DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Investing in Spiritual Development While Sheltering in Place

Written by: on March 31, 2020

I was having a conversation with the student ministries director of my church yesterday. As our church has followed CDC and local recommendations regarding large group gatherings, he has had to be resourceful in fulfilling his responsibilities. The students have met together through Zoom in place of their regular Sunday evening activities, but he said yesterday how they likely need to do more. He said, “Right now, it’s connection over content. What we’re trying to teach isn’t nearly as important as offering the students an opportunity to be together, however we can.”

I think he is right, though I have encouraged him not to ignore their need for spiritual growth and development, even during a season of social (physical) distancing and sheltering-in-place. We have all leaned hard toward pastoral care in the initial stages of the pandemic’s emergence in the United States, but I am concerned that if we are not careful, we will reinforce what many already believe about the church: that we exist merely to acknowledge God’s existence, help people make good (moral) choices, and offer comfort so that people feel good about themselves.

This triad forms the basis of Kenda Dean’s “Almost Christian.[1]Matt McCullough’s review offered this:

“In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton published Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, the first book to draw from the groundbreaking discoveries of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). Their description of teen religiosity as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” has been eagerly embraced by journalists, ministers, and other interested pontificators.

Kenda Dean, a professor at Princeton Seminary and a collaborator on the NSYR, draws from the same research in her recent book Almost Christian. But where the analysis of Smith and Denton was mostly descriptive, Dean offers the American church a solution to the problem of watered-down cultural Christianity.”[2]

Dean’s “solution” is for church’s to concentrate more on spiritual development (discipleship,) investing in the students who attend and offering opportunities for them to mature in their faith, rather than simply attracting students to a place for activities, fellowship, and a surface-level lesson on living a Godly life. McCullough writes, “While many twentieth-century churches spent their energy wondering how to keep teenagers coming to church, they neglected to cultivate the kind of faithful Christian communities that could have a significant impact on the youth who did show up.”[3]

This aligns with Christian Smith, Kari Christofferson, and Hilary Davidson’s research of young adults in the transitional period of life from high school graduation into early adulthood.[4] In his review, Hyemin Han writes,

“On the one hand, they have the freedom to shape their future lives. On the other hand, (young adults) are usually not fully independent of their parents, because they may lack stable social or economic status. Therefore, they experience aspects of both adolescence and adulthood. It is difficult to classify their experience according to the traditional categories of adolescence and adulthood.”[5]

According to Han, “The key solutions suggested by the book are the reformation of social institutions, such as schools, and the efforts of older adults to establish firm relationship with emerging adults.”[6]

It’s too soon to say how history will remember COVID-19. Right now, it certainly feels like it might be an event that shapes the future. A moment that serves as a reference point for other moments in time. A marker that potentially defines a generation and the outlook of young people for years to come. For young adults who have grown up in the church in particular, I wonder how this experience will shape their relationship with the church and their personal faith.

What will become of the church once life settles back into a more familiar “post-corona” routine? A generation of young people, most of whom were already digital natives who were experts in remote interaction thanks to gaming systems and video chat, will have spent weeks, perhaps months, participating in “virtual church,” free to consume content on their own schedule, tailored to their own needs?

How is the church leading them in this season? Most of the churches’ immediate responses have been to double down on connection and community, comfort and care. Many pastors and church staff have taken the role of therapist to help congregants endure, adjust, and perhaps make meaning of this unusual time of self-isolation, social distancing, and sheltering-in-place. Pastors and churches spent time and energy in the creation and offering of online worship experiences, both to meet the need of the church community to gather and to maintain a sense of the familiar as worship had been the primary (if only) weekly touchpoint for the average congregant. The next phase was virtual communities as Bible studies, prayer groups, Sunday school classes, student ministries, etc. have shifted to video-conferencing and the like in order to keep meeting. And finally, churches have re-engaged in service- mobilizing the church community to help their neighbors and fill gaps for community service providers

Are our efforts to maintain a sense of “normal” in the midst of something so completely abnormal moving our people, especially our young people, into deeper discipleship? Are we lifting up the primary mission of the church to become better followers of Jesus or are we modeling a type of faith that really only exists to help us feel better and do some good when and where we can?

I think it is possible that this virus could significantly weaken the Church. I also think it is possible for the Church to emerge from this historic event more capable than ever to reach and teach emerging generations about the power of connection and community built around the life of discipleship first taught by Jesus. By all means, our churches need to offer comfort and care during times of anxiety and uncertainty, but they can also help people plant deeper roots and build on a more solid foundation that will hold them more firmly when the storms of life rage.

