Seven Steps to God’s Presence in the Wilderness

By: William D. Shiell

In emergencies, churches develop skills they will use to design innovative ministries. In the pandemic, ministers reacted to crises. The pressures of the last 18 months have forced them to leave behind old habits and move bravely into a renewed dependence on the Spirit’s work. The Israelites discovered something similar on their way out of Egypt. Their reliance on God during the “plagues” prepared them for a life with God’s presence in the wilderness.[i]

We are and will be in the wilderness as a church for the foreseeable future. This stage is a place of hope, not despair. What we learned and developed during quarantine is now shaping the church’s ministries today. On Scot McKnight’s blog and reposted on our seminary blog, Northern students and alumni show us how to lead the church and engage their world with God’s presence in seven ways.[ii]

  • Hospitality and fellowship

The home table is the platform for community and connection. As Dr. Greg Mamula writes in his new book The Table, the pandemic has revealed toxic hate and resentment in families, churches, and neighborhoods. Neighborhood hospitality invites us into deep conversations, connections, and relationships with others. The table becomes a platform for evangelism and discipleship.

  • Step out in faith

Recovery from a disaster requires more changes. COVID-19 disrupted our lives, but pastors are thinking through this shift and accelerating the new. As Mandi Hecht writes, the transition itself is a result of the Spirit’s movement. Across the country, people are migrating. They have been isolated for a year and are eager to take advantage of the next phase of life and move forward quickly. Now the church has a similar opportunity. If not now, when? For example, churches that were brand new at Facebook live now call ministers of digital technology to connect to people who rarely join them in person.

  • Preaching and Teaching

The sermon will always be with us in every stage of the church’s life. But in Portland, Oregon, Ben Tertin is leading his church into “inverted learning.” He posts his sermon on his podcast on Friday. When the church gathers on Sunday, they come prepared to discuss the scriptures and to engage the lesson.

  • Restructure for Connection and Service

Churches are mobilizing administrative teams to connect to congregations and serve their communities. Boards, staff, deacons, and elders are returning to their original purposes in scriptures: to care for the flock of God and bear witness to those outside the flock. As Ray Miller writes, his church in Nashville launched a plan for each deacon of the church to adopt five families. They also launched a food ministry in their community to feed the hungry.

  • Pastoring the Leaders

This shift requires deep pastoral care for the leaders. Pastors “shepherd the shepherds.” As Doug McPherson writes, senior ministers shift into training and caring for their team—as much as the flock. We also learn which team members are resourceful and ready to walk through open doors of ministry.

  • Caring for the Pastor

Pastors are paying closer attention to three voices: the Good Shepherd, wise counsel, and their inner heart. As Ric Strangway writes, the challenge as we advance is to prioritize time to listen to those voices. Quarantine offered plenty of time for isolation but relatively little for solitude and reflection. Pastors will need both in the wilderness.

  • Navigating Conflict

Divisions do not cease in the wilderness, but the pastor’s role shifts from mediator and arbitrator to spiritual guide and wise discerner. As Randy Johns writes, pastors listen to the accuser, the accused and enlist others to resolve conflicts. The wilderness doesn’t end toxic behavior, but pastors can become more immune to its effects

How are you and your church ministering in the wilderness? Send me an email, and we’ll share your ideas with others. I’m happy to be a discernment and conversation partner with you on the journey: president@seminary.edu

[i] For more information about these survival steps, see my book Sessions with Exodus (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2021), 69-70.

[ii] Unless noted otherwise, all articles referenced here Scot McKnight, “Jesus Creed: a Blog by Scot McKnight,” https://www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/. Accessed July 15, 2021.

August 16, 2021

William D. Shiell

President, Professor of Pastoral Theology and Preaching

ABOUT William



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