Church in a Time of Disruption: Lessons from the early Saints

People who live in parts of the world like South Africa are simply not used to the kinds of disasters & disruptions which affect public movement and public gatherings, including church gatherings. We have not significantly encountered such disruptions like major earthquakes, pandemics that require lockdowns, large scale civil wars, religious persecution etc. Even those who have witnessed these disasters in their regions have not seen such a globally coordinated disruption like Covid-19, with the ability to affect nations simultaneously in real time. And for those of us who have lived in regions where these disasters have not been a dominant feature, we have become used to a church model that is tailored for environmental normality, where in-person gatherings are a norm rather than an exception. This further means that we have become used to the advantage and privilege of church gatherings where pastors address relatively large audiences on a weekly basis. The absence of this privilege, of in-person gatherings, and the inability to congregate due to Covid-19 pandemic, feels like an existential crisis and religious persecution for the churches of the South and the North.

The Scripture does of course say that we must not forsake the gathering of the saints (Heb. 10:25). In Acts 2:42, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”. The early saints did not simply gather, they were disciplined at it. However, the Scripture equally counsels us to avoid danger and to spread out in the face of danger. “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23). Even Jesus was in the habit of avoiding danger, although He was destined to die for the world. “After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life” (John 7:1). In this context, the words of king Solomon have never been relevant, “a prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences” (Prov. 22:3). Even though Covid-19 is not the same as religious persecution, it however remains a threat to life as a fatal disease, and therefore constitutes danger to us all. It is this possibility of losing lives that should confront us as a burden of the season.  Now, the idea of avoiding danger is not built in the psyche of some church circles. To the contrary, confronting danger is understood by some to be “an act of faith”. In this context, Jesus Himself would not meet this faith standard.

So, what is it that confronts us at this time? Primarily, it is not that governments have promulgated lockdowns via State of Disasters or State of Emergencies. It is that there is (an infectious) pestilence that is killing people, and which spreads through human contact and gatherings, whether these be holy or unholy gatherings. The problem of our times is a threat to life. This threat has been framed in the debate on “saving lives vs. saving livelihoods”, which has led to the idea of locking down public life whilst permitting activities that facilitate livelihoods (both for the believer and the non-believer). Some within the church have responded to this by comparing empty church buildings with full airplanes for examples, to build the argument that church is being persecuted, notwithstanding the fact that general social gatherings, political gatherings, other religions, sports activities etc. have all been equally affected by the same law. Thus, in comparing ourselves against permitted livelihood activities, that are designed to ensure that people have bread on the table, we have positioned the church as a mechanism of economic livelihood, and not of establishing God’s righteousness here on earth. Granted, church has the administrative-operational side to it, with full time staff like pastors etc. Biblically, these must be honored and remunerated (1 Tim. 5:17&18). However, the financial mechanism by which pastors and church administrators are remunerated should not depend on the “word of offerings” during Sunday gatherings. It is for this reason that Paul gave the following instruction to the churches in Corinth and Galatia: “now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. 3 Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. 4 If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me” (1 Cor. 16:1-4). The financial mechanism of the early church did not depend on words of offerings during gatherings, it was a standard procedure in which each believer gave thought to what they would offer, guided by the Holy Spirit and in accordance with their income. Unlike us, the early church did not have technological advantages like EFT, e-wallets etc. and yet they were administratively functional. Financial giving was not dependent on the gathering, rather, it was motivated by the ongoing work of the leaders and apostles in serving the church, whether in person or virtually via letters. As long as the apostles and elders were equipping the church in the life of Christ, then the saints had a biblical obligation to give financially for the administrative wellbeing of the church (1 Cor. 9:11, Rom. 15:27b). And so therefore, if we have chosen to build a financial mechanism that is dependent on gatherings, then we have not necessarily acted according to biblical practice. This primarily becomes our responsibility, and not that of governments. Perhaps this moment should lead us to structural reforms, to establish sustainable models, administration systems and operations that are consistent with biblical standards and principles.

