Mark Sayers—Leading your church through the “gray zone”

December 14, 2021

For many pastors, leading through change is difficult and frustrating—to say the least. Today, our world is changing at breathtaking speeds, making it even more difficult to be a leader. So, how can pastors minister and lead their churches in such an environment? 

Mark Sayers, senior leader at Red Church in Melbourne, Australia, recently joined the Equip & Engage podcast to discuss how pastors can lead in the midst of today’s rapidly changing cultural landscape. He is best known for his incisive cultural commentary offered from a Christian worldview. Mark also gained international recognition from his podcast with John Mark Comer, This Cultural Moment

For many pastors, leading through change is difficult and frustrating—to say the least. Today, our world is changing at breathtaking speeds, making it even more difficult to be a leader. So, how can pastors minister and lead their churches in such an environment? 

Episode at a glance

[0:00] Introduction. Host Nick Bogardus welcomes Mark Sayers to Equip & Engage and asks, “How has the ministry of local churches changed since the onset of the pandemic? How can the church adjust to today’s decentralized and digitized society?”  

{1:48] “The virus before the virus.” What was the trajectory of the Church before COVID, and where do you see the church going now? Mark explains that from 1989 to 2019, churches were responding to an increasingly globalized, individualistic, and consumer-centric culture. Like “a frog in a kettle,” churches were too immersed in these changes to notice they were happening—yet people’s hearts were drifting away from God and the church. 

[4:32] “COVID—an interruption or a bookend?” Mark explains how COVID has signaled the end of an era, and we’re now witnessing the emergence of a new era. This transitional space, which he calls a “gray zone,” lacks rules and can be difficult to understand. Mark quotes the author Arundhati Roy: “Pandemics are portals between worlds.” 

     “What’s weird about in-between spaces is there are no rules, no markers. It’s very disorientating.”    

— Mark Sayers, Red Church

[6:00] “Blizzard, winter, or ice age.” Nick postulates that many leaders are trying to predict what the post-COVID era will look like in order to know how to respond to our current situation. Mark describes our current season as a dynamic, nonlinear state that is constantly changing. In other words, it may be a decade or more before we really have a grasp on all that has happened. 

[7:50] “How do we live when there are no rules?” How should we respond as we navigate this “portal” or “gray zone?” Mark shares the biblical parallel of Israel wandering in the wilderness. People turned against God, Moses, and one another out of fear and uncertainty. 

But God uses the wilderness experience to form us, just as he did with Moses, David, and Jesus. In David’s case, his psalms came from the wilderness, and he used the lessons from that experience to rule Israel. We’re in the middle of a “wilderness moment,” where leaders are being formed to lead into the future. 

     “What if the lessons we’re learning now are for the next era, and God’s actually training us for what’s to come?”    

— Mark Sayers, Red Church

[11:48] “Endurance to make it through the wilderness.” Until recently, many churches were settled in their comfort zones. Gray zones, however, get us out of our comfort zones.

We’re being led into a paradigm shift. For example, pre-COVID, many pastors were philosophically against any kind of digital church. In the midst of the pandemic, the familiar and comfortable church service disappeared for a while. Pastors had to learn how to use technology and online tools in order to stay connected with their church members and communities. Now what is emerging is a hybrid model of online and in-person services. 

[16:30] “Pastoring in two realms.” People are living in two realms: in-person and online. They have friends they spend more time with online than friends they see face to face. In fact, the average person in most congregations was already living this reality, and COVID pushed the church into that space!

The future will include even more immersion online, so we need to see this transitory time as a training period for missiology—teaching the church to be ready for discipling in this new world. 

[19:28] “Leaving behind the centralized era.” Centralization leads to homogenization, but decentralization leads to diversity and creativity. Historically, both of these types of eras tend to follow each other in a sort of pattern. Rome was centralized, followed by the decentralized Dark Ages; the Medieval years were centralized until the decentralization of the Reformation took place, etc. Our current centralized era has been “The American Century,” where the United States has been the center for sports, movies, technology, and science. Now that is being decentralized as well. 

Similarly, the church has been centralized around big churches and big leaders since the 1960s, but now we’re seeing a major shift. It’s happening to all of our institutions. It’s important to focus our attention on Jesus as we live through these changes. 

[22:54] “How do we make sense of authoritarianism?” As old structures decentralize, new power structures begin to emerge. We see this happening all over, from rising world nations to social media. 

Yet despite all of the panic over rising power structures, Mark explains that it’s hard to pull off authoritarianism in a decentralized, digitalized, and individualized world.

Join us for part 2 of our interview with Mark Sayers! Be sure to subscribe to Equip & Engage for more insights on ministry, technology, and innovation.

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Leading in today’s “gray zone” requires creating authentic connections both online and in-person. Only Subsplash One provides you with all the digital tools you need to know, grow, and disciple your church through a quickly changing world—mobile apps, websites, media hosting & delivery, live streaming, group messaging, people management, event registrations, and more!




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