The Covid-19 pandemic has been a shock to the system for every individual, every business, every organisation, every faith-group, and every church across the planet. The pandemic is still far from over. I am not claiming otherwise. However, after 2 years, the church in the West is now at the stage whereby we need to respond to Covid in a new way.

I have no medical training whatsoever, so this metaphor may or may not be useful. But it seems to me that we now need to respond to the impact of Covid on our churches no longer as an Acute problem but a Chronic problem. By that, I mean that we need to move beyond constantly reacting to severe pain (acute) and move instead to a situation whereby we manage the ongoing pain (chronic). For those medics amongst you, I apologise if this metaphor is inaccurate – but I hope you understand what I am getting at!

When we move into this new phase – whether that is now or some months away – we will be faced with the stark reality that things will not go back to how they were in 2019. The world has changed. People have changed. Communities have changed. The Church has changed.

Together, as the Body of Christ, we will need to work out what the Church should look like if it is to be culturally useful for the future. That work of discernment cannot be for Bishops alone, or for local clergy alone, or for local Eldership Teams/PCCs alone. We will all have a part to play in reshaping the Church. But how will we go about that?

A few years back, an author called Michael Gelb wrote a brilliant book called How to think like Leonardo da Vinci. In this post, I want to outline 7 principles that Gelb drew out of the life of da Vinci that can help us in this most important of tasks.

  1. Be Curious

Leonardo da Vinci had an insatiable desire for knowledge. He was passionate about new discoveries in every sphere of life and when he made his discoveries, he was able to transfer his learning across disciplines. Just think for a moment about the breadth of his activities: anatomy, architecture, botany, city planning, costume design, stage direction, cooking, engineering, geography, geology, mathematics, military science, music, painting, philosophy, physics and so on…da Vinci sought after knowledge wherever he could find it and utilized that knowledge to deepen his own experience and skill set. da Vinci was curious.

As we reshape the Church post-Covid, we too will need to be curious, and we will need to learn from the successes and failures, both from our own past experiences and from those of other churches. Sharing stories together will be crucial. The history of humanity has shown us that curiosity is the key to survival. But more than that, curiosity is the key to innovation – and as we reshape the post-Covid Church, we will certainly need to be innovative in how we develop our mission and ministry.

  1. Test Everything and Learn from Failure

Leonardo da Vinci thrived through a culture of testing and experimentation. He was constantly testing theories and pushing through boundaries. He could have read the books, he could have stayed with the accepted wisdom. But, instead, he decided to test and experiment – and the world was changed forever as a result of his courage and resilience of character in this regard.

And precisely because da Vinci continuously experimented, he was one of the biggest failures of all time! He invented new forms of paint that didn’t stick to canvas. He tried to divert the Arno River – and failed. He invented a flying machine that never got off the ground. He tried to build a conveyor belt in a kitchen for a banquet, which didn’t work. He invented a sprinkler system that flooded a dining room, soaked the guests and destroyed all the food!

da Vinci got it wrong over and over and over again – but it never stopped him experimenting and testing knowledge.

Pre-Covid, many of us had a fairly well-established weekly programs of activities: regular Worship Services, Sunday Youth Group, Drop-In Centres, midweek Bible Study Groups, Toddler Groups and so on. However, it is likely that we will need to rebuild a new weekly pattern of ‘being church’ as we reshape after Covid. We will need to experiment – and have the humility to fail. And not only the humility to fail – but to openly acknowledge our failures, share them and corporately learn from them.

A reshaped Church that is culturally useful will need to be innovative. Innovation is not static. It is driven by energy and dynamism, it embraces new ways of being, it incorporates fresh ways of doing. Innovation does not come from studying a textbook. It flows from individuals who are prepared to push back the boundaries and take things to a new level.