Now that we have laid some introductory thoughts, let us frame this article. The article is not written to discuss lockdown measures etc. We all eagerly desire to be able to meet and worship God together in-person, as the Bible prescribes. Although lockdown legislations are a natural response by governments to mitigate against major disasters, church has the duty to continue to assess & engage these measures to establish whether they are reasonable and relevant in the pursuit of public good. This article is written to create a platform to reflect on the practices and methods of the church, and how we should start now to prepare for future cosmic disasters and disruptions as prophesied in Scripture. The article examines how the early church dealt with disruptions, with the view to draw lessons and inspiration as we engage our own disruptions, now and in the future. The article is therefore a prophetic reflection on the current pandemic as a prototype for future disasters. It paints a picture of a disrupted future and invites the church to begin to reflect on how it will exist & operate in such a future.

Our challenge as church is that we are confronted by a cosmic disruption but are responding with church models that are intended for normal settings. We are confronted by a season of scattering but are trying to respond with a centralized church model. We are confronted by cosmic disruptions but are responding with devotional Christianity, instead of standing on a platform of existential spirituality. Devotional Christianity is dependent on the gathering – everything happens through the channel of the gathering. Existential spirituality on the other hand, is the understanding that “in God we live and move and have our being”, that whether “we are in the city or are carried away to exile”, we can still lift our hands and worship God like Daniel did in Babylon. This is how God created Adam, that in the Garden of Eden, he could lift up his hands and commune with God (Gen. 2:7&15, Gen. 3:8). Like Adam, we can also commune with our God in our gardens of life. And this was the core motivation in the reforms that were instituted through the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross, that our spirituality would no longer depend on gatherings in the temple from time to time, but that we would walk with the Holy Spirit, every moment of life. Now, this is not an argument to support those who are rebellious against the structures of the church. This principle of existential spirituality is not a replacement for church gatherings, it is however an important foundation upon which dynamic gatherings can take place. We long for the gathering because it is an expression of our existential faith in God. However, our faith does not begin on Sunday, it transcends gatherings, but it finds a collective expression through gatherings.

Crises & Disruptions in the Last Days

The Bible gives us three categories of crises in the last days. The first category has to do with spiritual crises of faith in Matthew 24 verses 10 to 12 (these crises relate to issues of apostacy and faith-based persecutions). The second category has to do with socio-moral crises that are outlined by Paul in 2 Timothy 3 verses 1 to 9 (in the last days, people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, and children will be disobedient to their parents etc.). The third category is cosmic systemic crises that are outlined by the Lord in Luke 21 verses 10 and 11.

What did Jesus say about disruptions?

10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven (Luke 21:10&11).

  • The Lord forewarned us that as we advance to the end of time, we will face various cosmic & systemic disruptions like political crises and wars, climatic and environmental crises, economic crises, and public health crises (like Covid-19) etc.
  • The Lord envisioned us as a church that would be mobile, fluid and decentralized in the face of disruptions: “when you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matt. 10:23).
  • He warned us that we would need endurance to prevail against disruptions: “but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13).
  • He declared that He would build us to a point of prevailing strength: “and I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18).

All of this means that an apocalyptic church will have to learn to survive and prevail amid disruptions. We therefore must develop mindsets, culture, models, and ministry practices that will withstand these disruptions.

The early saints had to quickly adapt and learn to live and advance the Kingdom of God amid disruptions:

“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. 4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:1-7).

“19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. 22 News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11:19-24).

Up until Acts 8, the early church had enjoyed a routine of daily gatherings in Jerusalem, “day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 5:42). The killing of Stephen triggered a persecution that caused the saints to withdraw from Jerusalem to avoid danger and threat to their lives. It was this disruption that posed new challenges for the operations of the church. However, the church quickly regrouped and established new ministry practices to deal with the challenge. Let us see and be inspired by some of the things they began to do in response to the disruption…

The saints were scatted in different regions and cities.

As soon as the persecution broke out, the early saints were faced with no option but to leave the city of Jerusalem. They accepted the scattering. This was a big and a difficult decision because Jerusalem was the place where the Holy Spirit had first descended upon them. It was in Jerusalem that they first saw some of the amazing miracles. It was in this city that they began to enjoy a dynamic community life under apostolic leadership. Leaving Jerusalem meant leaving the revival behind and going into the unknown.

