery & Development Church Multiplication Network at The Send Institute, a think tank for evangelism and church planting, advocates a shift from anonymity to intimacy.

We’ve all been separated from people due to Covid-19. Social distancing can foster isolation and anonymity, even though we know that community and relationships are vital for a vibrant life of following Jesus. Church leaders need to find creative ways to do more than program quality services. They need to design ways to foster the clear longing our culture has to know and be known at this time.

John Davidson, The Send Institute

How can churches change the online experience to avoid a top-heavy model where just one highly visible person, or just a small handful of leaders and volunteers, are doing the vast majority of the work of the church? 


Hearts Of Fire International’s WebChurch
A new church model

Dr. Aaron and Nicole Winter

Hearts of Fire International Ministries for years has organized large in-person spiritual events -- retreats, revivals, conferences, concerts. Led by Aaron and Nicole Winter, they moved everything online during Covid. In the Pacific Northwest, church re-openings (or any kind of re-opening) has been deliberately slow paced.

Even before Covid, Hearts of Fire attracted quite a few people who were not attached to a local church. In between events, Hearts of Fire leadership made themselves and their facilities open to gatherings in a very informal church-type setting. During Covid, many of those same people wanted to continue to have fellowship. After a lot of prayer, the leadership could see that their “church” had already materialized, and they have embraced the reality of serving as a fully virtual church.

With a blank slate to start from, Hearts of Fire developed a new model for an all-online church. This fits nicely into Jeff Reed’s multi-modal church observations about where the church is going.

  • First, they do not want to ‘compete’ with other Sunday morning online services and programs. Instead, they settled on a “Sunday-on-Thursday” mode, where people will gather when there aren’t a lot of other church-y things going on. 
  • Second, they explicitly avoid the Sage on the Stage syndrome.  Aaron or another leader spends about 5-10 minutes of teaching from scripture: reads a passage, shares its plain meaning, explains the context and how it relates to other parts of scripture. And that’s it as far as eyes and ears on the leader. 
  • Next, each attendee is given 10 minutes or so to privately reflect on the brief teaching. Some questions for reflection are provided to help concentrate the reflection time. 
  • After that, people gather in small groups of just three or four, and they share among themselves their thoughts, questions, doubts and misgivings, and insights. As with any vibrant group, they are not simply taking turns to present their thoughts, but are building upon and with each other in mutual application, discernment and learning.

Hearts of Fire WebChurch
Peer groups gather at an online table to reflect, share, and apply the message to their everyday lives

The result is a more democratized, decentralized model of discipleship that does not rely on or fall prey to the bottleneck of everything going to and through the most visible person. 

Would this model, or a variation of it, work at your church?  What kind of decentralization do you see in your congregation?


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