Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste
Ten lessons to help us when — not if — the next crisis comes.
In The Life of Reason, philosopher George Santayana famously warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While true, remembering is not always enough.
I think a better maxim is that which is often attributed to Winston Churchill: “Never let a crisis go to waste.”
In other words, we need to learn from difficult times and then take steps toward positive change. COVID-19 showed us we weren’t as prepared for crises as we needed to be. However, this moment can help shape our response to the next crisis.
We don’t want to overlook what the global pandemic can teach us as a Church. Here are 10 lessons to help us navigate future crises when — not if — they come:
1. Create Flexible Systems
A crisis, by definition, brings uncertainty, so having systems that can adapt quickly is vital. To put it another way, blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.
In Crisis Leadership, author Tim Johnson identifies two types of crises: incident and issue. Both require adaptable responses.
An incident crisis is something that happens suddenly, like a tornado. There are disaster relief teams in both the private and public sectors trained to respond to this kind of crisis. Equipping people in your congregation, identifying individuals with resources and skills, and putting a crisis leadership team in place can better prepare your church for an incident crisis.
An issue crisis is more ongoing. The pandemic has been both an incident crisis, shutting down the country rather quickly, and an issue crisis, with complex, long-term implications.
Both types of crises call for flexible systems that can pivot rapidly — whether that means moving meetings online during a pandemic or sending out relief workers following a natural disaster.
Remaining adaptable when a situation is in flux is crucial for meeting each need that arises. Flexible systems make it easier to stay calm, make the necessary transitions, deploy resources, and outline clear next steps for effective ministry.
These are the responses that build confidence among those you lead. They will begin to believe you can do this together, and they will walk through the crisis with you.
2. Don’t Overreact or Underreact
Consider the famous moment on Sept. 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush was reading a book to schoolchildren. Chief of Staff Andrew Card entered the room, leaned over, and whispered in Bush’s ear that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City. It was clear that America was under attack.
What was Bush’s first response? He kept reading to the kids. Though some later criticized this decision, Bush said he didn’t want to frighten the children.
There can be a fine line between overreacting and underreacting in a crisis. You don’t want to run out of the room with your hair on fire. But you also can’t ignore the real issues, carrying on indefinitely as though nothing has changed.
In Good to Great, Jim Collins tells the story of U.S. Navy Adm. James Stockdale, who was captured during the Vietnam War. At the time, Stockdale was one of the highest-ranking officers in the POW camp. His captors tortured him and told him he wouldn’t survive. But he did.
Stockdale later said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Collins calls this balance of realism and optimism the Stockdale Paradox. According to Stockdale, prisoners who failed to face reality were most prone to despair and death.
The admiral put it this way:
They were the ones who said, “We’re going to be out by Christmas.” And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, “We’re going to be out by Easter.” And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.
Similarly, some church leaders said in March, “We’re going to be back by April.” Then, “We’re going to be back by Easter.” Those people ended up demoralizing their churches in the long run. We learned the Church needs both realism and hope. This helps us avoid both overreaction and underreaction.
3. Seek God
In the Book of Acts, Jesus’ followers seemed to go from one crisis to the next. Through each difficulty, the Church sought God in prayer (e.g., Acts 4:1-31; 12:5-17; 16:25-34). In many ways, Acts is a series of answered prayers.
Prayer should be our first response in times of crises as well. As author S.D. Gordon observed: “You can do more than pray after you’ve prayed, but you can’t do more than pray before you’ve prayed.”
Prayer is an ever-present resource for believers.
4. Seek Unity
Crises don’t create division; they reveal and exacerbate division. The U.S. saw this in disputes that erupted over masks and shutdowns amid the pandemic, as well as in the racial divide following the death of George Floyd. Unsurprisingly, all this conflict spilled over into churches as well.
Against a backdrop of uncertainty and division, the local church should be a place of clarity and unity. After all, Jesus prayed for this very thing for His followers (John 17:20-21). How can we achieve the unity He wants us to experience?
First, we need deeper community. We can show the world we are Jesus’ disciples by putting aside our differences and simply loving one another (John 13:35). That means meeting tangible needs, praying for one another, and encouraging one another in the faith rather than arguing on social media.
Second, we need a deeper covenant. Our commitment to Christ should motivate us to emulate Him and put others ahead of ourselves (Philippians 2).
Third, we need a deeper calling. This comes back to our mission: Why are we here? And in light of that purpose, what should our posture be in the midst of a crisis?
A biblical way to move toward greater unity in times of uncertainty and division is for church leaders to come together and seek God’s will (Acts 15).
After gaining God’s perspective, say to the church, “We might not agree on everything as a congregation, but our pastors and elders have talked and prayed, and we have determined to walk through this time together with the following actions ... .”
Speak with a united voice and with the genuine assurance of having heard from God. Clarity in times of uncertainty helps foster unity.
5. Move Beyond the Building
People have been saying for years how the church shouldn’t be about the building. The Lord in His providence removed most of us from our buildings for a season.