As the modern-day church, we must not be fearful to avoid danger and to let the storm of Covid-19 carry us. The storm has carried us back to our Personal Devotions, Marriages, Homes, Neighborhoods etc. It has kept us connected mainly virtually to our churches due to lockdowns.  We must fully trust in the sovereignty of the Lord in the crisis, that He is leading us to victory. And church leaders must focus on equipping the saints to thrive in places and spaces in which they now find themselves locked down and spending most of their time.

Leadership remained in Jerusalem.

The apostles took a risky but deliberate decision to remain together in Jerusalem. I believe they did this to remain consolidated as new leaders of a fragile church, and to provide leadership to the scattering saints.

As the modern-day church, we must put effort in ensuring that leadership teams of churches are consolidated and strengthened, and that they are able to provide prophetic direction and doctrinal definitions & wisdom in these challenging times.

Believers began to join the apostles in preaching the Gospel.

Before the scattering, the apostles led the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, but when the persecution broke out, saints joined in the preaching of the Gospel. Phillip (who had been grieving the death of a fellow minister and friend, Stephen) went to Samaria to proclaim Christ. He was used by the Holy Spirit to preach to an Ethiopian government official, the Eunuch (Acts 8). Philip moved from being a deacon in the church to being an evangelist. A disciple called Ananias ministered to a convert named Paul, who later became a significant apostle in the church (Acts 9). And the saints started a new church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-26).

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, modern-day saints must join church leadership in witnessing and proclaiming the Gospel in their communities, touching families, friends, neighbours and work colleagues with the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8). Like the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:30&31), people are asking questions in this time of Covid-19 and economic crisis, these must be met with the preaching of the Gospel.

The saints were able to self-mobilize in crisis.

5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. 12 When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying (Acts 12:5&112).

When political authorities imprisoned leaders, the church self-mobilized to pray for God’s breakthrough. God honored their faith by miraculously delivering Peter from prison. These spontaneous actions, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are going to be critical in times when the saints are not able to gather in-person with their leaders.

Modern-day saints must develop a dynamic culture of following the prompting of the Holy Spirit, to self-mobilize and pray for the general wellbeing of the church.

Church intensified prayer and worship.

Acts 13:1-3 In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:1-3).

The early church majored more on prayer and worship, and less on political protest. They created an environment for the Holy Spirit’s voice to speak and to give direction in the church. As a result, the persecution did not halt the movement of God, it only served to strengthen it as more and more apostolic gifts were commissioned to other cities and regions.

As the modern-day church, we must put emphasis on standing before the throne of God instead of thrones of kings, as we seek our wellbeing in the earth.

The Holy Spirit was with them.

The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord (Acts 11:21).

God was in fact with them, in that whole process of the killing of Stephen and of moving out of the city of Jerusalem to other places. The saints and the leadership in Jerusalem were never going to discover the hand of God had they not left the city.

God is with us, even in the midst of Covid-19 and lockdowns. We must trust that God is working out a plan even though we do not have all the answers. God is waiting for His church on the other side of the crisis. We will see His hand if we remain faithful in proclaiming the gospel.

There was active communication and reporting between the scattered saints and apostles in Jerusalem.

The saints sent reports back to Jerusalem concerning their missional activities in reaching new regions for God (Acts 8:14, Acts 11:22). This helped the leadership to develop insight and perspective on what God was doing. It also helped the leaders to determine the right kinds of responses in their effort to partner with the Holy Spirit in building church. In the process, the apostles went to Samaria to baptize converts in the Holy Spirit, Barnabas was sent to Antioch to establish the work that the saints had started. All this also meant that the activities and works of the saints were not engaged in defiance to apostolic leadership, since the saints actively sought the involvement of the apostles in all they were doing.

Churches must refuse to be disintegrated by lockdowns. Saints must guard against developing a culture of isolation and individualism in this season of social distancing, but they must keep active lines of communication to ensure that reports and testimonies of the works of the Holy Spirit are reported and made known. In this way, leadership will also gain insight and evolve to lead relevantly in the new environment.

Saints had to learn to obey instructions of non-physical and virtual leadership.

Before the scattering, saints had the privilege of meeting with leaders daily. This privilege was lost when the persecution broke out. For the first time in Acts 15, apostles resorted to using letters to disseminate doctrine to the saints, “the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter” (Acts 15:30). Letters became to them what modern day technologies (like podcasts, YouTube, blogs, Social Media etc.) are to us. Leadership via the medium of letters meant that the apostles had to develop a new skill of writing while the saints had to develop a new discipline of reading. This practice of writing letters to churches laid an important foundation for the ministry of Paul, who used letters extensively when he could not meet the saints physically.