[1] Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.)

[2] Matt McCullough, review of Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, by Kenda Creasy Dean, 9Marks, February 18, 2011, accessed March 30, 2020,

[3] McCullough.

[4] Christian Smith, Kari Christofferson, and Hilary Davidson, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.)

[5] Hyemin Han, review of Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, by Christian Smith, Kari Christofferson and Hilary Davidson, Journal of Moral Education 41, no. 1 (2012): 147-147, accessed March 30, 2020,

[6] Han.

About the Author


John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

11 responses to “Investing in Spiritual Development While Sheltering in Place”

  1. mm Joe Castillo says:

    John, thank you for your blog. I agreed we are going through very difficult times. The church will be tested, and many will propbably have to close their doors. I think these are times to also start again to rebuild a new generation of the church. I can wait to see how that will look like. History shows that persecution is good in a sense, becouse it is used to filter the faiful ones. Bless you

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I agree that this could be an amazing opportunity for the church to return to ancient practices and our core identity. Time will tell.

  2. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Thanks for the timely post. I woke up in the middle of the night last night with an overwhelming peace that God continues to further his purposes through every season. I know that sounds trite even as I type it, but this could be the unsettling of a generation that forces difficult and introspective questions.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I have those moments of peace as well. I struggle to maintain it simply because of the weight of responsibility I feel for the church I lead. I’m trying to remember that this extended Sabbath season is meant to help me refocus just as much as others I’ve encouraged.

  3. mm Dylan Branson says:

    John, what I find interesting in this season is people’s desire for real connection. We’ve been trapped by technology in so many ways – from phones, to computers, to tablets, to gaming systems, etc. – but we technically always had the opportunity to be around people. It’s almost as if physical relationships have become a “black market” commodity. Before, we took it for granted that we could always be around someone, but now that we can’t, suddenly we realize just how much we’ve taken for granted in terms of our relationships. I think for churchgoers, we’ll likely see a stint where we’re fine with the online church experience, but as the quarantines drag on, we’ll come to realize just how precious those physical meetings are. Maybe this is part of what God is trying to teach the world right now. Of course in the meantime, we still have that question of what we’re supposed to do in the present.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I think you’re spot on. I was talking with one of my associate pastors yesterday about that very thing. What happens if this drags on past April and the novelty of remote worship starts to wear off? I foresee a massive amount of “drift” as people settle in to life without church as they knew it. I asked my associate to start working on an intentional discipleship plan that we could implement in May if necessary. Ironically, it’s mostly just a return to New Testament Christianity and the early days of Methodism. Who would have thought?!?

  4. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    So appreciate all you are doing to care for your people during these difficult and ever changing days. In what ways are you helping people “plant deeper roots and build on a more solid foundation that will hold them more firmly when the storms of life rage”? When will that begin? How long does the “pastoral counseling” last before you begin to draw people closer to the heart of God in new ways?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I just responded to Dylan with something that would probably apply to your questions. Our staff is now in the process of creating an intentional discipleship plan to implement if the social distancing drags out past April. It’s really just a return some ancient practices of the NT and early Methodism, but I think it could be really effective to hold a core remnant of the church together as people start to lose interest in “remote church.” We shall see…

  5. mm Greg Reich says:

    You ask a very pertinent question: “Are our efforts to maintain a sense of “normal” in the midst of something so completely abnormal moving our people, especially our young people, into deeper discipleship?”

    I can’t help but wonder how many times leaders have asked this question in one way or another in the midst of crisis. Over the centuries a sense of normalcy has shifted dramatically due to one reason or another. Throughout generations people have wondered if the Christian youth of their day would ever survive. Crisis tends to draw our hearts back to faith. I am not sure even the most innovative thinkers can predict or get in front of the changes that can possibly occur due to the current crisis. With all the unknowns what to you think would be the wisest move for churches to make after the crisis passes?

  6. mm John McLarty says:

    I know that I’ve been energized by the freedom and flexibility this event has given me in my very traditional context. I fear that many in my church- even those who are younger- will so desperately crave a sense of the familiar that they will passionately resist anything that looks like “moving forward.” I’m hopeful that something new will emerge that lets us keep what needs to be kept while saying good-bye to things that have proven no longer to be necessary or vital.

  7. mm Steve Wingate says:

    “…however we can.” John would you be able to speak as to ‘however can’ make new disciples during this time? It seems like your team is working hard to grow the disciples around you! Good!

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