When we talk about discipleship in the local church, here's what comes to mind for most people. They'll get together with a group of friends. They'll talk about their jobs, families and favorite sports teams. They'll exchange gossip but they'll call it prayer requests. Then, in the final minutes of the allotted time, someone will read a Bible story and ask a few questions.
The answer to every question is Jesus.
Then, everybody will go out to eat.
Is it any wonder that most local churches responded so poorly to the challenge of the pandemic? To be fair, most of us in church leadership had never faced anything like the quarantine required by the pandemic. The closest we had come was several weeks of bad weather, but even then, after the weather cleared you knew what to do. You could shovel snow. You could rebuild after the tornado. You knew what to do.
But who knew what to do in the pandemic? What could you do?
I was pondering the church's failure to creatively and courageously address the challenges of the pandemic and I happened to read an interesting, if slightly disturbing, book by Laurence Gonzalez called, "Deep Survival." Here are two of his conclusions. First, sooner or later, everything breaks. We are living to the limit of our technology. Our cars, our phones, the materials we use in our buildings, everything about our lives are uncomfortably near the edge of our technology. Because of this, things break. Sometimes, we should have seen it coming. Other times, there was no warning.
Think about it. Our universe is a testimony to failure. Evolution itself is witness to everything that doesn't work. Sooner or later, everything breaks.
Here's his second point. We're deciding right now whether or not we will survive the future catastrophe. Who knew when we were finding our place in the sanctuary and waiting for worship to begin or those days when we were trying to figure out if we're too tired to go to Bible study that the decision we were actually making was whether or not we'd survive the various challenges of getting our families through the pandemic. We think when our lives get tough, we'll rise to the occasion. We don't. As Gonzalez reminds us, "We don't rise to the occasion. We fall to the level of our training".
If you're skiing and get caught in an avalanche, it's too late to google "what to do if you're caught in an avalanche." You've already made the decision about your survival. When the pandemic hits, it's too late to figure out how your family will get through it. There's no time to plan for how your church will adapt to the COVID restrictions.
Our anxieties went through the roof. We lost the ability to think critically. Marriages were stretched to their limits and families struggled to adapt to having everyone home at the same time. Very comfortable homes suddenly became too small. Everybody was getting on everyone else's nerves.
Why weren't we -- all of us -- more prepared? Simple. We never drill. Every other entity that deals with crises drills to prepare for those moments. The military drills. First responders drill. They sit around and think about what could go wrong and then, prepare their response for those moments when things do, in fact, go wrong.
For some reasons, as Christians, we don't drill. We have this illusion that when the moment of crisis comes, we'll quickly become men and women of deep faith and Godly wisdom. No, we won't. We'll fall to the level of our training. When Jesus was challenged in the wilderness, Jesus responded by quoting Bible verses He has memorized as a child. When His life dripped from His hands and poured from His side as He died on the cross, He quoted Scriptures and prayed prayers He has known all of His life. Jesus had been drilling, practicing, for the moment when things would go wrong.
And things do go wrong. Sooner or later, you'll get the phone call you didn't want to get. Sooner or later, the doctor will tell you something you didn't want to hear. In an unexpected moment, the worst thing that could happen...happens.
We're deciding right now whether or not we'll get through. Discipleship is drilling for those moments. The Bible verses you memorize will be the only Bible you have when you're sitting by yourself in the waiting room of a hospital emergency room. The prayers we pray are the rehearsals for the prayers we'll try to pray when life hits us so hard, the only prayer our empty lungs can manage is, "Jesus."
Jesus warned us storms would come. He told us the rain would fall and the winds would blow. Jesus warned us we wouldn't be able to survive these challenges if our lives weren't built on the rock of His words. When then storms come -- and they will -- it will be too late to check the foundations. You won't have time to get ready. You'll have to be ready.
We don't rise to the occasion. We fall to the level of our training. Discipleship is our training for the moments when everything goes wrong. And when they do go wrong, we will have already made the decision whether or not we'll survive.