The saints were now maturing and getting used to being led by virtual leaders via letters. Paul would later write to the Philippians, “therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). Paul commonized the ministry approach of leadership through the medium of letters. He wrote the following to churches: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16). “I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thess. 5:27). “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14). These letters by Paul, were not some casual podcast or blog, they were taken seriously by the churches.

We must be thankful to God for the privilege of church gatherings but must not be so obsessed with this to the point where we cannot follow virtual instructions. After all, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Faith is the ability to operate and thrive in the environment of the unseen and the intangible. Faith is not hindered by virtual or unseen realities: “though (we) have not seen Him, (we) love Him; and even though (we) do not see Him now, (we) believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Pet. 1:8). If the early saints could hear the voices of Paul and Peter through the letters, then we have no excuse since we have better technologies compared to them.

Church had to quickly adopt new ways of leadership.

The early saints adopted new leadership approaches – of paying periodic visits to the saints (as they did in Samaria), of sending representatives like Barnabas to the churches, and of writing letters. In this way, the early church was able to ensure that the gospel was spreading unhindered, and that the saints continued to be resourced to grow in Christ.

As the modern-day church, we must use the current crisis to inspire us to think about new but biblically valid ways of church leadership and building. Not only must the leaders adopt these new ways, but the saints must also adopt these as new channels of receiving the grace of God. This further means that the church must not be “sacramental” in its mindset, limited only to certain ways, traditions and ministry rituals.

The early saints would have been on the road for weeks & months without access to the usual weekly church program. At times they were in their homes, locked down for extended periods and hiding because of religious persecution. They sometimes met and prayed behind closed doors & without leaders. Sometimes they were alone preaching to groups of unsaved people and casting out devils. They were separated from families. They would have heard of reports of arrests & killings of fellow believers and friends. They missed funerals of fellow believers. They had to learn to live for extended periods of time with few resources (teachings) from leadership. Some died alone & were buried by strangers, without family or fellow believers to exhort them and to send them off. Despite all of this, they searched for one another & stayed connected, they prayed, they heard the voice of the Holy Spirit, they obeyed the instructions of non-physical and virtual leadership, and they preached the gospel.

God’s plan is clear, five-fold ministers (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) are critical for the wellbeing and development of the Body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13)., Elders are critical for the wellbeing of churches (1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9). Any church model that undermines these ministries and structures is not only unbiblical, but it will also simply paralyze the growth of the church. If this is the Biblical principle, and as we find ourselves in these cosmic crises and disruptions where we cannot gather as we usually do, we must seek the Lord for church models and mechanisms that allow for the continued functioning of the church, even in times of great limitation. All this means that Covid-19 points us to theological and structural reforms, not only for the now, but more importantly for the future.

Robert Ntuli

LivingStones Agency

Durban, South Africa


Please follow the links below to access other resources…

  1. Church in a Time of Disruption: Lessons from the early Saints
  2. The Writing was always on the Wall
  3. On the Prayer of Chief Justice and the Mark of the Beast: A Reflection of a Fellow Disciple
  4. Reflections on the meaning of Freedom
  5. Kingdom Humanity: From Meetings to Arrangements
  6. “I can’t breathe”: How can Church deconstruct Racism?
  7. Mr President: We shall err on the side of Caution
  8. On the Issue of Essentiality of Church
  9. The Lockdown Debate and the Issue of the Vantage Point
  10. The Doctrine of Suffering – Part 1
  11. The Doctrine of Suffering – Part 2
  12. Covid-19: A Prophetic characterization of the current pandemic (part 1)
  13. Covid-19: A prophetic characterization of the current pandemic (part 2)
  14. Restating the foundations of the New Covenant
  15. Drivers for effective life in the current season of the pandemic
  16. Doing church in the crisis of coronavirus
  17. Note: if you wish to listen to the podcast I referred to earlier in this article, on the story of my Personal Salvation and journey of Transformation, please follow the link A conversation with Ps Robert Ntuli.

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