This article is part of the Help! series.
God’s People Gathered
The particulars are different in different jurisdictions, but churches around the world have had their normal ministries significantly disrupted by the pandemic. Most starkly, some have been unable to gather for regular corporate worship for many months, and while this is not all that churches do, it is certainly a very significant part of their lives and ministries. Indeed, coming together for corporate worship is fundamental to the nature of the church; although our English Bibles often translate the Greek word ekklesia as church, it is more basically gathering.
In addition to praising God, when churches gather together on Sundays, we also have countless opportunities to care for and encourage each other as we interact and share our lives up close. This can also happen in other peripheral church gatherings—such as midweek home-based Bible studies and face-to-face pastoral visits—but in some cases, the pandemic has meant that all of these have been suspended. Not meeting together means missing out on the countless number of interactions that establish and enable these very practical supports which overflow from our spiritual unity in Christ. It also hinders our ability to work cooperatively on Kingdom enterprises such as outreach programs, street ministries, marriage enrichment courses, and many more. Perhaps one thing we have learned afresh in the pandemic is the importance of the corporate life of the local church, and how much we miss it when we cannot participate in it.
So, given all of this, what a joy it is when we are able to come back together again. And yet, as we start to do that, we realize that it is a joy that comes with a huge spread of challenges and complexities.
Perhaps we can break down the challenges into two groups: the pastoral and the practical.
Normal and New Challenges
Beginning with the pastoral, we know that bringing people back together requires more than just unlocking the church doors and advertising our recommencement services. Sadly, some people who had formerly been connected to our churches have drifted off the radar in the time that we’ve been apart. For whatever reason, online church (or whatever we were able to offer) did not work for them and they became disconnected and lost touch. Therefore, we need to make an effort to reach out to as many of these wandering sheep as we can.
At the other end of the spectrum, it may be that there is a significant number of new people who did start to connect with our scattered church community during the pandemic. Perhaps our online services let some shy or newly struggling folks get a first look at how our church seeks to know and live for Jesus through the safety of an anonymous viewing. And perhaps, by God’s grace, they now want to come meet in person. This is exciting stuff, but it will require time and attention to meet these people, get to know them, and minister to them where they’re at.
Then, there might also be regular members of the church who we know need extra love and care as things begin to normalize. While the chance to come back together might be welcomed by many, some might be afraid to do this. Others might have lost a spouse or loved one in recent months and might find it very difficult to come back to church alone. Yet, others might feel overwhelmed by, say, starting up again in the music ministry with all the extra demands on their time and energy that involves. All of these will also need some extra attention.
In addition to all of the increased pastoral responsibilities (as if the regular demands of pastoral ministry were not enough!) are the countless practical things that need to get done. And again, there are both the regular administrative and organizational duties that we had before the pandemic, and now many new demands as well. As in the past, we need to make sure we are on top of the church roster, maintenance, run sheets, cleaning, banking, website content, and more. But now, depending on where we are, we might also need to think about things like social distancing, mask monitoring, hand sanitizing stations, attendance registration, directing traffic flows, and so on. This is not just a reboot, it’s an overhaul and upgrade.
What a joy to be headed back to corporate worship! And what a challenge! How do we approach it faithfully?
First of all, pray (1 Thess. 5:17). Of course, it goes without saying, but too often the obvious things can become the neglected things. It is obvious that husbands and wives should pause from the constant busyness of their days to simply to say I love you, but too often this simple baseline habit gets displaced under the endless pressures of very full everyday lives. While at first the loss can go unnoticed, if there is no deliberate sharing of simple moments of love over an extended period, the relationship can begin to fray. Now, we know that our security in Christ is not dependent on how regularly we pray. No, the good news of the gospel is that it is not about what we do, but about what he has done for us. Yet it can still be the case that if we are not grounded in healthy patterns of prayer, we will struggle both in our tasks and in ourselves. The fact is that God does respond to our prayers and he answers the prayers that we have for our churches and the work we do in them. To be sure, sometimes his answer is no; but oftentimes, it is yes! We really ought to continue bringing it all to him. Keeping in prayer also keeps reorienting our minds to who we actually are: closely loved children of an all-powerful Father. It is so good for us to maintain habits that help us to face each challenge secure in this truth.
Following directly on, we need to maintain an attitude of trust (cf. Matt. 6:25–34). We need to set about our ministry confident that if things fail to work out the way we want, God’s plans for his Kingdom will not be derailed. We trust that if certain things do not happen this week, God is still sovereign over his world and over our churches. We trust that if we cannot get around to every single person on our pastoral care list, God knows their situations and their needs and he has their lives in his hands. We trust that if we have to cancel the COVID-friendly coffee service at the last minute after we spent so much time and extra money getting it all set up, God knew that would be the result before we had even thought of the idea. He is not flustered or worried about the progress of his plans, so even as we work hard to serve his church, we do so with a peace that comes from trusting him for what results.
From this position, we should start our process of getting the church back together by making a plan. This might involve brainstorming all that needs to be done and then prioritizing the order in which we will tackle the tasks. This can be a very liberating exercise as it prevents us from feeling overwhelmed by countless dozens of tasks before us, and allows us to focus on the four or five most important. The reality is that we cannot do everything at once, and being in a frenzy from trying does not serve anyone. It could be that after doing our planning, we realize that we will not have everything ready to start our Sunday services until two weeks later than we had hoped, but God already knew that and he knows we only have so many hours in each day. We will honor him more by working faithfully at what we can do than by overworking in a vain and unsettled attempt to achieve too much.
God is still sovereign over his world and over our churches.
It might be worth remembering the idea that it can sometimes be better to start small and grow than to always kick off with a bang. In fact, this might even help our church to major on the majors and not to overemphasize the good-but-secondary things. Is it essential for the ten-piece stage band to play on week one, or could we just sing some hymns to a simple piano accompaniment (remembering that the most important instruments in the church are the voices of the congregation members)?
Does the bulletin need to be formatted and pre-folded this week, or could we just let people know that any pressing news will go up on the website? Do we have to get all our volunteers active immediately, or is it better to begin by just reminding them of the sovereignty of God and finding out what they think they’ll need over the weeks ahead to be able to offer a sustainable contribution? Our churches may not be fully up and running as quickly, but they should be healthier.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, do not neglect the ministry of the word (2 Tim. 4:2). At times like these, it could be all too easy to think that logistics and management are the main games. But the truth is that ministering the Word of God is more important (Luke 10:38–42). A day spent prayerfully exegeting and reflecting on a passage of Scripture might seem indulgent when there is much else to do, but it is essential to the health of the church. Simply rehashing old sermons or modifying someone else’s popular Internet talk on “Jesus and the Pandemic” is easier, but it might not be the best way to deepen our people in the faith. Certainly, it will not suffice as a preaching plan for the long months ahead. Of all the things that could consume our time, feeding Jesus’s lambs on the Scriptures must take prominence. If a church does this much, it will be starting back rightly grounded with a healthy base upon which to rebuild.
Tim Patrick is the coauthor with Andrew Reid of The Whole Counsel of God: Why and How to Preach the Entire Bible.
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