Against a backdrop of uncertainty and division, the local church should be a place of clarity and unity.
What we found is our evangelism was largely based on inviting people to church instead of on Jesus’ Great Commission: “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19, emphasis added).
When I was a teenager, I played chess competitively. One of the ways I learned to improve my game was to remove the queen. People who are not good at playing chess rely too much on their queen.
For too long, the worship service and the church building were like the queen in a chess match, becoming more central than they should have been. Our best ministry happens in the community.
Yes, our services are important. We need to prioritize and value meeting together. But we also must return to the biblical idea that the Church consists of the people of God, on mission for God to a world in need of God, not a club that meets in isolation from the world.
The church is a MASH unit sent out to rescue the perishing, not a museum set aside to relish the past.
6. Focus on Discipleship
Far too many people in our churches have been discipled by their cable news choices and spiritually shaped by their social media feeds. We have to take seriously the importance of discipling into believers a vision for an alternative, countercultural, Kingdom community — and discipling out of them a devotion to politics and pundits.
We learned in 2020 that the Church, rather than stepping up as a beacon of hope in a divided land, often reflected that same division.
We want to be shaped by the unchanging truths of the eternal Word, not the shifting opinions of the erratic world. Through the increased use of online ministry, small groups, and faithful preaching, we can put before people the Bread of Life to counter the fast-food diet of media consumption.
The book You’re It uses a metaphor of three rooms — a basement, a workroom, and a laboratory — to describe how the brain responds in a crisis.
The basement is the lower level, the safe place. This is where people go when a tornado hits. It’s a normal reaction to take cover when a crisis roars onto the scene. At the beginning of the pandemic, people went into survival mode and fled to the basement, so to speak. That’s when toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and canned soup disappeared from store shelves.
But we can’t lead from the basement. We have to get to the workroom to find new routines and patterns that fit the current situation. The workroom means leading people to a new normal. It’s where we ask the question, What does this mean long-term?
In the season between crises — and to some degree, during them — we also need to work in the laboratory space. The laboratory is where we develop new ideas for future crises.
Some innovations will develop during a crisis, just as we saw new ministries birthed in the pandemic. But it’s better to be innovating and preparing in the calm before the next crisis.
8. Know What’s Not Negotiable
There are five elements to keep in mind during a crisis:
During a crisis, your mission, vision and values stay the same. They are nonnegotiable. But your strategy and structure change.
A crisis should serve as a rallying cry for the Church to focus intensely on the mission. Showing and sharing the gospel, caring for the hurting, and loving God and others are never optional — not even when a crisis arises. If anything, the mission, vision and values should become more central during difficult times, as other things fall away.
Mission is what God has called us to do. Vision is how we do it. Churches will fulfill the mission with a vision unique to their community.
Amid the pandemic, some churches focused on feeding the hungry. Others served hospital staffs. Still others cared specifically for senior adults. The context of a specific church will impact how it serves the unchanging mission.
At the same time, we must adapt our strategy and structure. A case in point is the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, which I lead. Our mission, vision and values remained the same throughout the pandemic. Graham talked about us being a world hub of inspiration and training for evangelism and mission; we’re still doing that today. But our strategies have shifted substantially over the past few months.
Instead of physically gathering global leaders, we came together via Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other digital platforms. We also changed our structure. But the mission, vision and values never changed.
9. Equip and Empower
A crisis reminds us of the need to prepare and mobilize people, whether we’re facing a wildfire, a hurricane, or a virus.
For churches, this means involving far more members in the mission. This is an Ephesians 4:11-12 moment: “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”
A scene in the 1995 film Apollo 13 provides a glimpse of what can happen in the midst of a crisis. Apollo 13 is in trouble. The oxygen scrubbers don’t work. NASA scientists hear that they have to find a way to “fit a square peg into a round hole.” Although it seems like an impossible situation, the team immediately gets to work solving the problem.
We need to empower people to figure out how to do hard tasks in a crisis. People in our churches are far more capable than our current equipping and empowering demonstrate.
During the pandemic, many small group leaders led their groups to do remarkable ministry in numerous communities. Let’s equip, empower, and release staff members and lay leaders to do more than we could ever accomplish on our own.
10. Care for the Community
The words of the prophet Zechariah speak to us today: “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other” (Zechariah 7:10).
Americans are blessed with many freedoms. However, some Christians today emphasize freedom over those who are at risk.
God calls us to care for the marginalized, the broken, and the hurting, and to put others ahead of ourselves. Just as Jesus did, we should have compassion for those who are like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36-38). We need to protect the vulnerable.
Again, why are we here? And in light of that, what should our posture be in the midst of a crisis?
My grandfather, who was a fire battalion chief in New York City, was very influential in my later childhood and early teen years.
I remember him saying, “Eddie, we’re the ones who run toward the fire or the crisis everyone else is running away from.”
May the Church learn from this season and be more prepared to run toward the mission in times of crisis.This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 edition of Influence magazine.