For local churches to flourish in this way, we will need an Institutional hierarchy that encourages this way of thinking. It will not be in the interest of anyone for ancient Canon Laws to be cited as reasons why new experimentations are beyond the boundaries and possibilities of this period of time. Certainly, there will need to be accountability and there will need to be appropriate safeguards; with regard to innovation, it is never true to say that ‘anything goes’. But local leaders will need to feel safe and supported as they experiment, as they innovate, as they fail, and as they succeed. Church leaders turning a blind eye to innovation is not the same thing as Church leaders supporting innovation. I hope that this is a culture that will be widely embraced.

  1. Engage the Senses

One of the most amazing things about Leonardo da Vinci was his eyesight. He had the most amazing visual ability, seeing things in ways that nobody else could. It’s almost as if he had the ability to see with his soul rather than his eyes. He knew how to observe objects, how to follow their movements in minute detail.

And it wasn’t just sight either. da Vinci loved music and was a brilliant singer and musician. He wore the finest clothes so he could feel the quality on his skin. His studio was scented with perfume and flowers. He ate wonderful food.

da Vinci had an extraordinary ability to focus on the innate essence of all Beings and objects.

Where did that ability come from? Through his ability to be Still; through his ability to almost transcend himself and access the remote regions of his own being. Innovation, for da Vinci, was almost a spiritual exercise.

As we begin reshaping our churches post-Covid, the temptation will be to throw ourselves back into a schedule of busyness that pushes ‘stillness’ to the edge of our experience. There will be people asking when this activity is going to start again, when that activity is going to start again, what we are going to do about this, what we are going to do about that…unless we are very careful, we will soon get sucked back in to the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ and our sense of equilibrium will be lost as we try to respond to the expectations of others and – worst of all – try to keep everyone happy.

I suggest that we learn from da Vinci here. Make it a priority to engage your senses as you work and as you create space to think through what the reshaping will look like. And I mean this in the most practical of ways. For example: consider improving and softening the lighting in your study; make sure there are flowers on your desk; put up new pieces of artwork on your walls; play relaxing music in the background as you work; eat more fruit and less biscuits/cake; treat yourself to some good quality tea and/or coffee; make a regular time each day to just stop, pray and be still – even if for just 10 minutes; declutter your desk and office. In short, create a more positive sensory environment in which to make your decisions and you can be sure that, as da Vinci discovered, innovation and clear thinking will follow. 

  1. Let your church go up in smoke

 Sfumato means “to go up in smoke” – and it is the word used to describe the hazy, mysterious quality of da Vinci’s paintings. He achieved it by putting on gossamer-thin layer after layer after layer of paint. Because what he wanted to portray was the mystery of life, the ambiguity of all things. da Vinci’s love of ambiguity is best expressed through the Mona Lisa, of course, and there has been plenty written about her smile and what is being conveyed through it. But what da Vinci loved most about ambiguity was the fact that everything in life seems to merge into something else; there are no neat boundaries to anything.

It is true that, as Christians, we embrace mystery and ambiguity on a theological level – it is at the heart of the Gospel message. However, we are often less willing to embrace ambiguity as we seek to reshape the Church in readiness for a post-Covid world. We want to have plans in place. We want to know what we will be doing and when. We want to line up our financial resources, our personnel resources, our priorities. We want to eradicate as much ambiguity as possible and have some sense of certainty as to where we will be heading and how we are going to get there.

But what if we understand, like da Vinci, that ambiguity is the friend of innovation? What if we understand, like da Vinci, that ambiguity is the friend of beauty? Could we comfortably inhabit that space as we reshape and rebuild? What if, like da Vinci, we could rest comfortably in the knowledge that the space of innovation is, by definition, a space of ambiguity?

What if, like da Vinci, we embrace sfumato, and were prepared to let our churches go up in smoke?

That is not an excuse for laziness or lack of planning, of course. But it is about ceding power and control to the Holy Spirit of God and recognizing that what we think is best for the future may not be.

What if..?

  1. Develop “Whole-Brain” Thinking

I’m sure it’s an oversimplification from a medical perspective, but we talk about left-brained and right-brained activity: the left-side of the brain deals in logic, rationality and detail and the right-side of the brain deals with intuition, imagination and ‘big-picture’ issues. From what we know of Leonardo da Vinci, he seems to have developed an extraordinary ability for ‘whole-brain thinking’.

