Paradigm Shift Under Pennsylvania Pastor Transforms Discipleship, Disciples
By Carl Stagner
Twenty-twenty will likely never be regarded as a good year by most historians. While all sectors of society dealt with the consequences of COVID-19, much of the church found ways to restructure, reimagine, and rededicate themselves to the simple mission of making more and better disciples. One Pennsylvania pastor and his Bethel Park congregation, just south of Pittsburgh, have found hindsight to be 20/20; three years ago, God meant for good that which appeared to be only harm. Three years ago, the disruption of the way things had been also spelled the dawning of a new day of discipleship at New Song Community Church. This new day opening the gates for a paradigm shift that would leave the relatively small Church of God congregation making big advances in personal and collective spiritual growth.
It was February 2020. A culture of prayer and fasting was fairly well-established at New Song Community Church. Modeled well by Pastor Herb Shaffer, spiritual disciplines were already universally regarded as meaningful practices for the devoted Christian. On a personal level, Pastor Herb was sensing divine direction to do another juice fast, but not for anything specific—an element of the experience with which he was comfortable. Instead, God revealed to Herb that it wasn’t about the pastor of New Song, or even the congregation itself; this was about something bigger and broader. By the end of the fast, he hadn’t felt like God had given any insight about anything in particular; this, too, was unfamiliar territory for Pastor Herb.
Then, coronavirus and its unwelcome complications came on the scene. For Pastor Herb, so did clarity. Believing strongly that what happens “in the heavenlies has ramifications for what happens in the earthly realm,” and vice versa, the implication was to stay in the fight for what can’t be seen in the material world. It may be easy to fix our eyes on what can be seen—disease, lockdowns, natural disasters, and war, for instance—but New Song Community knew they had to keep the doors open for ministry during a time when the hope of the invisible—yet incredibly real—God was what people needed most. A shift to focus on worship, on fasting, on prayer, and on unceasing community between believers during this extended difficult time would ultimately prove providential.
Thankfully, God responded to their faith and commitment. Not unlike many churches during the pandemic, finances increased, but so did their numbers. As time passed, the Spirit directed Pastor Herb to continue to emphasize the heavenly realm and the believer’s participation in it through spiritual disciplines, “walking by faith and not by sight.” Several Bible stories and scriptures came to the fore, not limited to, but including the Transfiguration, the divine counsel in Job, Daniel’s knack for fasting, and Psalm 82. The formation of groups within the congregation for the purpose of study, fellowship, prayer, and communal spiritual growth were the result. These unique discipleship gatherings earned the name “Learning Communities.”
“The idea is to go deeper into the truth of God and the implications for living,” Pastor Herb explains. “And to do so arm-to-arm, shoulder-to-shoulder, so whatever happens, we can handle it, because we’re walking in step with God in the unseen, as well as the seen.”
Daytime, evening, and pre-Sunday-morning-worship timeslots were selected. From teenagers to seniors in their eighties, these Learning Communities are proving potent, resourceful, and powerful beyond expectation. Study is deep—even college-level, at times, as Herb explains. But the vulnerability, the intentional commitment to learning and growing, and the broad recognition of the impact of their humble posture toward a holy God working behind the scenes, is jaw-dropping for all involved.
“We’re preparing to face whatever may come,” Pastor Herb reflects, recounting how so few were ready spiritually for the 2020 pandemic. “I’ve been a pastor for forty years and have never seen a group of people so discipled and radically passionate about following God together. The people who have come the last three years—we don’t get people who want to be spectators anymore. The conversations in the hallway are about what is God doing in your life, and here’s what I’m experiencing. We’ve had ten to twelve baptisms each year since this all started. It’s all out of a desperation for God.”
“The pandemic drew a line in the sand for us,” Pastor Herb concludes. “This is what we’re going to be about.”
Learn more about the Church of God movement at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.
Feature (top) photo: Outdoor baptism celebration at New Song Community Church.