As church leaders, we are facing an unexpected challenge. With the outbreak of a global pandemic, life in the church as we know it—along with the rest of society—is on hold. While the world copes with the new normal (at least for the time being), many of us pastors are left to ponder what this means for our ministries.
How do we continue to lead the church while the flock is dispersed? There’s no playbook for what to do when a plague shuts down the lifeblood of our fellowship—gathering to worship on the Lord’s day. Our expectation is that church is more than just meeting on Sunday to hear the pastor preach. But as congregations turn to online streaming during the crisis, many of us are now wondering whether some of our own won’t feel the need to return once things do go back to “normal.”
What’s more, our concern for the spiritual well-being of our members right now has been pricked by the present uncomfortable reality. We are reminded that our churches belong to another True Shepherd, and we are only stewards. Even as we seek to minister to our flocks, we may just have the sense that our hands are tied behind our backs. What is more apparent than ever, is just how little control we have over bringing about our hearts’ desire—to see every man, woman, and child under our care made complete (Col. 1:28).
But we press on, seeking to utilize the tools that God has sovereignly allowed for us to connect virtually in our technology-driven world. All the while, we know that this is but a shadow of the way things normally are, and one that could never replace our vital assembly as believers (Heb. 10:25). Isn’t it ironic that our preparations this week for what is typically one of the most well-attended services of the year are dominated by churches planning their best for having no one there?
This year it won’t be the same. Our choral arrangements will be constrained by bandwidth and browser settings. Our sermons will be cut off by connectivity issues. But worship will still take place. Social distancing may prevent us from passing the bread and the cup with our brothers and sisters, but the hearts of the elect will still honor our risen Lord and proclaim His victory even while confined in their own homes.
It’s not the reality we want to embrace, but it is the challenge we are faced with. And though it may be unfamiliar to us, it is not entirely new. The church has lived and thrived through plagues and setbacks all through her history. Consider Spurgeon’s example, who while living through a cholera outbreak in 1866 London, saw the opportunity for ministers of God’s word,
“You may see men more alarmed than they are already; and if they should be, mind that you avail yourselves of the opportunity of doing them good. You have the Balm of Gilead; when their wounds smart, pour it in. You know of Him who died to save; tell them of Him.”
Perhaps this perspective can help us to see this time as an opportunity, rather than a setback. Now more than ever is a time for boldness and creativity in our vision for exalting the Savior. While everyone’s life is touched by the inconvenience and tragedy of this virulent disease, we can remind all men that no one is immune to the plight of Adam’s race (Rom. 3:23). And when things do settle down, we can come together stronger in our faith and our mission to proclaim the praises of Him who called us out of darkness (1 Peter 2:9).
As pastors, we ought to be thinking of how we can prepare our congregations for the recovery, even as we seek creative ways to shepherd them through the crisis. How will a believer’s testimony today impact the opportunity to invite neighbors to church a couple months from now? How will we re-engage our communities once the fog of mandatory isolation is lifted?
The challenge may have been unanticipated, but the opportunity is immense. As church ministers, we should remember that leadership is tested and proven in times of difficulty. The apostle Paul could convince you of this, who was “three times beaten with rods,” “stoned,” “shipwrecked three times,” facing innumerable “dangers” and living through “labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Cor. 11:23–27). Difficulty in the Christian life is nothing new, but it does have the tendency to refine God’s servants. In a very real sense, these times we are living in are the times we were made for.
No doubt we’ll have plenty to talk about when we are finally able to gather again. Let’s see how God chooses to refine His church through a period of unprecedented societal shutdown. And let’s use this opportunity to sharpen our vision, to see farther and more clearly for God’s glory, and to lead others to greater trust and reliance on our reliable Savior.
Lord willing, we look forward to seeing you as we gather here once again for our church leader’s conference in the fall. How much more wonderful will it be for us to grow, connect, and refresh our hearts together once this is all behind us! Until then, may we take advantage of every opportunity to grow in our own lives and encourage God’s people in this season of testing.