It may be difficult for any of us to be ‘whole-brained’ in the way in which da Vinci was. However. reshaping the Church post-Covid will require equal emphasis on both; logic and rationality coupled with intuition and imagination.

That, of course, is one of the key reasons why we will need to develop strong and cohesive teams into the future. An innovative church that can face the post-Covid challenges is one that will need a ‘balanced corporate brain’; a space in which both left-brainers and right-brainers will be equally valued. This will be a tremendous challenge for those in leadership because we will need to give equal space to those who think very differently from ourselves. But it will be crucial nevertheless.

  1. Keep Fit and Healthy

Vasari, Leonardo da Vinci’s biographer, commented on his “great physical beauty…and more than infinite grace in every action.” da Vinci was brilliant at horse-riding and extremely strong too. He exercised regularly by walking, riding, swimming and fencing. He was a vegetarian, diet-conscious – and ambidextrous!

In Esperanto (my second language), there is a phrase: ‘Menso klara en korpo sana’ – ‘A clear mind in a healthy body’ – which surely is something towards which we all aspire.

Whilst that may be true for us as individuals, it must surely be an aspiration for us as churches as we seek to reshape in preparation for a post-Covid environment. We are the Body of Christ – and we must strive to be a healthy body if we are to reshape in a positive manner.

Just like the human body, a church has ‘body language’ too. I wonder if these are any phrases that you may have used when thinking about corporate body language?

“She won’t change her position on this issue”

“He has taken an aggressive stance

“They won’t change their mind on this”

“He’s turned his back on my new idea”

If you were to compare your church to a body, would it be fit and healthy or unfit and flabby? As we prepare to reshape our church, maybe now is the time for us to consider the fitness of our local ‘body of Christ’ and whether it is in a condition fit to embrace innovation, challenge and change? One thing is for sure – at this stage in the journey of Christ’s church, flexibility is going to be vital…

  1. Develop Systems Thinking

Leonardo da Vinci was convinced of the reality of Connectedness. He once wrote that, “The earth is moved from its position by the weight of a tiny bird resting on it.”

The great genius of da Vinci was his ability to take seemingly random and disparate thoughts and create new and beautiful patterns and ideas and inventions from them. And how was he able to do that? Because he was playful! da Vinci never took himself too seriously; he loved to play at adding things together, bringing ideas and inventions together, just to see what it would all look like.

That playful nature must be at the absolute heart of an innovative future Church. Of course, Church and Theology is a serious thing. But that is not the same as taking ourselves too seriously as a denomination. If we are to innovate, if we are too be creative, if we are to remain culturally useful, we must be prepared to be a bit more playful; to test new ideas, to see what works and what doesn’t, to be OK with failure, and to try again. It is simply not good enough to quash creativity and playfulness in this current epoch for fear of contravening some rules that were written 500 years ago. I am not advocating anarchy. I am not advocating lack of accountability or a ‘free-for-all’ in terms of local practice. But our Church leaders must support and openly encourage an atmosphere of playfulness and experimentation if we have any hope of speaking into this fast-changing world that, by any measurement, is leaving us behind.

The Church of England (and other denominations too), ultimately, is a series of connections. The problem comes when the Church responds to these connections as straight lines; there is little or no flexibility built into these relationships. But innovation comes when the connected relationships learn to relate differently, to find new ways of interacting. A culture of innovation will begin to happen when we re-think the systems dynamics of our organization. New ways of relating, that step outside the box, can bring about previously unimagined creativity.

In conclusion…

The pandemic is far from over. Even when things improve, and as we begin moving from an acute stage to a chronic stage, we will need to reshape the Church in accordance with the new Reality (whatever that may look like). Now is the time for us to begin thinking about how we might undertake that task. The challenges facing us will be enormous. But it was ever thus in the history of the Church.

Let’s use this time to come together as the Body of Christ; to share our stories, our successes, our failures, our hopes and aspirations. And let us begin to reshape for the sake of the glory of God and the furtherance of his Kingdom here on earth.